Me llaman Calle
Guatemalan street dogs gaze with longing at humans. When approached, they scatter. Their wary attraction conveys the flinch of many kicks. Life for a street dog has hard boundaries. They are tolerated, to a point.
For a street dog in a Guatemalan tourist town, life is relatively good. In San Pedro la Laguna, many have a home, to some degree, or at least benefactors looking out for them. Perhaps as few as 10 percent of street dogs in town are truly feral. Most actually go home to a family at night– they only have freedom during the day.
Freedom, at brutal cost, is the wealth of a street dog in Guatemala. Security, without freedom, is the wealth of a confined pet. But a dog gone feral does not flee to the depths of wilderness... They linger, with hungry eyes, at the margins, wherever people are. After 33,000 years of domestication, they’re no longer wolves.
Freedom to be a street dog during the day means an active social life with a pack of canine friends. Being a street dog at night means poisoned meat and a short lifespan. Poison is a simple way to keep the population in check. True street dogs don’t live very long.
There is a symbiosis between humans and dogs. The relationship feels mutual. Dogs get food and shelter, and we get their loyalty, service and companionship. Yet, from another view, it is commensal– dogs benefit and humans are unaffected, from a evolutionary standpoint. Humans can live without dogs. Dogs can’t become wild again. They need us.
Without a job, dogs are also well described as parasites. People suffer the consequences when a street dog spreads trash about and poops in the street. Meanwhile much of humanity suffers poverty and hunger while many pet dogs live in abundance and comfort.
Ritmo y Pausa
There is a rhythm to each day on the street. Trash day is a smorgasbord. Market days are competitive, but scraps still abound. Like flies, street dogs hover around open air carnicerías. The butcher will shoo them away, again and again, with casual repetition and an occasional crescendo of frustration.
Sometimes the street dogs stay in constant motion, slipping in and out and between market stalls and traffic and stores. Brief packs form between dogs, humans and vehicles moving together through the crowded callejones. Moments later, the group dissolves into distraction, or reaction. Disparate factions go separate ways as each turns, and continues the movements of the day.
When bellies are full, or hope is lost, any place will do to lie down. It's common to see a dog sleeping in the middle of the cobbled street. Drivers will avoid them.
Romance & Reality
Foreigners romanticize and anthropomorphize the street dogs in Guatemala. It’s fun to have a dog on every corner– it’s a communal pet for our vacation days. It’s nothing like the leash laws back home! If only our soft backyard pets could also wander the gritty streets, wild and free.
Guatemalans voice frustration, dismay and disgust about street dogs. Some chapínes blame economics, corruption and their neighbors’ neglect– all while letting their own pets roam daily in the street! Therefore, a street dog might be better defined by where he sleeps and whom he offends than how he spends his days.
Cultural Perception of Dogs
Street dogs have a profound experience, but it is likely unrelated to our own. Nonetheless, people are prone to project narrative onto their animal lives– often versions of ourselves, or derivatives thereof. Many humans literally speak for their dogs, like a ventriloquist prone to Fruedian slip. Nearly 7 in 10 American dog owners say their dogs are family. Almost a quarter say their dogs are “children”.
People talk to dogs to communicate with other humans in the household, according to psychological research published in 2004 titled “Talking Dog”. Invented narrative for our pet dogs has common themes: to lighten the mood, buffer criticisms between family members, embody conflict between spouses, to teach children and create family identity that includes the dog. We talk to the dog to talk to other humans, or ourselves.
Domestic dogs, for their part, have evolved to mimic our emotions for an easy meal. They have evolved muscles for facial expression that are not present in wolves, specifically eyebrow muscles that produce “sad eyes” according to research from Duke University. Dogs seek the human gaze at a young age; wolves avert it.
Adult humans make fools of themselves talking to both dogs and babies. Research published in the journal Science shows mutual gaze between humans and dogs creates an oxytocin feedback loop similar to that between mothers and babies. Dogs trigger our instinct to nurture and protect. Dogs are pushers, they get you high. It’s a great hustle.
Street Dogs in Guatemala
Local residents of San Pedro la Laguna residents say it is not so romantic to live with street dogs every day. And for the dogs, day to day existence is noisy and dirty and dangerous. At best, the street pack is a playful canine community; at worst it is violent, chaotic and hierarchic. Feral dogs fight to establish order, especially when a perra is in heat, or over a choice scrap of trash. Children get bitten when they try to save their pet from a street dog fight.
There are few animal shelters in Guatemala. Local governments lack funds for essential human needs, much less animal control. Vet services are expensive– especially spay and neuter surgery.
Poisoning Dogs in America
Animal control in the United States also poisons unwanted street dogs. According to the ASPCA, 390,000 stray or surrendered dogs are euthanized in animal shelters each year. The phenomenon of street dogs is economic and political as much, if not more than cultural. Absence of street dogs in some places indicates affluence, not character. Money doesn’t make people happy, but it sure helps keep dogs off the street.
Dog people in the United States spend an average of $1,480 dollars per dog each year. Millennials spend the most– an average of $137 per month on their dog. By contrast, a Guatemalan laborer makes Q80 per day, 6 days a week– about $256 per month. Yet Guatemalans spend generously on their pets too. There are several pet stores in San Pedro, and many pet items to be found in the market.
Many foreigners adopt street dog puppies; few bother to bring them home. A street dog’s life is brief, but tourist visas are even shorter. But it isn’t just the tourists giving scraps to the dogs on the streets. I recall a butcher who gently shooed a persistent dog, repeatedly, from his open air shop. He then threw a scrap of fat as far as he could to lure the dog away. The dog ran, ate it, and then returned to the butcher.
Street dogs suffer without security. Pet dogs are spoiled, or neglected for human vanity. What wolf remains in each might crave some freedom in the street. But dogs can’t live without us. They chose to look away from wildness and into our eyes.
Flies get swatted. Rats get poisoned. Dogs should get jobs. The commonality between street dogs and pets is lack of purpose. The human-dog relationship is better when it is mutually beneficial for both species. Dignity is to belong amongst mankind, with purpose, freedom and security. La libertad no distingue especie.