The Dogs Of San Miguel

Dog San MiguelThere are few cats in San Miguel de Allende. In the three years we’ve been going to Mexico for the winter, we’ve seen maybe half a dozen – scrawny, joyless creatures that skulk in the arrollos and perch on the tops of broken stone walls, out of harm’s way. They don’t look up when called to, preferring to belong to the landscape, like refugees. Their lives and ours are a palimpsest, theirs erased from the parchment but still faintly visible, and ours written over them.

The dogs of San Miguel, on the other hand, the dogs that are kept, are bathed, fluffed, powdered, clipped to resemble poodles even when they are terriers or, in one case we encountered, a cross between a poodle and a golden Labrador retriever, and paraded in the Jardin Principal at the ends of expensive leashes as though every day were Show Day. Their owners, in stiletto heels and designer sunglasses, settle on the Jardin’s wrought-iron benches, or stand in the shade of its shaped trees, talking and looking around and pretending their dogs are not sitting primly beside them, or lying curled under them. It’s like a scene from La Dolce Vita, fifty years out of date but there they still are, sunlight silhouetting their bodies through their clothes, their dogs looking blankly with tongues lolling out, imagining water. Pocket dogs, front-seat dogs, lap dogs, they are hardly dogs at all. More like fashion accessories.

Then what has happened to the cats, you ask. The answer is: the unkept dogs. These are a different breed altogether, or rather no breed and all breeds, the semi-feral dogs, the starving, limping, rib-caged, tail-between-the-legs dogs that are not seen during the day except occasionally hobbling across a cobbled street, favouring a hind leg, or sniffing at a discarded bit of something in the parque. They are ghost dogs, silent, wary, wounded. These dogs are not like the cats. They are not indifferent, they are like jackals in the forest: cowering, slinking, ever trying to vanish, but if you try to touch them you might lose a finger.

Except for a dead rat we saw lying in a street one night, these are the only animals we’ve seen in San Miguel.

Lying in bed at night with the windows open, we hear dogs barking incessantly, so relentlessly it hardly seems like communication, more like distress signals sent out without hope of reply. A deep, gruff woof from the house behind ours. A high-pitched yipping across the street. A frenzied staccato from somewhere nearby. A dispersed chorus of distress. I am certain these barking dogs are the domesticated dogs we see in the daytime, let off their leashes and put outside on the open patios, or in the back gardens, for the night, free but unable to move more than ten feet, within smell of other dogs but prohibited from seeing or touching them. Reduced to a single mode of asserting their existence: barking.

Since writing a book about coyotes, I have found domestic dogs like these hard to take. More precisely, I don’t blame the dogs themselves, but I find the fact of their existence hard to tolerate. In writing about wild canines, I learned quite a bit about domestic dogs. The behaviour of coyotes partly explains the behaviour of domestic dogs. For example, wild canines always defecate on paths; the sidewalks of San Miguel are strewn with dog feces. Wild canines are gregarious, they congregate in social groups, they live in packs for comfort and safety, which to them are probably the same thing. Wolves hunt in packs, coyotes hunt alone but gather in packs at night. Adult wild canines don’t bark. They might howl from time to time, at dusk, checking in with neighbouring packs to re-establish their home ranges before setting out for the evening’s forage. Only first-year wild canines bark, or wag their tails, or play with sticks, or pant engagingly, or allow themselves to be touched, or display subservience; in other words, behave like we want domestic dogs to behave. Domestic dogs are wild canines whose mental development has been arrested at the adolescent stage. Perpetual teenagers. We don‘t want our pets to be more mature than we are.

Do I need to mention that the people in San Miguel who keep their dogs on leashes, physical or psychological, are the tourists, or the expats, gringos of one stripe or another? There isn’t a single breed of tourist. Occasionally the human at the cell-phone end of the leash is Mexican, one of the wealthy Mexicans who have started driving up from Mexico City (which they call “DF,” for “Districto Federal,” the way people from Washington say they’re from DC) in their BMWs or Porches, with their dogs standing on the rear seats, snouts an inch from the back window, which has been opened a crack. Mexicans from San Miguel do not keep dogs. Mexican children do not play with dogs. I doubt they even feed them. Mexicans do not put garbage out on the street for someone else to “collect.” Hence the scarcity of cats.

When my book about coyotes came out, I was invited to speak on radio phone-ins and television talk shows, because at the time coyotes were said to be invading city suburbs at night, and domestic cats and small dogs were disappearing at an alarming rate. I said I was sorry about the cats, but cats should be kept indoors at night anyway, because they climb into trees and eat roosting and nesting birds. But I said the coyotes could have the small domestic dogs, the pocket dogs, the lap dogs, the yappers that weren’t doing anything out there but attracting predators with their insane barking. Most mammals are nocturnal, even most hominids; predators do little else but hunt from dawn to dusk. Predators don’t normally hunt other predators, and technically a domestic dog is a predator. But these small, yappy pocket dogs can barely predate on a bowl of kibble. And given what’s in that kibble – cereal, mostly – I wouldn’t be surprised if a domestic dog raised on the stuff tasted pretty much like a herbivore.

