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Woman Rescues Dog In Africa — And Takes Her To Travel The World

“She’s like my kid. She’s just part of me. She’s an extension of myself.”

For Sara Ortín León, adopting her dog Ginger was like being reunited with a long-lost family member.

“She’s like my kid,” León told The Dodo. “She’s just part of me. She’s an extension of myself.”

Woman on ground with dog
Sara Ortín León

In 2015, León 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."

Two puppies posing together
Ginger and her sister Flora as puppies at the sanctuary — Ginger is on the right | Sara Ortín León

Ginger also took an immediate liking to León, and started following her everywhere.

“I used to go to the enclosures everyday 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.”

Dog lying behind woman at chimpanzee sanctuary
Ginger lying next to León while she was studying the chimpanzees | Sara Ortín León

At night, Ginger slept right next to León, snuggling up against her to keep warm. “It was really, really awesome,” León said. 

But when the time came for León to go back to Barcelona, she wasn’t sure whether taking Ginger back with her would be the right thing to do.

Dog licking face of woman
Sara Ortín León

“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.’"

Woman with dog in Africa
León and Ginger once they started traveling around Africa together | Sara Ortín León

So León went home — but not without regret. While she enjoyed being back with her family, 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.”

Dog lying on top of mountain
Sara Ortín León

When she arrived, León immediately looked for Ginger. But Ginger 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.

In Ginger’s case, she and her sister Flora were being used as security dogs at a mining business.

Mining business in Zambia
The property of the mining business where Ginger and Flora were working as security dogs | Sara Ortín León

“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.”

Dog lying down in back of truck
Ginger once she started traveling with León around Africa | Sara Ortín León

But 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.”

This time, 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.”

Woman petting dog in the back of a van
Sara Ortín León

León, her friend, Sharon, and Ginger piled into a car that they bought, and spent the next year traveling around Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Malawi. 

At first, Ginger was scared and skittish. “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.”

Woman and dog sitting in the back of a vehicle
Sara Ortín León

But Ginger ultimately regained her former confidence, and she became the happy, playful dog León remembered from the sanctuary. 

Woman and dog swimming in pool together
Sara Ortín León

“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.’”

Dog and woman on paddleboard together
Sara Ortín León

Besides paddleboarding, Ginger loves hiking in the African bush, and she helps León and her friend stay calm around local wildlife.

Woman and dog hiking through African bush
Sara Ortín León

“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.’”

Dog with collar standing up on a log
Sara Ortín León

“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.’”

Dog looking outside at wild elephants
Sara Ortín León

León couldn’t imagine traveling without Ginger, but they’ve faced a number of challenges. A big problem is keeping Ginger safe from other people.

Dog lying in hammock
Sara Ortín León

“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.”

Dog lying on car seat
Sara Ortín León

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.

Woman and dog with school children in classroom
León and Ginger interacting with local school kids in Zambia | Sara Ortín León

And 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.”

Two dogs lying on beach together
Ginger and a new dog friend she met during her travels | Sara Ortín León

León got the dog help at a local rescue group, and she and Ginger have helped many other dogs they’ve met on their journeys too.

After spending a year traveling around Africa, León’s family convinced her to come home for the holidays. So, in November, León and Ginger traveled back to Barcelona together.

Dog in travel crate at African airport
Ginger getting ready to fly back to Barcelona with León | Sara Ortín León

“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.’”

Dog looking down street in Europe
Ginger checking out a street in Barcelona, Spain | Sara Ortín León

León does plan on going back to Zambia soon, and to start a nonprofit organization to help local dogs. Ginger, of course, will be coming with her.

Dog inside car traveling Africa
Sara Ortín León

“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 of that realization.”

Dog and woman smiling together
Sara Ortín León
To see more photos of León and Ginger’s travel adventures, you can follow their Instagram account.