Juno

Juno is my dog, a mexican street dog. I thought I was saving her when I coaxed her into my car two years ago. But I was wrong.

Juno was the saddest, thinnest dog I have ever laid eyes on. Thin isn’t the right word. She was emaciated, so weak from starvation she wobbled, a walking skeleton with some skin stretched on top. I first saw Juno on a rainy, cold summer day in the mountains outside Mexico city. She was standing along the side of road, nose to the ground, looking for garbage to eat. I noticed her because she is a dalmation and her spots were hard to miss. Dalmations are popular in Mexico. People sell dalmation pups by the bucketful, along the sides of roads, in lines of traffic at toll booths. Dalmations are popular until they grow up. Then they get tossed. I’d see them all the time, wandering the streets, lost, hungry, ill-equipped for the scavenger life. Juno was just another abandoned dog, but somehow worse. The word that comes to mind is desolate. She seemed like a dog that had just about given up on the world. And she was a mama. Her full teats hung low off her bony frame. That first time I saw her, I pulled over and tried to get her to come to me but she wouldn’t approach. So I left her a pile of dog food and drove on.

Every few weeks, I’d see her again. Thinner, sadder, wasted. I thought of her often. I gave her a name. Once, I tried to follow her and find her pups. She wouldn’t move while my eyes were on her. Then one day, I’d had enough. I figured her pups, wherever they were, must be grown or dead. I needed to end Juno’s suffering. I went looking and found her, wandering along the road, searching, once again, for scraps of garbage. I made a path of hot dogs that led to my car. I shoved her into the backseat as she tried to grab the food inside. That’s how Juno arrived in my life.

For weeks Juno huddled in our laundry room, snarling at anyone who approached except me. She was paralyzed by fear and tortured by stomach problems as a result of her advanced starvation. She’d cringe when I lifted a hand to touch her. She had endured many beatings, I could tell. But Juno seemed to understand that I was her friend. I was the only one who could get near her. It was a beginning. A place to start to heal.

This past summer, I left México and moved to a small farm in Maryland. I live on a hill, surrounded by trees and pasture. It is quiet. In the summer, the air smells of grass and leaf. At night, the stars shine strong in the sky. I have horses and take long morning walks in the woods. Juno has been with me for two years now and she cannot get enough of this new life. She is young and strong again, and often, I see happiness move through her body like a wave, as she runs through the woods, or rolls in the creek like a pup.

Juno’s joy is my antidote to the sadness of this world. When I read of the Taliban shooting a girl in the head because she desired an education, or of deadly hurricanes spawned from climate change, or any of the other endless atrocities of this world, it feels like there will never be an end to the darkness, the bad news. The problems seem insurmountable. But then I look at Juno and feel better. This is the gift that street dogs give us, that Juno gave me. They forgive. They heal. They respond to love. They let us help them. That’s it, more than anything. She allowed me, in some small way, to make a difference, to change a life for the better. Of course, I wish for more, I want a kinder world for my children, for all the children. But when I look down at my dog, curled at my feet, and she looks up at me with her big brown eyes and gives a thump or two with her tail, I think, I’ve done this at least. I’ve made this dog happy. It feels good.

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Happiness

Image

I’ve seen lots of beaten down dogs in Mexico City. Dogs whose spirits couldn’t withstand the lack of food, the nasty kicks, the ugliness of their lives. I think of them as hollow dogs. Alive but not really.

Mara should have been like this, but she wasn’t.

I found Mara on a little strip of grass between Mexico City’s busiest highway and a four-lane road also jammed with speeding cars and peseros, the broken down buses most working class people use to commute. Mara was just standing there, tail between her legs but head high as if she were deciding if she were in a crisis or an adventure.

I pulled over, grabbed a leash and threaded my way through the cars to Mara. She came right up to me. She was filthy but beautiful and I could see that between her legs, her tail was wagging.  She was terrified of the leash but let me carry her to my car. She huddled on the floor for the drive home.

Mara was a street dog, born and bred. The first time I tried to coax her into the house, she looked at me like I was asking her to step on hot coals. The first time we went for a walk on the leash, she ran back and forth across my path, thinking that might make the lead go away. But Mara accepted her first bath with noble humility. And she soon discovered that the best place for sleeping was our  big bed. From then on it was a battle of the wills…I say off, she says on.

