I recently took a trip to Zacatlan, Puebla. It’s technically a small city, but certainly feels more like an overgrown country town, in the best possible sense. The town has many delights to offer – Apples, great food, gorgeous mountain views, gregarious locals, apple-flavoured beverages, and apple-flavoured condiments. But one thing I always enjoy when visiting this type of town in Mexico is observing the free movement, congregation, and comings and goings of the local dogs, which wander from sidewalk to street to highway without an apparent care in the world. They gather freely for their inscrutable purposes, sniff each other’s butts, and eventually disperse, heading off on their next adventure.
Some of these dogs may be homeless, and some may have owners who simply let them roam without worry. Sometimes the homeless ones are obvious, and quite a tragic sight to behold. But in other cases, they’ve been on the receiving end of enough luck and/or tasty handouts from the local humans for the distinction to not be obvious. Either way, one of the wonderful things about dogs is that they do not discriminate on the basis of class. They have their friends and enemies, of course, and they choose them based on some mysterious set of criteria, of which smell is presumably close to the top. But happily, it seems that a disgusting skin or eye disease is no obstacle to the formation of a friendship or a strategic alliance.
It is a true joy to behold the scope and intricacies of canine society, as these full nuances are not visible for someone living in Canada or other developed/”developed” countries. If we dogs outside in Canada, they are usually on leashes. If they aren’t on leashes – say, because they’re in a designated off-leash area – we see them caught up in the excitement of enjoying their brief moment of freedom, running amuck and sniffing as many things as they can. This moment of unbridled joy is certainly a delight to behold, but it’s not representative of the casual, endearingly nonchalant way in which a truly unrestricted dog decides to take its freedom for granted. And of course, if dogs in Canada are truly off on their own, without human supervision, they’ll be snatched off the street by Animal Control faster than you can say “Your tax dollars at work!”
I also love to watch these Mexican small-town dogs walking purposefully toward some unknown destination. Most of the time, these free-range small-town dogs decide that the best possible use of their awesome freedom would be to lay on the edge of the road, occasionally rousing themselves from their stupor to sniff something. But once in a while, something possesses them, and you’ll see them marching with an awesome sense of conviction toward God-knows-where.
That’s not to say that these dogs are necessarily responsible stewards of their awesome freedom. When I was living in Puebla City – a city of about two million people, and much larger than Zacatlan – I still managed to enjoy the occasional insight into the canine social order. In my neighbourhood there were a few extremely well-cared-for street dogs – In fact, they were so well-cared-for that I could hardly believe it when I asked local shopkeepers about the provenance of these dogs and was informed that they were, in fact, homeless, as opposed to just case studies in free-range doggy parenting. There was one fellow that I took a special shine to, a bulldoggy-looking critter who appeared to be pure muscle, and about three times more skin than was necessary to cover that muscle. I find dogs with huge folds of skin either adorable or disgusting, depending on the day, but every day that I saw him just happened to be a day that I found them ador-friggin-able.
We soon struck up an easy rapport, as he’d visit the local street taco stand to low-key beg, standing stoically next to me in the hopes that I’d toss him a few scraps of prime carne asada, which I often did. He was quite happy to accept gratuitous petting, as well, and an opportunistic friendship was born. But just when I was completely in the thrall of what a gorgeous, smooth-flapped, polite young dog-man he was, I had the chance to witness his dark side. After playing a game of pick-up basketball with my usual neighbourhood B-ball bros, we were hanging out on the street, assiduously working to negate all the health benefits by sharing a big bottle of Coca-Cola in some flimsy plastic cups. As we sat on the bench outside the corner store, my favourite little bruiser sauntered over, looking as calm and relaxed as ever. But then a dog passed by on a leash, and before I knew it, Li’l Flappy marched purposefully toward this interloper. What happened next was blocked by the car, but the aggressive dog sounds emanating from behind the vehicle told a story of their own.
When I came around the car to see what was going on, I discovered that the dog on the leash literally had Flappy’s head in his mouth. As in, the folds on his face were so copious that they could easily be sucked right into the other dog’s mouth. For a brief moment, there didn’t even seem to be much of a struggle – Just two dogs, standing on the road, with one dog’s head halfway into another dog’s mouth. The owner of the leashed dog stood numbly by, not quite sure how or whether to intercede. But eventually, the situation somehow managed to resolve itself, and Flappy went on his way, now with a nickel-sized red mark on his face, but seemingly otherwise none the worse for wear.
As I sat down to write this story, I did so with the assumption that Flappy had picked a fight with a passing dog, for reasons that no human mind could ever comprehend – perhaps because they a history, or perhaps because the dog on the least just smelled irresistibly biteable. If Flappy had been the aggressor and had ended up getting his face-folds gnawed on, there’d certainly be a poetic justice to it. There would also be the irresistible dramatic irony of this gentle giant turning out to be a stone-cold killer. (Even if he had always looked like one, in which case his apparent gentleness was the original dramatic irony – Reversals galore!) But as I commit these words to the cloud, I realize that it’s also very possible that Flappy was just trying to make a friend, and got rewarded with a fresh lesion. In that case, it would be a very sad case of poetic injustice. We’ll never know what happened during those brief moments behind the car, but whatever it was, I think we can safely assume that it fully reinforced the core thesis of this blog post, whatever that may be.
Another story: I was recently walking along the highway in Zacatlan and saw the gruesome sight of a dead cat on the sidewalk. It looked like it had been run over, and then staggered off the road to die. I’m not much of a cat person, but this was such a pitiable sight that it managed to touch the depths of my dog-loving heart. I continued walking, and reflected on the fact that the town dogs must be pretty good at crossing roads if I hadn’t seen the canine equivalent of that macabre scene during my stay in the dog’s paradise of Zacatlan. But sure enough, after a few more steps I came across three or four dogs sauntering across this busy highway without a care in the world. At one point, I’m pretty sure that one of the dogs crossed, changed its mind, and then crossed back again. They did all this quite unhurriedly, as cars were forced to slow down and desperately swerve in order to avoid serving up fresh poochy pancakes. Perhaps dogs aren’t quite ready for their independence yet, after all.
But in the end, although millennia of domestication have made it hard for dogs to fully prosper without human assistance, there’s also something quite refreshing about seeing them in moments where they’re not entirely focused and dependent on their human caregivers. They live, they love, they laugh (well, not so much laugh), and sometimes it makes no damn sense from a human perspective. And somehow, that just makes it all even better. Dogs – they’re just like us! And also, totally different from us!