I had noticed it before in my many trips here, but as the months progress on this current adventure, my perspective is evolving.
As I make my drive into the city, I count the number of dog’s bodies I see. Sometimes it is only four or five, sometimes more. They are in all sorts of shape. Some are laying like they are asleep and others, just an unrecognizable thing on the road. Either they stay there until they decay or people burn the bodies. Often the dogs are covered with lime, so one just sees a brilliant white pile of powder, but there is dog under there. When I started driving in September, I remember being so struck by the daily carnage. Each dog I saw gave me a jab in my heart. They each still do.
And they are teaching me things, hard things, but things I need to learn.
I would add here, that I have had 17 dogs in my life, with the last five being adopted adults who needed homes. Four of them were Giant Schnauzers and they were the best. They taught me the most. In fact, I used to give speeches with one of them, Tia, the last one. in which I would quote a fictitious W.C. Fields adage, “Never share the stage with a dog or a baby. They always steal the show.” “But,” I would add, “In this case it is a honor.” as Tia would come through the audience, often a few hundred people, and join me on stage.
So I gave lots of speeches on just how much I had learned from my dogs, who incidentally, thought I was an idiot for the most part, but teachable.
And I did learn. I learned many things. Mostly, I learned about unconditional love for that is what they give. What a concept and they really have it down.
And I learned patience. The adoptees sometimes needed weeks or months to feel comfortable and at ease.
One was named Birdie. That’s the name she came with and she also came with much baggage. She had been in a kennel for a year with a lot of miniature Schnauzers, but not much human contact and when she arrived she was terrified of me. This was shortly after we had euthanized our mother and son Springers, ages 14 and 12, on the same day. We had had those dogs since birth and their loss was a profound one, so when Birdie arrived, I just needed to pat a dog, but she was too scared or scarred to let me get near her.
Weeks went by and I grew frustrated. I took her to the vet across the street and said, “I can’t do this.” The doctor asked, “Is she any better than last week?” I admitted she was. Then the doctor said something that changed my life. Its funny how it works that way. Dr. Denk said, “Get out of my office.”
And little by little, Birdie and I developed that most special of relationships that dog owners know when it happens.
For years, I would see Dr. Denk and tell him how much he had taught me, about patience and incrementalism. He thought I was just crazy.
Point well taken and I took it with me to Oaxaca, where dogs have a much different life.
First, Mexicans, at least in Oaxaca, do not think that dogs have souls and consequently, are not given human names. There are lots of “Fidos.” I live with a “Lucky.” Mostly, there are just lots of simply, “Perros” (dogs.)
There are feral dogs everywhere, living in packs, where one can observe the natural laws of order meted out with swift and powerful judgment. I watch the dog pack in front of the house and see "human" politics at its essence. The “Dick Cheneys” of the dog world rule, but the runts still have a place. The power struggles are constant. And pity the “old dog” that can no longer meet the challengers.
When I go to the villages and go from house to house, my guide will often have a rock or two to throw at the dogs that come close. With good reason, dogs are wary of humans.
And because the people do not think that the dogs have souls, the dogs actually believe them and act that way, like they are soulless, without value. It is sad and a great lesson.
There is not a lot of affection shown. No one pats anyone’s head or licks anyone’s hand. It is a two-way street.
I have yet to have the experience of a dog coming up to me and recognizing that I am a “dog person” and just saying a happy hello. Quite the opposite, I was actually nipped at, for the first time in many years, by a black lab in La Union. He was the son of Lucky, so I will cut him some slack. It could have been Freudian. Maybe he smelled his mother.
Actually, there is one incredibly friendly dog that one can see regularly in the zocalo, a golden Lab named Barney, who is lives with the owner of the fine restaurant, El Naranjo. Whenever I see Barney he runs up with his tail wagging like we are old buds. Oaxaqueños always smile when the see Barney, but he is a gringo perro and somehow they don't smile when they see the other dogs in the zocalo.
Above all, dogs live a very tough life here. Often they are on their own. It cracks me up to have grown up being told not to give them chicken bones and to watch dogs here eat them with gusto with no ill effects, a delicacy.
The dogs of Oaxaca are watching me.
They continue to teach me. They also realize I may be slow, but I am teachable. I believe there is a Spanish saying, “Tonto y tonto, pero no tanto,” which I probably have backwards and means, “I may be dumb, but I ain’t that dumb.”
So “It’s a dog’s life” and “Every dog must have its day” and “All dogs go to Heaven” have all taken on different meanings now.
Update: Of course, dogs have jobs here. They watch and protect their/our turf. Most nights are filled with dog communications and alerts. They seem to be asking the age-old question, "What's that over your head?"