Within a few days, Mara was one of the happiest, most self-confident dogs I’ve ever know. As my husband put it, “She’s an optimist.” Nothing was going to keep her down. She expressed her joy in life constantly, digging holes with abandon in the garden, playing with our other dogs like a pup. On jogs through the neighborhood, she didn’t so much walk as bound. Her happiness revealed itself in every movement on her body.

I usually worry that no one will want the dogs I’ve picked up off the streets. So many of them have damaged souls or wounded bodies. But not Mara. I think she let me know there was nothing to worry about. Mara’s glass wasn’t half empty, it was brimming over.

When I posted Mara for adoption, a friend of a friend saw the ad. She was interested but lived in Colorado. When she heard Mara lived in Mexico City she thought there would be no way to make it work. But it just so happens I was soon headed to Colorado. It was a done deal.

This is what I can tell you about Mara’s life now. She is deeply loved. She is safe. She is fed. That should be enough, but not for Mara. Mara also takes regular road trips into the wilderness because her owners are rock collectors. She gets to bound through meadows and chase the birds. As I write this, Mara is in Montana, on a summer camping trip. Just as it should be for an optimist like Mara. I can see her, flopped out by a fire, bathed by starlight and the sweet fragrance of pines, exhausted after a day of  adventuring. Mara wasn’t meant to die alongside a Mexico City highway. She knew it, right from the beginning.

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Agradecimiento (Gratitude)

For me, part of learning to live in Mexico has been learning to live with sadness. This is a truth that’s hard for me to admit because there is so much to love about this country. In the spring, Mexico City is a riot of the most beautiful flowers: bright purple Bougainvillea, deep lavender Jacaranda, calla lilies, geraniums. Some drape over walls painted in the richest colors of blues, yellows and reds. In springtime, the streets also come alive with fruit and vegetable vendors….they sell fresh artichokes door to door, and lychees, and strawberries so fragrant they seem like flowers themselves.  I love the man who parks at the busy intersection near my house in a battered wreck of a car and posts a sign on the roof   “4-leaf clovers for sale.” His little clover plants spill out of the open trunk. I love the informal markets, the used clothes bazaar, the lady who owns the corner store and feeds my children dulces after school , the street sweepers who brush the sidewalks clean with brooms made of twigs. I love the hidden shrines to the Virgin Mary tucked into stone walls. I love the sound of the steam whistle each evening as the  comote  (sweet potato) cart passes by. Mexico takes my breath away. It is like living inside a grand work of art.

Because this country has so much beauty, the  lack of compassion for animals is somewhat incomprehensible. I cannot understand how people can walk past a dog lying on the ground with a broken leg without any inclination to help. I can’t understand how people so often ignore the animal so weak from hunger its body shakes. Or those who put their dogs on roofs and leave them there for years without even a shelter to escape the rain. I have no idea where this cruelty comes from. Many people here still maintain that dogs “have no souls”. Maybe that’s the problem. I just don’t know.  What I do know is that I come face to face with cruelty and suffering everyday. It’s exhausting.

One day not long ago, I stopped to feed a small group of street dogs I care for. One, a very old yellow dog, couldn’t get up. His leg was so badly fractured it  curved forward. The break had been left untended and  infection  had spread into the bone. I picked my friend up, howling in pain, to take him to the vet. A passerby yelled that the dog had an owner and I was stealing him. I just shook my head. This dog wasn’t owned, wasn’t loved, wasn’t fed. It was simply dying a slow and awful death. At the vet’s office, before he was euthanized. I stroked his head and hoped his passing was gentle. That’s what I could give. One last moment of love and affection.

my friend with fractured leg

For awhile I had two puppies at the house. There were three others living in the street . I wanted to help but first I had to find homes for the ones I already had. It didn’t take me long but two of the street pups died in the road during the wait. I pulled one of the bodies off the pavement and put it under a tree. It was all I could do. This is my life. For every dog I help, thousands more are left to suffer alone. My heart gets tired.

What keeps me going are moments of happiness as powerful as a strong embrace. They come from connecting with people who believe, as I do, that to help even a little is better than doing nothing at all. They come from the those who’ve helped me find homes for the dogs I’ve taken in. And they come from the simple knowledge that sometimes a life can be transformed, and a creature once considered worthless now has a place in someone’s heart.  Love, a home, is there anything better?

MAGGIE

Maggie and Emile

Maggie  the adorable. That’s what I called her.  Maggie looked like one of those funny stuffed animals with the enormous, sad eyes.

