Living in Honduras and Guatemala is sometimes hard, mostly fun but never boring. Here some of my musings on life in this colourful part of the world where you can always expect the unexpected. Hence Serendipity, the gift of finding without seeking…

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

No more dogs!

There is lots to like about Guatemala but also a few things not to. Let’s not talk trash today, but about something else that bothers me.

Street dogs.

On my short walk through town yesterday I saw no less than seven dogs in different spots and different degrees of shabbiness. Some might have owners but they were nonetheless wandering around town in search of food or a short-lived love affair, resulting in even more unwanted puppies. Each of the coffee farms near the place I’m staying at has its own pack of dogs. Many of them are injured from fights with their peers, traffic accidents or from purposely being hurt by people with machetes. And needless to say, the packs keep growing and growing. These dogs sometimes assault people who’re walking their pet, chase motorcycles and rip open garbage bags. They’re definitely a pain in the butt. But it isn’t their fault.

One of 6 puppies we've so far been unable to catch, in its "home" at one of the coffee plantations

Being born poor in Guatemala as a human usually means a tough life ahead. Being born an unwanted puppy is basically having no future at all. Even “proper” pets are often not well taken care of. People take on pets without a thought (and to be honest, in many cases the same counts for kids), not realising it is a serious and long-term commitment. Despite the fact that hardly anyone is ever forced to have a pet (unfortunately the same can’t be said about unwanted babies in Guatemala with its skyrocketing number of cases of sexual abuse), few people seem to think of what a dog’s life involves. I’m not talking about puppy day-care, designer booties or pricey wet food from a tin with a sprig of parsley on top. Just basic stuff, like actually having enough food to spare. A dry, safe space to live. Medical care when needed. Care in old age instead of being dumped on the street. And preferably, playtime, exercise and socializing.

Although I think that in many “developed” countries the way people treat their pets is sometimes way over the top, around here even basic, fair treatment is not a matter of course. But it doesn’t mean people don’t love their animals. I think it’s mostly a matter of education.

Luca, Monster, Saudi and me, Honduras

When I lived in a small town in Honduras, I was appalled to see that people’s first reaction to seeing a dog on the street is to kick it. I even saw toddlers barely able to stand, swing a leg at a passing dog. Dogs were obviously considered dirty and a pest. But not MY dogs! Everybody loved MY dogs! Cars would stop on the street and let us pass when Monster would drag his four feet long stick back home from our walk. The kids I used to teach were always more excited to see my Luca than me! They’d spend hours playing with her, teaching her tricks and would even share their lunch with her. (No wonder she was fat.) But none of these kids would ever consider doing the same with their own dog, which they all have in the rural areas. And when I would ask why not, they answered their dogs don’t play. Because they were never taught to.

But the times are a-changing. More and more upper-class Guatemalans who previously would only be interested in overpriced full bred pedigree puppies are now considering adopting. Even in rural areas, small changes are visible. My friend and patron saint of dogs in San Martín Jilotepeque, Cristy Velasco, mentioned how dogs are mostly used as doorbells, but more and more often she sees people walking their dogs or putting food outside for the strays. More people are willing to spay and neuter too.

Tessa and Gerson with cats in recovery

When Linda Green made her dogs rescue efforts official in 2010 with the NGO Unidos para los Animales, she quickly realised that picking up abandoned puppies off the streets and shipping them off for adoption to the US was just a drop in the ocean (although not for the puppies, obviously). Stronger measures were needed in order to prevent puppies on the streets altogether. But when Linda started her first spay and neuter campaigns, she almost had to beg people to have their pet sterilised. It wasn’t a common thing and especially castration of male dogs was not considered “natural” in this macho culture. But how times have changed! The main focus of Unidos para los Animales is now on sterilization campaigns with a target number of at least 2.000 dogs and cats a year, in communities in and around Antigua Guatemala. And these days people are begging for a spot on the waiting list! Considering the fact that each pregnant cat or dog can easily be responsible for a thousand puppies or kittens (because her babies will eventually have babies too), this has a huge impact on the canine and feline community.

Linda and her paharmacy

Due to Covid-19 the target of 2.000 animals wasn’t reached in 2020, but this year we’re off to a good start. The first week of January, veterinarian Jim Bader (from Mapleview Animal Hospital, Holland, MI, USA) and his daughter Karina came down for a full week of surgeries. Dr. Jim did a total of 161 surgeries, including some complicated cases other than sterilisations. Today another 82 cats and dogs were spayed/neutered in Jocotenango.

The logistics for today’s clinic were in the capable hands of the Dirección de la Mujer (Women’s Office) of the Municipality of Jocotenango. We did a clinic there last December, but the demand was so overwhelming that a new one was scheduled so soon after. As usual, the ladies of this office were fantastic. They did a pre-sign-up last week and in no time the 100 slots were filled. They closed shop with no less than 132 people on the waiting list! And today everything went as smooth as can be. Volunteering for the clinics in Jocotenango is borderline boring, because everything is so well organised and so many people are helping out. From the traffic police out on the street to the ladies at the entrance disinfecting everybody; the ones at the inscription table; the strongman who carried the dogs and cats from the operating room to recovery; the cleaners afterwards… The three Guatemalan vets and their techs did an awesome job and were done operating around lunch time.  And 82* happy humans went home with slightly groggy cats or dogs.

Our strongman of the day

Today was actually a little weird because we got a lot more attention than usual. We got no less than four visits by politicians and the press and were live streamed on several social media. Turns out we are great (although unwilling) propaganda and were reported to have done 150 surgeries with more to come in the following days. (Not.) All that with “international support” and no mention of Unidos para los Animales. Not that the dogs or cats don’t care, but we humans do.

People and patients waiting for their turn

See, these clinic cost money. Each pet owner pays a small contribution (50 Quetzales or USD 6.50) whereas the cost per animal is four times as much (surgery and vaccines). If people can’t afford the required contribution, they can “pay” with whatever they can. A bag of rice, some avocados or a few pounds of sugar will do. The clinics are organised and run by volunteers. And although they are officially offered by Unidos para los Animales, it is in close collaboration with Tessa and Gerson of WOOF Guatemala and Francesca of Patitas.

Volunteers Jimmy and Bobbie

It is great to see how animal welfare is slowly going tin the right direction. Sterilisation is becoming the norm, as is clear from the number of inscriptions. New too is the increasing number of male dogs and cats. It would be great to walk the streets of Antigua one day and not encounter a single stray.

If you’d like to contribute towards the sterilisation program, please visit the following websites. Thank you!

USA, Canada, Guatemala, Europe: Unidos para los Animales

Holland: WOOF Guatemala


*The number of surgeries is usually a bit lower than planned because some animals are rejected because of medical history, not having fasted or nor being healthy enough.