Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Man's Best Frenemy

Dogs get a mixed rap in Guatemala.  

They are nearly universally referred to chuchos, which tends to mean street dog, mutt, or mongrel.  It get applied pretty equally to actual street dogs and to those claimed by a family as well.  I would say that dogs who belong to a family are not so much pets as guardians here, and thus tend to be valued for being bravo (angry, ferocious, mean, irritable, intimidating) more than playful or affectionate.  Generally they are not considered mascotas (pets) and are rarely touched, as they are considered shuco (dirty, filthy, gross, flea ridden... oddly, this is also slang for hot dogs).  There are animal lovers here too, of course, but it gets expressed by sneaking extra bones to feed the dog occasionally or pet it de vez en cuando (once in awhile).  It does not mean your dog gets toys, sweaters, canned food (heck even dried dog food), or walks. 

Most chuchos subsist on a diet of left over pan dulce (slightly sweet rolls) or tortillas, with the occasional chicken bone or leftover dinner thrown in.  In the case of those in the street, they subsist on whatever they can find.  I've seen many a wily chucho running off with head and tail held high as he rushes off to consume the fried chicken he swiped from the unsuspecting Pollo Campero patron or half eaten out of the garbage can.  More often they're digging through the garbage thrown into the nearest ravine to scavenge.  I've seen the scrawniest and mangiest dogs in Guatemala I've ever laid my eyes on.  One heartbreaking case was so skinny and mangy that his sit bones (not tail bone... maybe part of his hips?) poked through his skin when he sat down.  

There is one animal shelter I know of in Guatemala, but it is (perhaps unsurprisingly) run by an American.  It was just outside of Sumpango, so I went down a few times to volunteer with some of my fellow then-trainees.  There were hundreds of dogs and dozens of cats, all fixed and up on their shots waiting to be adopted... Many had come in injured and/or malnurished and get nursed back to health little by little, others arrive pregnant, so there is a steady stream of kittens and puppies to raise as well.  I think they are trying to send adoptions to the states, because Xeni (the proprietor) wants them to go to homes where they'll get concentrado (dog food).  There are certainly plenty of Guatemalans adopting as well, of course.  They also have a monthly clinic where they will spay or neuter cats and dogs for a pittance (something I have been lucky enough to benefit from in the case of my kitty).  For those interested:

All of that said, I have made friends with some dogs along the way.  My training host family had a dog named Diana.  She was a pretty friendly dog, though a little skittish.  I would occasionally give her one of my club crackers, and she would delicately grab the cracker from my hand without leaving so much as a drip of slobber, then inhale the cracker and look back at me for more.  She spent her days tied up in the courtyard, with a little patio table leaning up against the wall to give her some shade.  At night (when the chickens and turkeys were in their coop) she got free run of the outdoor compound, and occasionally would be so happy and excited I'd try to play with her, but she didn't seem to know what to do with my overtures.  

We have three dogs in the extended family I live with at my site.  There’s Oso (means “bear”), who is my guardian up at the cottage.  He’s pretty quiet, and mostly sweet.  Oso spends all day and night tied up, but has a fairly generous rope and gets moved around to be tethered to different posts throughout the day for a change of scenery.  He jumps up on me anytime I’m within reach of his leash, and makes my cat freak out every time he wanders part way into my house (which he often has enough rope to do).  He definitely alerts me any time there are people approaching the house, and curls up right outside my door at nights in a comforting way.

It was getting to be a chilly late afternoon when I took this, so he was curled up tight.
Weeny (perhaps a shortening of “Wilson,” but I’m not sure) is the exception to the guardian rule.  He’s little and utterly not intimidating (but don’t tell him that).  Weeny runs free.  I think he’s the closest to a pet I’ve seen in Guatemala, and belongs to Fernando, the 3 year old cousin next door.  He likes to get rough and tumble around the bigger dogs, and they mostly ignore him to continue with their frequent naps. 

Maybe it's just me, but I think Weeny has a creepily vacant stare.
Dino (as in Dinosaur) is the dog stationed down at my counterpart’s house.  When I moved in he didn’t even deign to bark at me.  The family explained that he isn’t phased by foreigners, because he’s so used to Peace Corps Volunteers and missionaries (usually Mormons) living in the compound.  Dino is always tied up, usually with a fairly short amount of rope.  In the beginning I would walk over and pet him in the day, and occasionally escort Elkin to give him leftovers for dinner.  I developed more irritation toward him as he frequently disturbed my sleep by doing an odd strangled whine/howl most nights between 2 and 4 a.m.  One night I even went out and squirted him in the face with water to make him shut up.  Strangely, it worked.  Looking back, this may have been the start of our road toward Frenemies. 

Dino, in a calm moment.
The weekend of the 400 tamales, I was taking a break after helping stir the massive pot of masa and wandered over to the pila to watch Isabel clean her shoes, taking a route that went past Dino.  He must have been dead asleep and not heard me get close, because after I had fully passed him and stood still, he suddenly woke, growled, and lunged.  I didn’t see him coming.  One minute I was spacing out watching Isabel and the next I was making a sound very like the ones Dino had used to earn my wrath. 

Luckily, his leash must have just barely allowed him to reach me, because once we rolled up my jeans to see the damage it became clear he hadn’t got a good grip.  I ended up with one decent puncture wound and two long scratches where his teeth had dragged back along my calf (whether because I pulled away or his leash half choked him, I don’t know).  The next time I looked at Dino he was back asleep and content.  Jerk. 

This was maybe a week and a half after injury.
As we did first aid fun, Benancio showed me at least three dog inflicted scars that he sports from childhood, and Hendrick showed me the one he has on his forehead.  They explained to me that the only reason Elkin isn’t afraid of dogs is that he hasn’t been bitten “yet.”  So I guess maybe this was just a rite of passage to becoming a real part of the community.

Anyway, we washed out the wound and I went to Xela both Friday and Monday to get the anti-Rabies shots that PC Medical protocol requires.  In the end I had more adrenaline flowing than blood, though the bruising is just now losing its tenderness weeks later.  I guess Dino just bit first and asked who he was attacking later.  He still wags his tail when I walk by and I’ve even approached to pet him again on occasion.  But I make sure he sees me well before getting within range. 

So like I said, dogs get a mixed rap in Guatemala.  Many (if not most) families have dogs.  Many (if not most) Guatemalans are afraid of dogs.  Because many (if not most) Guatemalans have been bit by a dog.  Frenemies, people.  Frenemies.  

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