Maggie  once lived in the mountains near Mexico City. Her family was so  poor they could hardly feed themselves. Their cinderblock dwelling didn’t have a roof, only some sheets of tin and plastic to keep out the cold and rain. The floors were dirt. The family cooked outside at an open pit. The only water they had was hauled up in buckets. There was no toilet. There wasn’t much of anything nice except for the sweet dogs that roamed the area.

This is where Maggie came from

At one point, six dogs lived outside the family’s shack. The dogs were part of the landscape but I don’t think the family felt  they were “theirs.” They all just lived together as squatters. I met this family. I liked them. They were kind people. But they couldn’t take care of the dogs. They didn’t have money for luxuries like dog food. So, I began bringing up bags of kibble to help, hoping eventually they’d be able to support the animals themselves.  Then one day the family was gone. A neighbor said they’d returned to their village. They’d come back, she promised, but didn’t know when. In a few weeks, maybe more, she said with a shrug.

The dogs were left behind. It was winter and cold. They were hungry. One old husky had a mangled and twisted leg. It could hardly walk let alone scavenge for food. Another, a gorgeous young black lab, Loki, kept wandering away onto the highway below. I’d pick him up and bring him back to the shack.  I brought more food. Each time, the dogs swarmed me, desperate to eat.  And then I saw Maggie.  She was a tiny little thing, shaky from hunger. Her belly was like that of a starving child, enormous, worm-filled, hollow. Pus ran from her eyes.  She didn’t have much life left in her.  So I brought her home. Slowly, she  healed. When she felt better, Maggie began to charm us with her joy and happiness.

I have always liked big sturdy mutts. Maggie was little but she was a truly a big dog in a small body. She was a gift.  When she was healthy and ready for a home, my heart rebelled. The idea of giving her away was unimaginably hard.  I felt the only way to let her go was to carry her into even greater happiness. But how could I find a home where Maggie would be wrapped in a love more powerful than the love I could offer?  And so I turned to a friend, a lover of  lap dogs, who worked hard to find Maggie’s perfect place. She was spotted by a family with lots of kids, two other dogs, and more love to give. When they saw Maggie’s photo and a video of her wiggling happy body, that was it.  It was Maggie they wanted. When I arrived at the airport after a 12 hour journey from Mexico City, Maggie’s new owners literally pulled her from my arms. They couldn’t wait to have her, to take her home.

Maggie and her new family

So Maggie left to her new life and I was happy. That’s how it should be.

PHINNEY

Phinney (now Bendito)

My son Finn (whom we call Finny) named the little brindle pup. He called him “Phinney.” I liked that.

Phinney came from the same shack as  Maggie. A few days after I picked up Maggie, I went to check on the other dogs. I’d seen Phinney before, hungry but okay. But on this day, he was lying in the dirt, unable to move, covered in bloody wounds from this throat to his belly. It took a vet nearly three hours to repair the gaping holes. After surgery I carried the limp pup to my house and put him in a kennel to rest. For nearly two weeks, he wouldn’t leave the kennel. He’d  slip out to pee but never when I could see him. He was traumatized and I wondered if he’d  ever be okay. But dogs have a resilience I find hard to comprehend. They forget and forgive. Eventually, Phinney’s desire to be with us overcame his fear. Day by day he ventured farther from the kennel. Sometimes I could see him watching us from the corner of the garden. Then he was peeking into the house. And finally, he was just part of the family, pressed up against the other dogs, claiming a small spot on the cushion in the living room.

We had Phinney for almost two months.  He was a shy spirit with a gentle way about him.  Like Maggie, it was hard to let Phinney go. I worried that another change would send him back into the dark place of his fear.  I worried at the way he followed me around, counting on me to be there for him. I felt like giving him away was letting him down. But love comes. A kind woman, Susan, saw his photo and was intrigued. She saw something in his eyes that moved her. She offered to“foster” Phinney and find him a home in Albuquerque where she lived. That home, in the end, was hers. Susan helped Phinney finish healing, and in turn, Phinney became a friend to Susan’s lonely dog, Kichi. Today Kichi and Phinney (renamed Bendito, “blessed”) are inseparable. They seem meant to be together.

The list of people who helped Phinney and Maggie get a chance at a better life is long. To all, thank you. For me, these two dogs are a constant reminder that sometimes we are blessed. We, who love our dogs, may take it for granted that we can always care for them, feed them, give them a warm place to sleep.  I have learned that poverty can get in the way of our desires. I believe the family in the mountains that first had Maggie and Phinney would have cared for them if they were able. But they were not.

