When Sara Ortín León, adopted her dog Ginger it was like being reunited with a long-lost family member. “She’s like my kid,” León said. “She’s just part of me. She’s an extension of myself.”
León has traveled from her home in Barcelona, Spain, to Zambia in Africa, where she spent a year at a sanctuary researching chimpanzees. The sanctuary had several dogs living there, and Ginger was one of them.
“From the beginning, I really, really loved her, I think because she reminded me of one of my [family] dogs here in Barcelona,” León said. “It was like having my dog there without having her.”
Ginger immediately fell in love with León.
“I used to go to the enclosures every day and spend all day studying the chimps, and she used to come with me,” León said. “It was like 10 kilometers [6.2 miles] there, so we had to walk there and back.”
Ginger slept right next to León at night, snuggling up against her to keep warm. “It was really, really awesome,” León said.
However, when it was time for León to go back to Barcelona, she wasn’t sure whether taking Ginger back with her would be the right thing to do.
“She was happy [in Zambia],” León said. “She was wild — a wild African dog. I thought, ‘I couldn’t take her back to Barcelona just because of me.’”
So León went home and enjoyed being back with her family, but the only thing she could think about was getting back to Zambia.
“I wrote my thesis, and thought, ‘I don’t want to be in Barcelona anymore,’” León said. “So I just bought a one-way ticket to Zambia and I left.”
When she arrived, León immediately searched for Ginger, but she wasn’t at the sanctuary anymore.
“The sanctuary had a lot of dogs, so the managers had to fix the problem, and they sent the dogs to different homes,” León said.
Ginger and her sister were being used as security dogs at a mining business.
“I bought dog food so I had an excuse to go and see them, but I couldn’t see Ginger or her sister,” León said. “I asked one of the guys where the dogs were, and he said, ‘There are no dogs, madam.’ And I thought, ‘What do you mean there are no dogs?’”
León desperately searched the property. “I turned around and I saw Ginger’s face at the end of the yard,” León said. “She was so scared that she couldn’t come close to me.”
Flora was still missing. “I found out later that a thief got into the company to steal some petrol from the cars that were there,” León said. “And Flora was a big, brave doggy, so she did what she had to do as a security dog, so she started barking, and they literally beat her to death.”
León refused to leave without Ginger. “I didn’t think about it,” León said. “I just took Ginger, and my plan was to travel around and enjoy Africa.”
León, her friend, Sharon, and Ginger spent the next year traveling around Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Malawi.
Ginger was scared and skittish at first. “For about a month, she was hiding under cars — any car or truck she could hide underneath,” León said. “It was a lot of trouble. We thought she was going to get hit.”
Ginger ultimately regained her former confidence, and became the happy, playful dog León remembered from the sanctuary.
“There is a lake in Malawi that is stunning … and I put her on a paddleboard,” León said. “We paddled for hours and hours, and her face — she was smiling. It’s crazy. Even the local people were like, ‘This dog smiles.’”
Ginger loves hiking in the African bush, and she helps León and her friend stay calm around local wildlife.
“We’ve been walking through the bush and hear the lions roar,” León said. “And you think, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be dead in five minutes. They’re going to come and kill us.’ And then Ginger is there not even moving an eyebrow. And I’m like, ‘Ginger, are you kidding me? We’re going to be dead.’ And she’s like, ‘Come on, Mommy, it’s OK.’”
“The same with elephants,” León added. “We were walking and saw elephant tracks and heard elephants, and we thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to die.’ And she’s like, ‘No Mommy, it’s OK. Everything is OK.’”
León could not imagine traveling without Ginger, but they did face a number of challenges. One of the big problems is keeping Ginger safe from other people.
“It’s not like you’re living with your dog in your car in Europe or the U.S. where 95 percent of people like dogs,” León said. “In Africa, 99 percent of people hate dogs. You go into the street, and people try to kick them and try to throw rocks at them.”
To help curb this issue, León takes Ginger into schools to teach children how to interact with dogs and empathize with animals. “Everywhere we go, we try to make a difference for other doggies or help educate the kids,” León said.
Ginger is always looking out for dogs who need help.
“Ginger once found one doggy in the street, and we didn’t even see it,” León said. “Ginger started pushing, and we thought it was a cat. I said, ‘Ginger, leave the cat alone.’ But we saw that it was a doggy in the city — and he needed help.”
With the help of a local rescue group, León and Ginger have helped many other dogs they’ve met on their journey.
After spending a year traveling around Africa, in November, León and Ginger traveled back to Barcelona together for the holidays.
“She loves it here,” León said. “She stops every 3 centimeters to smell the other dogs. She’s like, ‘Oh my God, there are smells everywhere, Mom.’ And I’m thinking, ‘You have to walk faster. You’re going to spend three years walking 3 meters.’”
León plans on going back to Zambia soon to start a non-profit organization to help local dogs. Ginger, of course, will be coming with her.
“Dogs are amazing, and I have always learned great things from them, but Ginger … has taught me how life should be,” León said. “She made me wild — not in a bad way but a gorgeous way. She taught me that life can be whatever you want it to be, and I can’t be more happy with that realization.”
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