I have converted to Latin custom in some of the differences between LatAm and Gringolandia. Most of these ways, such as shamelessly showing up late to meetings or giving warm embraces to any old friend, are too trivial to warrant a blog post. But a recent conversation with a gringo pal illustrated that our differing perspectives on dogs present an interesting quirk.
Dog ownership in Latin America vs. the United States is mostly similar. Dog owners across the Americas adore their dogs, and in both regions dogs are sometimes neglected or mistreated. Nowhere in the Americas (that I know of) do people eat dogs, and most citizens of the Americas would be just as horrified as me when I saw dog on the menu in China.
I think Latin dog owners dress their dogs up in shirts, sweaters, and other adornments just as much as gringos do, but I may be biased from my impressions in north Bogota.
One of the first major culture shocks I got in South America was my first day as I turned a corner in downtown Arequipa. Three dogs sat in the middle of this new street with no leashes, no owners in sight. I froze.
My Peruvian escort explained this was normal, and as the weeks went by I quickly learned how normal it was for dogs to prowl the streets alone. In fact, I don’t think I saw a dog on a leash in Latin America until I saw the wealthy areas of Bogota.
A suburban white boy like me immediately thinks, “Won’t the dogs be hit and killed by cars?” And just as quickly we see that dogs learn the streets, they learn about cars, they learn traffic. They don’t run into the street completely ignorant because they haven’t been on leashed or locked in the house every day.
I witnessed packs of dogs running around Arequipa, sometimes as many as 20. Usually when there are a dozen or more, it’s because a bitch is in heat and the other 11 or so males are following her around. Every time she needs a minute to rest, the largest male will start riding her. At the start of the day she probably defended herself. But at the end of the day with all these suitors, she’s spent. The other males wait around in case an opportunity arises and they became the strongest, dominant one. Dogs will wait forever for a bitch.
When my Peruvian wife and I got two dogs in Arequipa, I thought it my dog-owner duty to walk them every day. And I enjoyed walking my bitches twice a day. But Milagros wouldn’t have cared if they never walked a block. Leaving them on our roof for their entire lives would’ve been just fine for her and all my in-laws. They thought me a little odd for walking them every day. If they want a dog to get some free time outside, they open the door and let him walk himself.
By the time we got dogs, I had four years in Latin America and thought leashes unnecessary. I taught them how to cross the major avenue we lived on. I led and accompanied them, but they were free to explore interesting smells and trash bags, or meet other dogs up close and personal.
I witnessed each of my bitches go through a heat cycle. The first time it happened, for Negra (see videos and pics below), I insisted on walking her as always. The males of the neighborhood smelled her from blocks away. I’d hit them with rocks and even kick them, but they wouldn’t stop following us. They feared me and kept a distance, but they followed. We built entourages. By the time we got home a group would be left outside our door. One or two would wait there for hours. I quickly realized the daily walk isn’t necessary for a bitch in heat.
In north Bogota you’ll see professional dog-walkers walking 10 or even 20 dogs around the city on leashes. The wealthier Colombians with busy jobs pay these walkers to have their dogs walked, a little exercise in the heart of the city. Some of the less honest dog-walkers, however, simply tie them up in the mountains and sit around waiting until it’s time to return them. You can see these dogs during the daytime in the forests around Calle 96 above Septima.
Then I got back to the U.S. and had to suffer all the gringo beliefs about dogs. Don’t let the dog out of the house, he’ll run away!
Why in the hell would a dog run away?
Step out of your economy of abundance paradigm and think of your dog as a vagrant – a vagrant who will ferociously defend you, your family, and your territory against any intruder no matter how big or armed. A vagrant who will light up and be uncontrollably ecstatic at the sight of you coming home … every day! A vagrant whose favorite personal item in the whole world is the oldest, unwashed underwear or shirt you’re willing to give him. A vagrant who doesn’t talk, drink, or do drugs.
That’s why dogs are infinitely more lovable than vagrants, but their interests are basically the same. You provide them with food and shelter every day, and all they have to do is lay around. Seriously, why would a dog run away?
My unleashed dogs in Peru wouldn’t run away. I tried letting them walk themselves a few times. They waited on the damn sidewalk until I came out to walk with them. The few times I didn’t come out, they finally explored a little but they’d always come back. I couldn’t abandon those motherfuckers – not in the neighborhood anyway. They knew where the free food and shelter was.
There are dogs that run away in the U.S. Everybody had a childhood friend who, when you visited his home, you had to enter the door real fast, defending any openings so the dog didn’t get out. And if the dog did get outside, the family would be out chasing him for an hour or two in fear he’d be hit by a car or never come home. They’d look at you as if you were the asshole.