I say this because they did eventually return to their shack. The remaining dogs, the broken down husky, the old mama, were there waiting . The wife of the family seemed happy to see them. She even put old t-shirts on two of the weakest dogs.

But that’s all she had to give.  I still bring the food.

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India

I

I’ve been thinking lately about India. I wrote of her awhile ago. India was a street dog, a “perra callejera” as they call them here. She must once have been beautiful with her dark yellow eyes and thick shepherd coat. I first saw India sniffing around an informal market, looking for food scraps. She was ragged, starving and terrified. It took her awhile to find what was to become her permanent spot—a bit of pavement outside a disco. During her search for a safe place, she was hit by a car. For the rest of her life, her left rear leg hung limp from the hip joint.

India was my friend as much as she was able to be one. She knew my car and came as near to me as her fear allowed. She needed food and I brought it to her almost every day. But India never let me touch her. She trusted me but knew nothing of love.

For nearly two years, India lived on that little piece of pavement beside a busy road. Each day on my way up the mountain, I prayed she’d still be there. And she was. But I knew it wouldn’t always be this way.

About a month ago, I began to see the anti-rabico (anti-rabies) truck in the area. (I might add that rabies is very, very rare around here). The anti rabicos are the government’s answer to the city’s street dogs.  Dogs are grabbed with a noose on a long pole and thrown into the back of a big caged truck. Sometimes the men who catch the dogs smash them into the concrete  to stun them. The dogs are taken to one of the city’s many anti-rabico centers. These places are jammed with dogs, packed by the dozens into cages. They wait, in their own excrement, usually without food or water, until they are electrocuted. The methods of electrocution are so cruel and inhumane I don’t want to describe them in detail. The images haunt me everyday.

Mexico City anti rabico (photo credit: Andes, Animales Desamparados, A.C.)

After I saw the anti-rabico truck, I feared for India. Then she was gone. I looked and looked but I knew what had happened. This was a dog who sought each day only to be alone, to stay away from humans.  I can hardly breathe when I think of her terrified in an overcrowded cage… until she was killed.

I wish beyond words that I could have saved her, given her a spot in a meadow under a tree like Ferdinand the Bull, a gentle place to live out her days. But I couldn’t. My guess is that India had never known kindness. She’d given up on people long before I first laid eyes on her. But she wasn’t harming anyone. If someone approached, she ran away. She was worn out and tired and wanted mostly just to sleep.

In a way, India was my touchstone. As long as she was there, I could believe dogs that didn’t bother humans could actually make it in this city. Maybe they’d just be left alone. Now I know now the truth. Most street dogs get caught, sooner or later. It doesn’t matter if they are purebreds or mutts, friendly or terrified. In the eyes of the city, they are all the same. They’ll have left behind litters of pups to take their place on the streets, but they will eventually die.  Some are hit by cars, many succumb to starvation, most get electrocuted by the anti rabicos. Street dogs do not live long lives.

I understand that places like Mexico City need to control their population of street dogs. What I cannot understand is why it is done with such cruelty.

There is an American vet who works up on Mexico’s northern border. She’s started a campaign for “humane euthansia.” It’s such a small thing to ask for. This is my wish for Mexico City– that people here will begin to understand that compassion extends to all creatures. If the dogs must die, if the city cannot organize an effective sterilization campaign (which it seems it cannot) then let them die with a degree of kindness. We humans are the stewards of this earth, we can do better than cause more pain to those who are already suffering.

I miss India. I miss her presence in my life. I miss the bond we had, frail as it was. It’s hard for me to accept that India is dead. Harder still to accept that she died in agony.  And so, these last few days I’ve been trying to form a new memory of this dog, one not of her past but of her future.

I like to believe that India is now far, far away from a world that offered her nothing but misery.  I like to think of her soul flying free, rising like a kite above the anti rabico, above the cars, the dirty air, the garbage and the cement slab in front of her disco. I like to think of her sailing away  into a deep blue sky.

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Hope

Lilly

When I started picking up street dogs in Mexico, I kept using terms I now know to be false. I called Goldie, the first dog I brought home, “the skinniest ever.” Then came Milo, a dog even more emaciated than Goldie. “A dog couldn’t be any thinner than Milo,” I said. But Juno was thinner. She was so starved I could put two fingers in the space between each vertebrae. I couldn’t imagine it could get any worse. Again, I was wrong. I picked up an old Boxer. He was nothing but skin and bones except for an enormous tumor that hung from his belly, oozing pus. Despite his pain, he wagged his tail when I came up to him, and somehow, that made the situation even sadder.

