Before I joined the Peace Corps, I thought I knew dogs. Loveable. Loyal. Affable. Man’s best friend.
In Bolivia, I met dogs: the canine id—not the superego-in-a-sweater I see today at my local suburban dog park.
I remember the moment of realization. I was in Tupiza, a small town just north of the Argentine border, visiting a friend and fellow volunteer. Wending our way back to his apartment, we rounded a corner to find the street clogged by an enormous clot of hounds.
Packs of dogs were not unusual. Neutering pets was practically unheard of in Bolivia, even in the larger cities; the idea would have struck the citizens of a small and struggling town like Tupiza as an extravagant waste of money. Consequently, strays abounded.
But this particular band was not just out for a stroll, marking territory and whiling away the hours. It consisted of about 20 male dogs and one female, the latter of which was clearly in heat. She stood next to a wall, while the largest male of the bunch stood sentry in front of her, facing the crowd, fending off all challengers. Some mid-sized dogs would occasionally venture close, igniting skirmishes; the smaller dogs simply paced around the perimeter of the mass, having no hope of success but remaining trapped in the female’s gravity well.
We pulled up short. The few of the closest dogs glanced in our direction and bared their teeth. “Keep walking, monkeys,” was the unmistakable message. “This doesn’t concern you.”
Even so, my first instinct was to play Luke Skywalker to the bitch’s Princess Leia, grab a handful of rocks, and wade in. Cue the epiphany. What I was seeing wasn’t an aberration, I suddenly realized, or some crime against dogmanity. This, for better or for worse, was the mechanism evolution had settled upon to ensure the perpetuation of Canis lupus familiaris.
“Holy shit,” I said in awe to my friend, “these are dogs.”
“Of course they are,” he said.
“No,” I said, “I mean: These are real dogs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them before.”
Though I visited Tupiza on occasion, my home was San Pedro, a tiny village of about 70 families located in a river valley. I lived in a one-room adobe house just off the town center, which consisted solely of a schoolhouse, a meeting hall, and the town soccer field.
Pets were rare in the campo. Cats were treated as mercenaries for hire, brought home to deal with a rodent infestation and released from service when the job was complete. Guinea pigs and rabbits were raised as comestibles rather than as companions. And the idea of keeping a “useless pet” like a turtle or a fish would never have occurred to a San Pedrino.
Lacking access to sparklers and roman candles, the locals were apparently improvising their own fireworks. Still, the valley was graced by a handful of dogs. One—a large, brown, and jovial mutt—would follow a local boy to school several days a week and lollygag around my house while classes were in session. As his given Quechua name was unpronounceable (by me, at least), I quickly rechristened him Huckleberry.
Huckleberry and I were more acquaintances than friends. He would occasionally trail in my wake during my daily errands, but was just as content to sleep on my doorstep all day, waiting for his owner to take him back home in the afternoon.
Then one summer morning, just after dawn, I was awoken by an enormous, nearby explosion. Two more quickly followed. It sounded as if the valley was being shelled. It took me a few minutes to pull two seemingly unrelated facts out of my store of Bolivian knowledge and make sense of the situation: 1) Today was August 6th, Bolivian Independence Day; and 2) many of the farmers in San Pedro owned dynamite for blowing up stumps and boulders in their fields. Lacking access to sparklers and roman candles, the locals were apparently improvising their own fireworks.
Though my heart was racing and body flooded with adrenaline, I was confident my explanation was correct. I settled back into my bed—a simple straw mattress on the floor—put the pillow over my head, and resolved to catch another hour of sleep.
Suddenly, the doors to my house burst open. Huckleberry entered the room as if shot from a cannon. I screamed and sat bolt upright; Huckleberry, upon seeing me, charged. He scrambled to wedge himself between me and the wall. In doing so, he became ensnared in the mosquito netting, and pulled it from the four nails that kept it suspended from the ceiling over my bed.
Within moments the two of us were completely enmeshed, thrashing around wildly—I trying to get out, Huckleberry, shaking in terror, determined to bury himself under the mattress.
Like survivors of a war, Huckleberry and I became fast friends after the Independence Day Debacle of ‘95. Though he would still return to his family every evening, thereafter he spent the days in my company, following me as I hiked up and down the river valley to attend functions and work on various projects.
Unfortunately, he was also something of a scoundrel. Occasionally he would vanish during our walks, only to reappear 10 minutes later carrying a loaf of bread, a hunk of dried beef, or some other foodstuff he had purloined from a nearby house.
His thievery did not go unnoticed. Often, upon my arrival at my destination, the townfolk would greet me warmly but scowl at Huckleberry. “Your dog is a thief,” they’d tell me gravely, his reputation having clearly preceded him. “He’s not my dog,” I’d explain, “we’re just friends.”
