Last night a customer came in to exchange a bottle of Vailima that had gone bad. Sasha and I were sitting on the steps in front of the store when the Beard came out with the bottle. “You guys want to pour this out to anyone?” he joked.
“Yea,” I said, “For all the fallen island dogs.”
We laughed, and then, as he poured the beer out, I recited some of their names:
Sasha and the Beard joined in. Our laughter dissipated as we called them off, one by one.
“Oh, the puppies who died on our porch that first Thanksgiving! For the puppies.”
“For Lassie? Was it Lassie?”
“Oh my gosh and the puppy the truck ran over! You don’t remember that? And then Chacko had to kill it with the shovel?”
“And Chacko’s dog he brought from Hawaii! I don’t remember its name.”
Now, writing this, I can remember so many others that we forgot last night.
One of our dogs, Tele (or, more often, Kele) was pregnant when we left for Christmas break. I don’t remember seeing much of her when we returned. Then, one day, she showed up limping with scrapes all over her tailbone. Someone said she had been hit by a car. She was in pretty bad shape. And she definitely wasn’t pregnant anymore.
About a week later, a kid came to my door early one morning to tell me that Kele was dead in his back yard. I said, “Okay?” in that sort of offended, put-off way I get when I feel like the kids are happy to bring bad news. “She got shot,” he said.
Of course she did. This is the second of our dogs that has been shot this year. Who knows why? Maybe they chase the cats or knock over trash cans or bark too much. At any rate, they are seen as a nuisance and are dealt with accordingly.
But later that day Kele limped and whined her way over to our house. She was alive, but just barely. She followed me as I did my chores: limped from shade-tree to shade-tree as I swept the leaves, yelped in pain as she lay beneath the laundry line. I gave her water and washed the wound, but I didn’t think she’d make it.
Two days later we heard puppies in the back—Kele’s pups that we thought she had lost after getting hit by the car. I was angered all over again about her being shot; if she had died, the puppies would’ve starved to death. But she didn’t die. Sometimes they don’t.
Sucker that I am, I joined Sasha & Jackie (the new WorldTeachers) in the naming of the puppies. The runt, Sir Wags-a-lot, grew on me. The other three we called Carson (after the prim and proper butler on Downton Abbey), Lady Tramp, and Adolf Chubs (a fat, all-white puppy that none of us liked and therefore received an ugly, unlikable name [he’s growing on us now though]). We joked that we should include the puppies in our Survivor (the TV show) fantasy league. There were four of them and four of us. We each called a puppy. I got Sir Wags. Sasha wanted Lady Tramp, and Jackie wanted Carson. The Beard, who wasn’t there, got stuck with Adolf Chubs.
The Beard and I took Sir Wags and Carson inside once. They were happy enough to nuzzle on our laps as we lounged in front of the TV. I took a picture of Carson sleeping on the Beard’s chest—both of them sound asleep. That we would adopt these two into our canine family was obvious if still unspoken.
Then, shortly after, one of the younger kids came to my door one day: “Miss Cathryn, I saw your puppy. Can you come?” Carson had been missing. Noa wanted me to come see that it was dead, but the body was no longer where it was. I could see the sadness in Noa’s little boy eyes, but I think his compassion was more for me than the puppy. I picked up Sir Wags and told Noa that it was okay. “Don’t worry, I’m not sad. Sometimes animals just die,” I said as I rubbed my chin against Sir Wags’ head. “Yea,” he said, “that one was eating it.”
I quickly put Sir Wags back down. Noa insisted on telling me more about the puppies’ cannibalization of their brother, but I told him I had to go.
On Wednesday, Sir Wags stopped eating. I brought him inside during the Survivor premier and tried to love on him enough to make his last moments a little better. He died sometime in the night, snuggled-up against our house. In the morning, the Beard took the body down to the water. On Thursday night, the two surviving puppies (Lady Tramp and Adolf Chubs) brought him back to our yard where they used their tiny puppy teeth to rip the skin and meat from the carcass.
It’s a hard life for a dog on this island. Puppies are generally born to malnourished mothers who begrudgingly provide milk for about a month. After that, they must survive on scraps left over after the larger dogs have had their fill. Occasionally, mothers will bring meat to their pups, but if the mother hasn’t had a good meal in a while, she will keep what she has for herself.
Female puppies seem to die faster than males. The fully grown female dogs, apparently enraged by the competition, lurk around the group waiting for the opportunity to lock their jaws on the tiny pups’ necks and snap them in one or two quick shakes. It is not unusual to find a dead puppy, just removed from the others, with four bloody holes in its neck.
And maybe it’s better that they should die in infancy. Several of our accidentally-adopted dogs have been girls. If they make it the first ten months or so, they then have a life-time of harassment from the male dogs in the village. It’s like watching a nature program out here, but you can never ever change the channel. On tv, it’s interesting. In real life, it’s disturbing. The female dogs are sexed so often that their lady-parts seem permanently swollen.
That is something that is still shocking about the island dogs: the constant sex! Of course none of them are spayed or neutered. (I’ve heard that vets come out here sometimes, but in three years I’ve never seen one.) Most Americans grow up not having to actually see dogs mating; we don’t see any swollen genitals or mangled, hanging teats. We love dogs without actually knowing what they really look like.