After nearly four years in Mexico, I know a bit better now. There is no “worst.” Each time I think I’ve seen the worst starvation, the worst broken leg or a rope buried deep into the neck of a wandering dog, I find yet another dog that is farther gone, that is alive for some unknown reason when it seems to me, its suffering is too much to bear.

Lilly is a dog like this. Lilly is a small jewel, a petite German shepherd mix with the long thin legs of a deer. She is gentle and wise and painfully trusting. But she is also so frail and thin that sometimes I imagine she could  float away. Lilly  is  moving now between life and death. I cannot say yet where she will stay. I fiercely hope she remains with us, in our world of sun and grass and  sweet morning air.  But Lilly is weak and her body is tired.

When I found Lilly, she couldn’t walk or eat or drink. Her eyes were glassy and unfocused. She was bone and fur. Nothing more.  On the ride to the clinic, her body sagged against mine. She couldn’t hold her head up or stay awake. I was expecting the vet to tell me she was too far gone, that the best we could do for her was to help her die quickly. But he looked at this sad and lifeless dog and said, “I think I can help her.”  So I brought Lilly home, pumped up on vitamins and antibiotics. I made her a soft bed and hand-fed her boiled chicken. Lilly tried to regain her strength. She began wagging her tail and walking again, but clumsily. Sometimes, her legs would suddenly collapse under her and she’d fall over.  It was hard to watch. Still, she was trying. Lilly was at her finest when my boys pulled out the soccer ball. She is a skilled player, quick and agile and went fast for the ball, despite her fragile condition. But it is hard for a body to come back, to learn to work again.  I needed help with Lilly. I needed a quiet place for her to recover. A couple of new friends, Jo Anne and Ken, offered to help. They took her home.  They held her for hours at a time in their arms. They covered her with a fleece blanket and urged her to eat. Together, the three of us wrapped this weak and beautiful dog in love. But even love can’t always save a dog who’s been through so much.

Two weeks after Lilly came to us, diarrhea set in and then the vomiting began. By the time we got her to a vet hospital, Lilly was going into shock.  We weren’t sure she’d make it through the night.

She did. Like so many of the dogs that live on the streets here, Lilly is a survivor. She reminds me of the lines of a Dylan Thomas poem once quoted to me as I cried over the slow and painful death of a bird I’d found. Thomas writes: “…rage, rage against the dying of the light…do not go gentle into that good night.” The bird fought against death because life is beautiful. Lilly, too, won’t let go without a fight.

Lilly is back home now with Ken and Jo Anne. She’s a little better but her body is damaged and vulnerable.  She desperately needs to gain weight if she’s to survive.

I tell you of Lilly because, in the end,  hers is a story of hope. Lilly, once starving and alone on a garbage-strewn road, is now deeply loved. She is among friends.  Jo Anne told me that Lilly has been a gift. “My heart is full,” she said. And Ken told me, “We don’t want to give up on her.”  We don’t and we won’t. We will continue to believe that , for Lilly at least, the worst is  finally over.

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Pequeñitas

I cannot  tell a sad story today. I need to dwell for a bit in happiness. So I will tell you a sweet story, a tale of two little dogs that found each other in this crazy megalopolis of winding streets, and traffic and thousands upon thousands of lost and homeless dogs.

About a year ago, I was driving on one of Mexican City’s major thoroughfares. It’s a monster of a road, with many lanes, speeding cars and way too much traffic. Luckily, on this day, the traffic was so heavy that commuters could only crawl along. This is the reason  the little dog I saw ahead of me was still alive. The dog was clearly terrified, darting between cars to the center bus lane and back. She appeared lost, confused and most noticeably, very tiny. She was just a speck of a thing.  I had in my car at that moment another dog I’d found not long before, an enormous German Shepherd. I was trying to find him a home but hadn’t yet. It wasn’t a good time to pick up yet another stray, but I knew this little dog in the road  wasn’t going to make it much longer.  And so I pulled over and plucked her out of the street. That is how Pipa arrived in our life.

It took Pipa about a day to settle in. But after a bath, some food and a night of sleep, this funny little chihuahua mix exploded into a ball of  burning energy. Pipa was everywhere, bouncing off the sofa, off beds, off my children’s laps. She taunted our Pit Bull mix into wrestling with her on the dog bed. They’d play for hours, teeth clashing. It was hard to tell who was tougher. Pipa was a small dog with a very big ego. Nothing could stop her.