At some point in my second year of service, we became a trio. A smaller yellow-and-gray mutt appeared suddenly one day, her origins unknown and with no apparent owner; sticking with the botanical theme, I quickly dubbed her Dandelion. She would spend the day romping with Huckleberry and me, and typically slept outside my front door overnight. Though I never fed her, she never seemed to want for food. Perhaps she and Huckleberry became partners in crime; I made a point of not asking questions.
Don Carlos, my next-door neighbor and the mayor of San Pedro, was forever offering me advice as to what to do with Dandelion. “That dog is a stray,” he told me one day. “You need to take care of it.” I assumed he meant “take care” as in “feed,” until he pantomimed a garroting and offered to fetch wire.
I shrugged off his suggestions as cold-heartedness, until the day I realized that Dandelion was pregnant. It looked as if my unwillingness to get rid of one dog would result in my having to dispatch a litter. For months I agonized over what I would do with the puppies, while Dandelion grew ever larger.
One day, Dandelion inexplicably disappeared. I had no idea what had happened until, a few days later, Don Carlos came over to tell me that Dandelion, for reasons known only to her, had opted to give birth underneath his house. I braced myself for the obituaries, but it seems that his children—four girls, ranging in age from three to 11—had quickly claimed the puppies as their own.
He was not angry, as I would have predicted. Though the leader of the town, he had long since surrendered sovereignty of his household to his daughters. The puppies made his girls happy, and if the inaction of a bleeding-heart, overly sentimental Gringo was indirectly responsible for that, so be it.
He even invited me over to see the whelps. I couldn’t help but notice that they looked like tiny, mewling Huckleberries.
Not all the dogs in San Pedro were as pleasant as Huckleberry and Dandelion. Some were downright mean.
One afternoon, while walking up the valley to attend a Mother’s Group meeting a few towns over, I felt the sudden clamping of jaws on my left calf. When I looked back in alarm, I found myself under attack from Roque, a nasty piece of work everyone hated—even his owner. I used the light blue canvas bag I was carrying to beat him away, like an old woman fending off a mugger with her purse. I grabbed a nearby stick when he backed off a few steps, then, seeing that, turned tail and ran.
The syringe sported a needle at least four inches long and with the girth of a pencil lead. Fortunately, the damage was light: a rip in my jeans and few puncture wounds. I hobbled back to my home and caught a camion to town.
It was the first time I’d ever been bitten, and everything I knew about rabies shots I’d learned on my elementary school playground: that they require a series of excruciatingly painful injections—20 of them—administered directly into the stomach via a 10-inch needle. I’d received some sort of vaccine in training, but was unaware of what mitigating effect it would have, if any.
The doctor saw me the following morning. He examined the injury, looked at my Peace Corps vaccine record, and made chit-chat as he prepared to give me an injection of some sort. I didn’t know what the treatment would consist of, and was too nervous to ask. Finally, after a few moments of rummaging around in a drawer, he turned to me with a small vial of serum in one hand and a syringe in the other, sporting a needle at least four inches long and with the girth of a pencil lead.
I blanched, and asked if I needed to pull up my shirt.
“Of course not.” He looked puzzled. “It goes in your arm.”
“It looks like it might go through my arm,” I observed.
He stuck the needle through the rubber top of the vial and drew the fluid into the syringe. He then quickly swapped unscrewed the enormous needle and replaced it with a tiny one, no more than a few centimeters in length, as thin as a hair.
“Don’t be such a baby,” he advised.
In most of the world, every dog has its day; in Tarija, Bolivia’s sixth largest city, they get a week—and then some. Commemorating the patron saint of dogs, the Fiesta de San Roque runs for a full eight days, culminating in a massive, citywide parade on August 16th, the anniversary of San Roque’s death and reputed birthday of all dogs. During the celebration, pets throughout the city are adorned with ribbons and showered with treats and affection.
The celebration leapt to mind later that spring, when I arrived in Tupiza and found the dogs—domesticated and feral alike—sporting colorful ribbons around their necks.
“What’s the deal?” I asked my friend. “I thought the Fiesta de San Roque was in August?”
“It is,” he said. “And they don’t celebrate it here, anyway.”
Some of the ribbons had disappeared by the following morning, but the vast majority of dogs wore them for three straight days.
Then all the ribbons vanished. My friend and I, curious about this turn of events, walked the streets of the town and saw nary a one. It wasn’t that the ribbons had been removed from the dogs, but that the dogs themselves were no longer roaming the streets.
Eventually we stopped to ask a merchant what had happened. “Yes, they do it every year,” he told us. “The city puts ribbons on all the dogs. If your dog comes home wearing a ribbon, you take it off. After three days, all the dogs still wearing ribbons are assumed to be strays, and are carted off to be killed. The truck came through here early this morning.”
Every dog has its day. For most of the dogs in Tupiza, that day had come.
Huckleberry and Dandelion, San Pedro, 1996