As described earlier, this never happened in Peru. But there’s a different dynamic with those dogs that escape at any opportunity. It’s not just the leash, but a complete lack of freedom. Imagine a vagrant again, a vagrant who is fed and housed but never gets to leave. Imagine yourself if you could never leave the strict confines of a house and fenced-in yard. What would you do if given the opportunity? Escape and look for other people (dogs), explore the area, run around and be free? Of course. Being in the backyard is “outside,” but it isn’t the same as going out and being free. Meeting others, patrolling, running at full speed.
Neutering and Spaying
In Gringolandia, it’s humane to “fix” your dog so it doesn’t reproduce. The idea stems from the fact that millions of dogs are euthanized every year. Why create more when so many doomed dogs long for an owner and home?
Another belief is that neutering the male dogs reduces their barking and humping of things, the appearance of the red rocket. But is this a humane decision? Or is it just convenient for the owner?
When I suggested spaying our bitches, my in-laws were horrified. They thought of it as cruelty, akin to circumcision.
The idea for this article was born when my pal told me his dog had been stolen by an ex. He was all bummed out and my suggestion was, “Pretend he’s dead.” It’s not a human. It’s just a dog. Get another one.
Anybody immersed in gringo culture can see how that would offend a sensitive person. Maybe those immersed in Latin America would agree with me. It’s just a dog.
Either way, a dog’s life span is considerably shorter than a human’s. An unavoidable part of dog ownership is losing the dog when it dies. Why make a big deal?
My stepfather was hard up for money last year, when my grandmother had her Golden Retriever “put down.” We learned that she paid $80 to have him injected.
We joked that we could’ve done the job for $40 (not completely a joke, as we were hard up for money). Not only would my grandma have saved $40, we would’ve picked him up. We’d have given him a last meal: chicken bones, hamburger grease, whatever. I could’ve dug the hole while Pops went to pick him up. I’d have been done by the time he got back, and he would’ve shot him in the hole. I’d have topped him off and BOOM, we’re done.
A .22 rifle bullet costs about $1, but he’s already got several of them.
My father-in-law strangles their old, dying dogs. They don’t live on a plot of land that makes shooting them a convenient option.
I used these methods to teach my kid brother about money and budgeting. Here’s the exercise I presented him:
Which option would you choose for your dog if you had to pay your money?
- Have the dog “put down” by a veterinarian for $80. *
- Shoot the dog for $1. **
- Strangle or drown the dog for free.
* The first option includes disposal. Disposal in Latin America can be as simple leaving the bagged carcass with the trash. Or you can bury it wherever you deem appropriate.
** If shooting the dog, cleaning of blood may be required, depending on location.
Those prices are in absolute terms. So to better illustrate the equation for budgeting purposes (and self-examination), adjust your figures to a Latin American laborer’s dilemma.
It’s easy to choose he be put down with a painless injection by a vet on a stainless steel table. But when it’s your money, what you are willing to pay for is the true measure of your values and priorities.
San Francisco has one of the world’s leading “no kill” policies in finding homes for stray dogs not deemed dangerous or terminally ill. In Bogota, on the other hand, The Mick described to me how the pound deals with stray dogs. Paraphrased:
The guys look like bee-keepers, well protected. They horde the dogs with big nets in a prison van, a big cage inside the van. They round up all the stray dogs. The dogs feel the energy, they’re howling and barking, and trying to run away. The guys trap them. They haul them in these big cages, cram them in there, and drive off to the compound. They remove the cage from the van and hose down the cage with water, they get all the dogs good and wet. They attach jumper cables to the cage, and they electrocute them. When I saw it some of the dogs didn’t die. There was a horrible smell of burnt hair. Some of the dogs were convulsing so they electrocuted them again until they were all dead.
A crueler example of dog death comes from my suegro, who joined the Peruvian police academy in the 1980s. One form of hazing he suffered was having to kill a dog and eat its raw heart.
I miss my bitches. We gave them away. I pretended they died, but I miss them dearly. Once I permanently establish my family in Lima, I plan to be a dog owner again.
Animal Realism in the Heartland
On another note, not all of the United States has become politically correct and sensitive. I spent several months living with my stepfather, who grew up in a poor rural area. He has eaten his fair share of squirrels, possums, and anything else he could kill as a kid. He loved cuy (guinea pig) in Arequipa. During my stay at his place I video-recorded a couple kills.
This cat was killing all the rabbits and doing other things to annoy the residents of the area. He spotted it on his land and announced he was going for his gun. I barely had time to get my camera.
Pops had a trap on the land to catch all the raccoons and possums that eat all the deer feed and cause a general nuisance. Killing a few prevents them from breeding like crazy.
While not all gringos are pussies, many are. I just published those videos to YouTube at the time of this writing. We’ll wait and see if they get any comments from animal advocates telling me how evil we are.
Support what Expat Chronicles is all about. Leave a tip to keep the laughs coming (and the news, insight and other stuff too).