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