One day, we were walking up one of the calles behind our house, I think it was Calle 28 de Avril, and we passed a shop the front window of which was filled with the kind of objects that in the junk business are often called antiques. Wooden candle holders. Wicker plant stands. Ashtrays with the names of defunct hotels painted around their edges. Standing in the centre of the window, its four legs braced as if for a fit of demented barking, was a small, white, wire-haired terrier of the kind favoured by the hippies and artistes who first started coming to San Miguel in the 1970s, before the retired advertising executives and middle managers who now form the bulk of the expat community. We walked passed the shop, and then we stopped. Something about the dog hadn’t been right. We went back and looked at it again.

“It’s stuffed,” I said.

“Oh, my God,” Merilyn said.

“Someone had their dog stuffed.”

“And now they’re dead, too.”

We stared at it for a while until we realized we were staring at it in just the way it was staring at us, and we walked on, vaguely unsettled. What had once been a dog was now a piece of junk.

Dogs seldom mean anything in literature. They exist in stories mainly to add verisimilitude. In Don DeLillo’s story “Creation,” for example, in which a couple are stranded on a Caribbean island and return from the airport to their hotel because their flight has been cancelled. Dogs appear at the end of a list of observations that establish the setting: rum in a toothbrush glass, the sound and force of the wind, and “after the wind died, finally, the first thing I heard was roosters crowing, what seemed hundreds of them, off in the hills. Minutes later the dogs started barking.” In another DeLillo story, “The Runner,” a man is jogging through a park when he sees a man kidnapping a woman’s child. “Another woman held some of her things, a sweater, a large cloth bag. A dog went bounding after seagulls down near the path and they lifted and settled again nearby.” Dogs in DeLillo’s stories are mere items on a list, neither more nor less significant than sweaters or cloth bags. Take them out of the story, and the story is still there. Taking a dog out of a story is like taking a stone out of a pond.

No wild dog would waste energy chasing gulls, which take off vertically, like alarmed helicopters. But I did see a coyote chase and catch a Canada goose; geese need long runways for take-off.

You would think that in a story such as Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” the dog would play a more prominent role, but no. The lady in question, a Russian woman on a prolonged vacation in Yalta, “was of medium height, wearing a beret; a white Pomeranian dog was running behind her.” Dmitri takes advantage of the dog to effect an introduction – the dog comes up to him at dinner, he shakes his finger at it, it growls, and he says to the lady, “May I give it a bone?” After that, except for a brief appearance a year or so later, in the presence of a maid, the dog disappears from the story. It is not mentioned again. It might as well have been a sweater, or a cloth bag – in fact, after a while Dmitri thinks of the lady not as the lady with the dog, but as the lady in the beret. Oh, well. In dog-breeding parlance, the Pomeranian is classed as a “toy.”

A friend in Canada tells me he regularly sees coyotes sitting on their haunches on a ridge above his farm, contemplating his horses. He believes they are planning to take down a horse as soon as he turns his back. I tell him coyotes don’t take down anything. It’s more likely they’re just curious about how humans have made adult horses so subservient. It’s possible, I tell him, that they’re waiting for the horses to foal. Coyotes are known to prey on new-born lambs and even calves, certainly fawns. Waiting for the horses to provide them with fresh protein reminds me of a story I once heard about two Inuk men who, one spring, paddled to an island to cut grass for their reindeer; when they got to the island, the grass was too short to cut, so they waited.

A last word about San Miguel dogs. Beside our house is a parking lot, where valets park cars belonging to patrons of a fancy hotel close to the Jardin. Beyond the lot is another house, quite large, occupied by an elderly gringo whom we occasionally see on the sidewalk in front of our respective houses, alone, always alone, somewhat shabbily dressed and unshaven, walking very slowly, as though none of his joints work properly, as though he were traversing not an unevenly cobbled sidewalk but a horizonless sea of pain, and every step he takes requires careful planning followed by prolonged rest. We nod to him but he does not nod back. Outside the gate to his house, on the sidewalk, there is a small bowl filled with dog kibble. Every evening I imagine the man shuffling painfully from his house to the small tienda down the street, where at the door is a large bag of dogfood, opened, from which he buys a single scoop of kibble for a few pesos and takes it back to his house. The trip takes about an hour. By the time he reaches his front gate it is dark, and the dogs have begun their frantic, forlorn barking. The man stoops and fills the bowl with kibble, and every morning the bowl is empty.

 

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