“Dog!” I exclaimed to my husband, who was driving our small rental car along a toll-free road that meanders slowly through the towns of the Yucatan, slowly meandering much like the many stray dogs along these roads. Sometimes the dogs would sleepily walk into the road and stop, find a warm spot and lay down in the sun. These dogs don’t know about time; their previous moments determine their next and that is all. I rescued one of my two dogs a year ago from a street in Laredo. He casually trotted in front of a car that screeched to a halt to avoid hitting him while I closed my eyes and hoped for the best. When I peeked out to see that he’d made it back onto the sidewalk, I got out of the car and beckoned him over. He didn’t have tags, a chip, “wanted” signs or any ads online. And so I took him home with me and he’s been a part of my family ever since.
The last thing I wanted to do during my recent trip to the Yucatan was hit a dog, so I watched the roads vigilantly as my husband drove. We didn’t hit any dogs while we drove around the peninsula, but we came close. Since there are so many stray dogs in the Yucatan, they don’t get spayed or neutered and the stray dog population keeps growing. There isn’t any sort of government-operated SPCA or Humane Society in the Yucatan. Private organizations try to combat the situation and a Planned Pethood in the Yucatan aims to aggressively implement spay/neuter programs throughout the region, but the problem is still widely apparent. For anyone who has traveled to areas of the world wherein programs like these aren’t financed fixtures, stray dogs are usually just an unfortunate truth of travel.
%Gallery-174158%Winding our way through the small towns between Cancun and Merida, the dogs came in all sizes and colors. We occasionally passed an identifiable breed – a Doberman here, a litter of newborn Rottweilers there – but most of the dogs we saw on these roads were that recognizable mix of everything. Usually tan with a medium build, these dogs were wherever people were. Begging for food or attention, they weaved their way through pedestrians and cars in the towns we passed. Some of them looked surprisingly healthy with shiny coats and smiling faces. Others were mangy and diseased. Some were dead.
The reality of the stray dog problem in places like the Yucatan cannot be negotiated without concerted effort. These dogs are part of the culture and landscape of this peninsula, for better or worse, and for all intents and purposes, they always have been. Ancient Maya communities included domesticated dogs. The Maya used the dogs for hunting, companionship, food and sacrifice. They fed the dogs corn and some Yucatec Maya today continue this tradition and give dogs tortillas. Spanish explorers in the 16th century visited Merida and documented the breeding, feeding and sale of dogs in the city.
Maya literature incorporated dogs, too. The Popol Vuh is the K’iche’ Maya creation story. According to it, the gods failed horribly at their second attempt to make humans. The legend says that these humans were made out of wood. These humans were emotionless and would not feed the dogs, so the dogs retaliated in anger and destroyed them. The lesson in this story resonated with the Maya and they placed strong emphasis on respecting and feeding dogs. Associated with human life, renewal and death, dogs were of incredible symbolic importance to the ancient Maya. They held the job of leading people into the Underworld and protecting the home. Dog remains have been found buried alongside humans in Maya graves and royal homes. Presumably, the dogs were buried with their owners in order to guide them into the afterlife.
I clenched my teeth each time we passed these dogs, dead or alive. Dogs have long been an important component of human life. A dog was found buried with a human in Palestine in a 12,000-year-old grave. A dog and human were found together in a 14,000-year-old burial site in Germany. In my experience, most people who grasp the unique relationship between dogs and humans have a difficult time witnessing the kind of abundance of stray dogs I saw while navigating those small-town roads in the Yucatan.
As I was getting ready to leave the market in Merida one afternoon, two little girls walked past me, both cradling tiny, dirty puppies in their hands. I asked the girls how old the dogs were and if I could pet them. I crouched down in the plaza and held one of the one-week-old puppies. I didn’t know whether or not they belonged to the girls or the street and in that moment, it didn’t matter. Just like every other puppy from every time period and every part of the world, the little dog eagerly welcomed my affection.
Read more from my series on the Yucatan here.
[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]