ELMHURST – Two young ladies from the west suburbs expected to return from their post-college graduation trip to Peru with stories of their trek up Machu Picchu, or at the very least, a few more words in their limited Spanish vocabulary.
Bringing home four mischievous balls of fur was not on anyone's souvenir list.
"I don't think anybody has ever gone to Cusco and taken dogs home with them," said Elmhurst resident Laura Hildebrand.
Not long after the two 22-year-old Valparaiso University graduates arrived in Cusco, a starving dog patiently poised outside of a KFC broke their hearts – along with their vacation plans – to attend the Cusco winter solstice festival.
"From the first moment we got to Cusco, [dogs] were just everywhere," said Julia Trowbridge of Naperville. "You can't walk down the street without seeing a street dog."
Both women explained that the street dogs were a mixture of strays and animals with owners. They found that dogs were often left outside, even when they were considered a pet in Cusco. While the two animal lovers saw dogs everywhere they went in the city, one dog in particular, which looked like she may be nursing puppies, was different.
"The look on her face was like a 'help me' look," Hildebrand said.
Just like that the international business major and international economics major named her after the former U.S. Secretary of State and launched a mission to find Hillary a home.
"The first night we found Hillary was kind of a rush of, 'Can we do this? Should we do this? How do we do this?'" Trowbridge said.
Before they left on their planned three-day Machu Picchu hike, the pair launched an online fundraiser which they hoped might raise a couple hundred dollars to help them transport Hillary back to the U.S.
Without Wi-Fi, they spent their entire hike anxious to check their efforts, and by the time they returned to Cusco they had raised around $400, more than they ever expected.
"When we came back that first night we bought a harness and a leash and we waited for her by the KFC for hours until she showed up," Hildebrand said.
She soon led them on a thirty minute trip out of the city through open fields to a makeshift dog house where five puppies began whining from underneath an old windshield propped on cinder blocks.
After locating Hillary's owner, Hildebrand attempted to convince him in her limited Spanish for two days to let Hillary come home with them. Although they didn't understand how Hillary's owner was so attached to her, Hildebrand and Trowbridge soon realized Hillary couldn't be rescued.
"We felt terrible that we weren't able to bring her home too, because she was the one who initially started this," Hildebrand said.
They American travelers agreed that the next best option would be to rescue the puppies from their mother's life, and were able to buy four of them for about $9 each. They thought with less mouths to feed, Hillary might reach a healthier weight.
"It's sad because at that age they should have not been nursing off of her anymore," Hildebrand said.
Trowbridge's family has been fostering dogs and cats for about a decade and Hildebrand volunteers at PAWS in Chicago. Both of them also own dogs and cats, so they understood some people would concerned that they spent so much time and effort to bring four of Hillary's puppies home when they know there are needy animals in the U.S.
"Knowing we could help them and we had the resources, we couldn't just leave them," said Hildebrand.
Thanks to the financial support and encouraging words of friends, family and even strangers, one of the puppies they call Sam has found a new home. For now, Oliver, Stanley and their only sister Kaya bound around Trowbridge's fenced-in yard, exploring plants, chasing each other and occasionally snuggling up to either one of their adoptive moms.
Hildebrand plans to keep Oliver and Sam's family wants to take in his sister. Lord Stanley, as the two call him after the trophy holding Blackhawks, still needs a home.
It's been roughly a month since Hillary nuzzled her way into the two women's hearts and they've raised more than $2,000. Between bringing the four furballs to the vet, getting them the necessary vaccines and changing their return plans multiple times to accommodate their living carry-ons, they said the incredible level of support they received motivated them not to give up.
"I think everybody has been in that situation where you want to do something or you want to make a change or help someone ... but you lack the time or the money or the effort," Trowbridge said.