Last year in my journalism class, I used several different stories about Michael Vick’s dog-fighting scandal to teach about media bias. Some of the students’ opinions about the case were surprising. Then, while researching photos of the dogs rescued from Vick’s operation, I realized that all of the dogs must look so normal to my students. They looked like the dogs here.
Feral dogs fight. They fight over food, over territory, over the females. It’s just the way it is. One dog in our village was so badly injured in a fight that one of its testicles was almost ripped off. (That same dog was also shot in the face once for attacking some chickens. He lost part of his bottom jaw but survived.) Their faces are scarred and ugly. They have bloody claw and teeth marks around their necks and tailbones. They fight and they live, or they fight and they die. But they are always fighting. They get hit by cars. They get shot. They get rocks thrown at them by nearly human they come across (because the dogs also attack people, so throwing rocks is a way to get the dogs to scatter).
Every once in a while those ASPCA commercials come on TV here. Sarah McLauchlin’s soothing voice beseeches us to help these poor creatures as images of starving, crippled, abused dogs fill the screen. Meanwhile, if I glance to the left of my television and outside of my living room window I can see a male dog stuck inside a female dog while fighting off another male dog who wants his turn with her. Or, an hour, a day, a week later, I can see little puppies, their ribs poking out through their paper-thin fur, pulling a rat apart. Or I can follow the blood-splattered trail of a recently-shot dog down to the beach.
When those commercials are on I always wonder what my Samoan neighbors must think. I wonder if the ASPCA knows that they are broadcasting these commercials here. If they know how stupid the entire organization looks to people who don’t have adequate access to healthcare for their children, let alone their dogs. Do they know how condescending and disgusting that soothing voice sounds “these poor defenseless animals are being abused” to people who have been abused, molested, or mistreated and have absolutely no way of getting help? But I digress.
It’s a terrible life for a dog out here. (I haven’t even mentioned that there are certain migrant workers here who have been known to eat a dog or two…) They either die young or live to struggle and fight. They are nearly always on the brink of starvation. The female dogs seem to be permanently pregnant, nursing, or getting sexed to near death. The males are either fighting to stay on top or wounded into submitting to a larger, more menacing male.
It seems every year, one of the new World Teachers will have sweet spirited family members who feel for the island dogs. They send dog treats and flea collars and heart-worm medication. All the things I think I would do if one of my friends were living some place where the dogs were this pathetic. It’s really sweet, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also kind of funny to me now. It’s like offering caviar to a person who hasn’t eaten in weeks. Most of the dogs here won’t even eat the treats—they like real meat, not ground corn and beef flavoring.
At home they sell organic, all natural dog food. No GMOs. No preservatives. Here, our dogs eat whatever scraps are left over after the pigs are fed. (Meanwhile I haven’t eaten a piece of fresh fruit in weeks, so I’m scoffing a little at that organic chow.) At home the dogs have their own plush beds. Here the dogs sleep against the concrete frame of our houses and, in some homes, whole families share the same foam mattress on the living room floor.
Those ASPCA commercials, with the soft, sad music and those pathetic puppy faces plastered on the screen, embarrass me. I am embarrassed both by the message they send to people in need (we’d love to help you…..r animals.), and by the way they kind of break my heart. The dogs here don’t need $.60 a day for rehab and heartworm medications. They need to get spayed and neutered and taken off the island until there are no more dogs in Manu’a; that’s the only way the cycle will end.
We do try to take care of them. Every WorldTeacher or American contractor that has been out here with us has cared for the dogs. I mean, the Beard is like the island’s own dog-whisperer. They follow him around and run to him in their loud, excited way every day when we get home from school. But we can’t take them back to Georgia, and we can’t stop them from dying. This is life; this is the natural world. It’s not at all as romantic as we try to paint it in America (which, and I too am so guilty of this, tends to be all Thoreau and nowhere near enough Melville).
I know that if I were reading this on your side of the screen—back in American where dogs are adopted and Sarah McLauchlin’s pleas bring tears and not scorn—I might be a little put off by all of this, too. “Calling” puppies and joking about their chances of survival and what not. But over here, and in much of the world, there is so much more truth to that old idiom “it’s a dog eat dog world” than we ever really think about in the States. (Like, for example: THE DOGS LITERALLY EAT EACH OTHER, Y’ALL.)
Years ago I read some possibly-made up African proverb about feral dogs: “to name a dog is to save it.” This has stuck with me through the years; so much so that I quoted it a blog about a puppy I took in last year. I wrote, “it’s so true.” I don’t believe that anymore, really. To name a dog is nothing. There are so many forces at work—naming a dog may increase the namer’s attachment, but it doesn’t increase the food supply nor will it decrease the violence of an island dog’s life. In fact, naming a dog and treating it the way we would treat a dog in the States (coddling, spoiling, etc) is one way to speed-up its demise.
After the Beard poured that Vailima out, Sasha picked up Lady Tramp and fed her some dog treats from America. Adolf Chubs was curled in a ball beside her on the stoop. We joked in our entirely-desensitized way about their chances of survival, and the Beard, all man that he is, said (mostly in jest, since he is, as I said, the local dog whisperer), “See that’s why all of your dogs die, because you help them. See my dog? I do nothing for it. It has to learn to survive on its own.”
Here’s to the ones we helped too much: