I sometimes think Mexico’s uncomfortable relationship with dogs began with the Xoloitzcuintle, commonly known as the mexican hairless dog. The Xolo is one of the oldest and rarest breeds in the world. And it’s indeed hairless except for an occasional tuft that seems like it needs plucking. These ancient dogs are still around, popular even. They aren’t quite my cup of tea, too vulnerable and naked looking. But the theory goes that Xolo (pronounced “SHO-LO”) dogs evolved to survive in the tropics and so did better without a coat of fur.
The Xoloitzcuintle was a sacred animal to the Aztecs. They believed that the Aztec god Xolotl created them from “a sliver of the bone of life” from which all mankind was also made. Xolo dogs, the Aztecs believed, had the power to guide the souls of their owners to the afterlife.
But this is where it gets confusing. When the Aztecs got hungry, they had no problem eating these sacred animals. It was as if, sacred or not, these dogs were still disposable when it got right down to it. Maybe this conflicted attitude towards dogs has somehow passed down through the generations. Xolos are still eaten, by the way, and are a menu highlight at some high-end Mexico City restaurants. But I think the Aztec philosophy is most obvious in the way people now relate to all purebred dogs.
“Razas Puras” are the new “sacred” dogs of Mexico City. People here favor golden retrievers, chocolate labs, boxers, french poodles, dalmations, chihuahuas and pretty much anything else that is a known “breed.” “Razas Mixtas” or mutts, have little hope here. Most are street dogs. The enthusiasm for purebreds isn’t lost on the vendors of Mexico. Purebreds are sold in pet shops for thousands of dollars, they are sold out of cars on the side of the road, at toll booths on the highway, at puppy marts that crop up below highway underpasses. People here want pups, and they want pups that are pure. But like most status symbols, the appeal can quickly wear off. Mexico City is filled with purebred “street dogs”. The tragedy is that these are dogs that once had a home, that once had value. But, at some point, they were deemed worthless.
The word here for dumped dogs is “abandonados”. Dog dumping is a common practice. I can’t begin to understand the thinking of those who dump their animals but I can imagine: The dog’s in heat, she’s pregnant, she eats too much, we had no idea how expensive dog food is, he barks all the time, we are going on vacation. The vacation excuse is the hardest for me to stomach. And yet, every Christmas and Semana Santa (Easter week) I see these newly dumped dogs. They stand out from longtime street dogs. Most still have the shiny coats and well-fed appearance of kept dogs. And most are running frantically, tail tucked under, with a look of such confusion it’s almost too much to bear. It’s like these animals cannot figure out where they are and what happened. They are truly lost.
That’s my introduction. Now I can tell you about the purebreds that wound up with me. Oso was my first.
I saw Oso one afternoon in front of my house. He was on my street, not walking, but hobbling, that’s the best word I can think of for his damaged gait. I could see immediately that he was sick and very old. I led him into our laundry room and he collapsed in a heap. He stayed that way for nearly a week. He was exhausted, deaf and severely dehydrated. He was covered with the thick callouses that develop on dogs who sleep outside on the concrete (probably on someone’s patio or roof). He’d never been housebroken, and even now, he seems surprised when we pet him. When he arrived had a raging infection in one ear and his coat was so dried out it was brittle. Oso was dying. Even our vet agreed. But a week or so after arriving, after we’d said our goodbyes to him, he pulled up his big crippled body, walked over to me and gave his tail a little wag. That was two and a half years ago. We watched as Oso grew younger. His coat turned supple and shiny black. He accompanied us on the morning walk to school. For about a year, he thrived. Then old age caught up again. Oso had a stroke and once again can barely walk. But he seems content now. He spends his time asleep in the dining room. Oso likes to be near us. And, as best as I can tell, company and a little food and water are all he wants or needs now. His life is slipping away, but I think the ride he’s on, finally, is a peaceful one.
Duma was a stunning, 7-month-old golden retriever that I grabbed as she was contemplating a run across an 8 lane boulevard so big and busy she would never have made it. She was sleek and clean and very much in heat. Maybe Duma escaped, maybe her owners didn’t want a dog high on hormones. Whatever the reason, she was lost without a collar, tag or chip. I never could find her owners. Duma, luckily, found a great home in a grand Mexican house. These days, her new owner tells me, Duma likes to sleep under the giant Jacaranda tree in the garden. It’s a beautiful spot, especially in the spring when tiny purple flowers drop from the tree like snowflakes. I like to think of Duma there, sleeping on the warm earth, as flowers fall all around her.
Mapache was waiting for me. We were staying in a puebla in the forest outside Mexico city and when I opened the tall security gate to our complex, I saw a dog curled in the corner of the wall. He came up to me, tail wagging. He loped alongside me as I went for a run and he cried when I left him outside the gate after we returned. Mapache was a gorgeous german shepherd, even though, beneath his coat there was nothing but bone. Mapache came home with us and was eventually adopted by an American couple with a love of shepherds. A few months after he was adopted, christmas arrived. And there was Mapache, with his big wolf grin, smack in the middle of the annual family christmas photo.
And Milo. I saw Milo on my way home from the mountains. He was dashing back and forth across a busy street. He looked terrified. But there was nothing I could do. I had my dogs in the car and was late to pick up the kids from school. But I couldn’t stop thinking about him all afternoon. It was his fear that haunted me. So, late in the day, I drove back to where I’d seen him, half sure I’d find him runover in the road. But he was still there, still scared, still alive. Milo was emaciated and his nose was covered with long thin scabs. My vet thought his mouth might have been tied shut with wire. But Milo was an exuberant dog, especially when his belly was full. Mexican dalmations aren’t like their midsized counterparts in the U.S. They are more like spotted hounds. And they are very physical in their affection. I swear Milo gave hugs, big strong hugs like a person. It was hard for me to let Milo go, but he found his place in the world with Santiago. Santiago says he’d been waiting all his life for Milo. I see them sometimes, hanging out near the park in Santi’s neighborhood. They are “junto”, together. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
Not long after Milo, there was Juno. I’ve seen dogs in terrible states of starvation in Mexico but I’d never seen a dog as skinny as Juno. When I first glimpsed her, she was scurrying around a group of food stands, sniffing for scraps in the rain. Her tail was tucked under, tight against her belly. She looked desperate. I would have scooped her up right then but I could see she was nursing pups. A starving mama. After that, I’d spot her every few weeks. Each time she looked a bit skinnier, slightly more frail. Finally, two months after our first encounter, I’d had enough. I went to find her. And luckily I did. I lured her into the back of my truck with hotdogs and brought her straight to the vet. For weeks, Juno huddled in our laundry room, cowering in a corner and baring her teeth at anyone but me who came near her. But she was just frightened. If I moved to pet her she’d flip onto her back. When I called to her she’d come by practically crawling on the ground. Whoever dumped her had beaten her hard and often before they let her go. Juno needed lots of medical help. Her stomach was a mess from having lived without food for so long. I’d find her some days, curled up in pain. But like so many dogs, Juno healed. Slowly, she shed her past. We began to see her slinking around the garden or sleeping in a corner of the living room. And finally, she started nosing her way into the bedroom and ever-so-slowly trying to join us on the bed. She began to accept my husband and watch TV with the kids. She became my shadow. She followed me everywhere. She’d look at me with her big brown eyes, seeking reassurance that everything was okay. And it was.
Juno has been with us almost a year now. When she’s feeling safe, she’s one of the happiest dogs you will ever meet. And like Milo, she is a hugger, a big, strong hugger. When she hugs me, I always hug her back. It’s my promise to her that I’ll never let her go, ever. She is home, and she’s with us.
(The purebreds I rescued all now have loving homes. But so many here don’t. The plight of the street dogs of Mexico is bad enough, but the fact that so many of these suffering creatures were once sold as a commodity to put a few pesos in someone’s pocket is a terrible crime.)