Pipa needs a home

Now, I have a dog walker who helps me out with my pack. Her name is Jacqueline.  Jackie loves dogs and they love her.  Sometimes Jackie’s husband  Manuel also lends a hand with the dog walks. On one of these occasions he told me that after their very old Doberman died there would be no more dogs in his house. “I’m tired of the dogs, ” he said firmly.

The day came, too soon, when their Doberman, Viyeka, passed away.  I thought that would be it. No more dogs for Jackie and Manuel. But Pipa had different plans.

From the moment Pipa set eyes on Manuel, she declared him, hers. She would snuggle in his arms like a contented child, calm and endearing. She’d stare up at him adoringly with her large brown bug eyes. Jackie was already taken with Pipa and Pipa seemed to know this. It was Manuel she had to win over. And she did, with wily skill. Soon enough, Manuel agreed that Pipa could come home with them for “a prueba,” a test. That was it. Pipa never returned to my house. So much for “no more dogs!”

Pipa and Manuel

This should be the end of the story, but it isn’t. All was well in Pipa’s life but Jackie was discontent. She felt Pipa needed a companion. (“No way,” said Manuel, “No way, two dogs.”) Still, in private, Jackie said to me, ” If you ever see a dog like Pipa on the street, tell me.” Of course, I knew that wouldn’t happen. I might find a small dog, but Pipa was a one-of-a-kind mutt, an unknown mix of chihuahua and something else. I was right.  I never saw a dog like Pipa. It was Jackie herself who did.

One day, as Jackie scrolled through dogs for adoption on an internet site, one caught her eye. The dog had been roaming the streets and a nice woman had picked her up. Now the dog needed a permanent home. This dog didn’t look like Pipa. She WAS Pipa. An identical match, down to the white spot on the chest, and the little white feet.  It was as if Pipa had been cloned. It was every mutt owner’s secret dream—to get a second one, exactly like the first. Jackie got Lilo.

It’s hard to explain how unlikely a scenario this is in a place like Mexico City. This is a city so huge and so chaotic, it’s like a bad science experiment grown out of control in a petri dish.  Besides the 20 plus million humans, there are an estimated 2 million homeless dogs roaming the streets. There is no system of registrations in this city, no lost and found call-in hotline. People, for the most part, reject identification tags. Microchips are practically nonexistent. Some groups post dogs for adoption, but it’s a random helter-skeleter process. So, for Jackie to find a site on the internet with Pipa’s long lost twin on it is simply miraculous. Jackie knew this, of course. As for Manuel, he didn’t stand a chance. Two days after Jackie saw Lilo’s photo, Lilo was home.

Like Pipa, Lilo knew how to play the game. Manuel was hers. She curled into him on the sofa, her body language clearly saying, “mine, mine, mine.”

A few days later, when I asked how Lilo was doing, Manuel told me, “Yes, Lilo is good, very good.” There was a note of pride in his voice.

Lilo and Manuel

I know good things come to good people. But I think life’s greatest rewards are reserved for good people who are good to the most vulnerable of this world—to the lost, the homeless, the abandoned—people like Jackie and Manuel. They  took in Pipa, who led them, in a way, to Lilo. Together, these two little dogs gave them a story of coincidence and connection, a story that will stay with them  always, and will always make them smile. And that’s more than enough. Really, is there anything better than a good story?

Pipa, Lilo, Jackie and Manuel

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Passing Through

Marisol in the mountains near Mexico City

Marisol Esperanza was a little dog from Acapulco on a journey north. An Acapulco vet drove her to our house in Mexico City. A week later, I drove Marisol to San Miguel de Allende. From there, my friend Kelly, who runs the group “Save A Mexican Mutt” drove her another 10 hours north, to the border and on to San Antonio. In Texas, Marisol boarded a plane for the east coast. Her destination was a beautiful farm in the Pennsylvania mountains. The farm is an animal sanctuary (Indraloka Animal Sanctuary) and home to Indra, the woman who spotted Marisol on an Acapulco beach six months ago.

