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Tourism

Meet Neo, the first official canine pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago

A border collie is being hailed as the first ‘perregrina’ to complete the world-famous Way of Saint James pilgrimage route

Mari Carmen Astigarraga shows her “pilgrim” certificate, next to Neo, upon their arrival at Santiago de Compostela.
Mari Carmen Astigarraga shows her “pilgrim” certificate, next to Neo, upon their arrival at Santiago de Compostela.

Neo is used to overcoming obstacles in life. When he was born, his owner wanted to put him down because he had a light stain on his right iris, a terrible shortcoming in the world of pedigree breeding. Fortunately for Neo, he was adopted by Mari Carmen Astigarraga before his owner could carry out the deed.

Now, five years later, this lovely black-and-white dog has become certified as the first ‘perregrino’ on the Camino de Santiago – the canine equivalent of a pilgrim who has completed the Way of St James – by the Camino’s Association for the Protection of Animals (APACA).

APACA has been picking up cats and dogs that have been abandoned along the route for several years, many of them after attaching themselves to humans on account of being thrown a few scraps of food. But Neo has done more to raise their profile than any other animal. The Friday before Easter, the association awarded Neo a certificate just like the one issued to hikers who have completed at least 100 kilometers of the route by the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago.

Neo has become certified as the first canine equivalent of a pilgrim who has completed the Way of St James

To prove they have earned pilgrim status, hikers can buy what is known as a “pilgrim’s passport” for just €3, which is stamped at various points along the way. For an identical fee, APACA began issuing a similar document at the end of last year to anyone wishing to make the pilgrimage with their pet, an idea that originally came from a group of pilgrims connected to an animal refuge in Plasencia.

Now news of Neo’s pilgrimage has gone global, according to APACA, which has been dealing with requests from Italian, German and Belgian pilgrims wishing to gain pilgrim status for their four-legged friends. While animals have been accompanying their owners along the Camino since the Middle Ages, they have never been recognized in any way for doing so.

Neo and Mari Carmen Astigarraga along a French stretch of the Camino.
Neo and Mari Carmen Astigarraga along a French stretch of the Camino.

Before APACA launched its initiative, it contacted the Church in Compostela responsible for issuing the certificates to humans, asking if they would extend the service to dogs, but to no avail. Consequently, the canine certificate does not yet have official status, but APACA and Neo’s owner have not yet thrown in the towel.

The day after Neo received his certificate from APACA, Mari Carmen approached the Pilgrim’s Office in Compostela to ask for the official version for her pet. “All the volunteers came to pat him,” she says, recalling how the person in charge trotted out a number of excuses. “He told me that it had never been done before and I said there’s always a first time for everything,” says Mari Carmen. “Then he said that dogs don’t take the decision to do the Camino and I said that before setting out I had talked to Neo and he had said, yes.”

Before Mari Carmen left the Pilgrim’s Office, she pointed out that even the ruler of the United Arab Emirates had been certified as a pilgrim despite not setting foot on the Camino. “I will take this to the top,” she told them.

Back at her home in Aretxabaleta in the Basque Country, Mari Carmen is writing a letter to Pope Francis in the hope that he will enshrine the rights of four-legged pilgrims, in the spirit of his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi.

Neo halfway along the route.
Neo halfway along the route.

Although the Church in Compostela was unable to recognize Neo’s efforts, a number of priests along the way allowed the collie into their church and gave him a stamp on his APACA passport. On one occasion he was even blessed with holy water.

The collie was, however, less fortunate when it came to being allowed into the hostels en route, but Mari Carmen believes that the mentality of the owners could change in the wake of Neo’s triumph.

“The public lodges that are run by local councils and the regional government are not responding to growing demand and this is economically punishing for people hiking with their pets because they can only go to private lodges,” says Raquel Freiría, APACA’s spokeswoman. “But society is changing. There are now more dogs [in Spain] than young people under 20, and many people decide to share their life with a pet whom they consider to be their family instead of having children.”

Mari Carmen is writing a letter to Pope Francis in the hope that he will enshrine the rights of four-legged pilgrims

Meanwhile, APACA asks pilgrims to refrain from allowing local dogs to follow them from villages en route as the result is abandonment further down the road. “Many end up here with a paw that needs amputating, starving, injured, hurt, sick, exhausted and we can’t do anything for them. Others find someone to adopt them. In only 5% of cases do we find the owners, mostly because only 75% of village dogs have a chip,” she says.

Freiría goes on to say that among the 300,000 people who do the Camino every year, there are many different kinds of pilgrim. There are those who shed their pets en route and those who acquire a friend for life.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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