When Indra  found Marisol, the little black and white dog had just a wisp of life in her. She was starving, infested with parasites, lactating (though the pups could not be located) and both her back legs were broken. She’d survived, barely, by dragging herself along on her two front legs. Indra  and Marisol  exchanged a look and that was it. Indra connected to this little spirit in a deep and profound way. So she picked up the broken dog and carried her to a vet.   Indra left Marisol in the care of  the Acapulco vet, Dr. Gomez Duque, when her vacation was over. As the months passed, the bills for Marisol’s care and surgeries grew bigger and bigger. Somehow, Indra managed to find a way to pay for it all. Marisol had become Indra’s dog and Indra wanted to bring her home.

Six months later, Marisol was ready. She could walk now. Her walk isn’t perfect but it works for Marisol. However, flying a dog out of Mexico is complicated and expensive. And so Indra searched for people to help. She approached an animal rescue group in the U.S. They found her Kelly. Kelly found me. Dr. Gomez, the vet, agreed to drive the first six-hour leg, from Acapulco to Mexico City. And so, ride by ride, Marisol headed north.

Marisol arrived at our house on a rainy, wet Sunday. She was scared and shivering when she was brought from her carrier. I took her in my arms to bring her inside. Right away, I saw what Indra must have seen. Marisol’s eyes seem to carry in them an understanding of life. They are sad eyes and show the suffering she’s been through, but they are gentle, too, as if she knows the value of love.  In the week she was with us, my young boys cuddled with her every morning, my female dogs played with her, but softly, as if they knew she’d been put back together piece by piece.  Marisol fit right into our routine. In the evenings, she’d  run through the garden with  pure, brilliant  happiness on her face. We were sad to let her go. But on she went.

Marisol finally made it to Pennsylvania. Now, she  is learning the ways of her new farm, adjusting to  the smells of sheep and horses and thick summer grass. She is surrounded by people who love her. She is a long way from Acapulco.

I ask myself, “Why, why do we try so hard for just one dog when so many others suffer without help? Wouldn’t it be better to put the money spent on Marisol into sterilization programs or into education?” Perhaps. But perhaps not. We need Marisol. We need her story. Of survival. Of love. Of people working together. It helps us remember why life is important, why compassion makes us strong. I read a beautiful quote the other day, by Helen Keller. This is what she said:

“I am only one, but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; I will not refuse to do something I can do.”
 Marisol is just one dog. One dog a few of us, Indra most of all, could help. She will carry her story with her. She will be an emissary. And hers is a story not just of one dog, but of millions who still live as she did, without love or food or shelter. They are all Marisol. She will help, I know, to keep them from being forgotten.
                                                                               ****

Marisol and me near San Miguel de Allende

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Oso

I dug my dog’s grave today. It helped.

My beautiful black lab, Oso, had been heading towards the end for some time.  I kept hoping he’d die gently in his sleep but even in his last days, his mind was strong. It was his body that was tired.

After a stroke, Oso had trouble walking. He looked like a listing ship, tipped heavily to one side. As the months passed, he began to fall, too. I knew the day was coming when he wouldn’t have the strength to stand. Sadly, it arrived when I was traveling and far away.  But I didn’t want Oso to die without me. I didn’t want him to be afraid. He was my dog and I wanted to be the one holding him as he went.  I wanted to surround him with love in his last moments. And Oso must have known this, too. He managed, with the help of some cortisone, to hold on (even hobble about) until I returned.

Oso stood on shaky legs to greet me home. He licked my hand. We had a day together  but he was done. A friend told me, “El esta esperando.” “He’s waiting.” It was true. He was waiting-waiting for me to come home, waiting for me to be brave enough to help him go. And so I made the call to the vet I’d been dreading.

I will never know for sure what Oso’s life was like before I found him wandering aimlessly outside our house here in Mexico, but I am pretty sure it wasn’t good.

He came to us broken and dying. His kidneys were starting to fail. His coat was gray and brittle.  We gave him food and water and medicine and love. I think Oso was intrigued. I think he wanted to try out this new home of his. So, by sheer force of will, he pulled himself back into life.  For a year,  Oso was our shining star.  His coat turned black and supple. He learned to sleep inside and pee outside. He lumbered out the door for the early morning walks to school. He began to enjoy belly scratches and back rubs and rawhide bones. And sniffing. That was perhaps his greatest joy, big black lab that he was.

But he was old and time was catching up.

His was a slow fade. He had the stroke. His eyes turned milky white. One day, he could no longer make the walk to school (I think that broke his heart a tiny bit).  Soon he couldn’t manage walks at all.  His legs hurt. He cried out sometimes with pain. Finally, it was time.

After talking to the vet, I sat with Oso and rubbed his bony head. I do not like having the power to take a life. But I reminded myself that what Oso had now was not really life anymore. In nature, he’d have died long ago. Still, I thought,  here he is, looking up at me with his sweet, dark eyes. I had to wonder, is this really the right time, should I give him longer?

These were the thoughts going through my head as I rose to dig his grave. I sobbed when my shovel cut into the soft earth for the first time. But digging a grave is not easy or fast. Soon the tears were mixing with sweat.  Then they stopped. I focused on the work. My shovel kept hitting bricks from some structure of long ago. I found a couple of old bottles. I noticed the soil, how heavy and solid it was. I liked the idea of my Oso wrapped in this soil. It would hold him tight, embrace him  even.  The rain began to fall. I had to chop through the deep roots of the Bouganvilla and the Jacaranda tree. I had to dig out a big stone with my hands.

I stopped digging only when I couldn’t go on. I was exhausted. My arms shook, my back ached.

It  felt good.  I had done this for Oso. I had dug my tired dog a deep bed to keep him safe. I was ready to say goodbye. He was ready to go.

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Why Do You Ask?

Why Do You Ask?

A poem by Kate Barnes

I can’t make

  any story

about my life

tonight.  The house

is like an overturned wastebasket;

the radio

is predicting

more rain.

I ask my dog

to tell me

a story, and she

Never hesitates.

“Once upon

a time,” she says,

“a woman lived

with a simply

wonderful dog…” and

she stops talking.

“Is that all?”

I ask her.

“Yes,” she says

“Why do you ask?

Isn’t it enough?”

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Left Behind

Every day, I drive past dogs that need help.  I don’t stop. Why? Because in Mexico City, there is no good place to take stray dogs. The few shelters (refugios) that exist are bursting at the seams. One of the largest is Refugio Franciscano. Currently, one-thousand eight-hundred dogs live there. Let me repeat, ONE THOUSAND EIGHT HUNDRED dogs. The refugio does its best but it can’t afford to feed them all. So, it accepts bread past its sell-by date from a big mexican bread company.  It’s the only way the dogs will get enough to fill their bellies.

I have driven past starving dogs. I have driven past dogs with broken legs. I have driven past dogs with collars embedded in their necks. Each time I fail to act I feel a tiny bit more destroyed inside, a little emptier.  That’s life here. My house is full-up with pets. I sometimes bring a dog home, but I shouldn’t.  It’s just too much. And so I leave them behind.

Some of the street dogs actually seem okay. They aren’t really okay, but they don’t seem to know that. They just know the life they have. A few I feed regularly, like a shepherd mix I call  “India”.

India on the street

I don’t know why I call her India. It’s a pretty name, which I think she deserves. For me, it also conjures up images of poverty and hardship, and that suits her too.  I see India three or four times a week. She lives on a busy road that leads up and out of the city into the mountains. The very first time I saw her, she was terrified, running back and forth across the road, as so many lost dogs do. She was thin, so thin. I stopped to feed her but she was too frightened to come near me. I left her some food and hoped she’d find it. The next day, she was still hanging around the same spot. And the next day, too.  She never left.

India sleeps in front of a shut-down disco. Across the busy road is an empty dirt lot where, a few times a week, vendors set up an informal market. I think she must find food scraps there. India eventually lost the fear that drove her back and forth across the road. But not before she got hit by a car.

I saw her one day, on her back, with one leg stuck straight into the air. I couldn’t tell if she was sleeping or dead. For weeks after, I’d watch her move slowly about,  dragging the damaged leg. It hung from her body like a limp rag. I imagined her hip was broken.  She was heavy with pain.

That was a few months ago. She’s doing better now. She can’t put weight on the leg, but the pain seems to have subsided. When she sees my car, she comes running up. I still can’t get near her but she knows I have food and so she stays pretty close.

One day, India will be gone or dead. A vet once told me the average life span of a street dog here is four years. Not much. And not much of a life. But that’s what India’s got. She’s a street dog, nothing more. For now, this bend in the road is her home.

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I’ve added a few pics of some of the dogs I feed when I see them.

This is Yogi. I love this dog. He always greets me with a wag. He's got an injured back leg and an infection in his urinary tract but he keeps on truckin'.

I hardly ever see this dog. He shows up only when he's really hungry.

This sad dog with the matted coat just appeared one day.

Looking for food in the road

India after I left her a little food

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