Author Archives: Cecilia Smith

The first male dog I’ve owned is a fine specimen: it is generally agreed that he is handsome and loving, albeit dumb as a box of rocks.

I enjoy him for other reasons as well. He moves with the laziness of a breeze on a hot summer day, crowds with his snuggling, and performs tricks for treats - up to a point. He’ll play dead for us, but refuses to army crawl unless it’s for a really good treat. Food and his ball are his deities, while he appreciates walks so long as he doesn’t have to go too far.

All in all, he’s as stereotypical as a dog can get. However, while I do often say dogs are similar around the world, they do often behave differently. I’m thinking particularly of the difference between stray dogs and pets, and more specifically, between intact males and those sans testicles. And it can be quite a difference.

Dog socialization on the streets is interesting to watch. They often hang out in troublesome packs, wandering together in search of food or shade - or chasing after whichever female seems vulnerable that day. I’ve read - in my quick research on the subject - that there are three types of dogs you might see on the street: the first is the true stray, unattached to any kind of person or place, and that often wanders alone. The second is the kind I’ve become familiar with: dogs that don’t technically have owners but that remain attached to a set of streets and are enough of a repeated sight for people to take care of them more. These are neighborhood dogs. And the last is the type of dog that I’ve written about before: dogs with owners who simply have a lot of freedom.

In fact, I’ve been reading the psychology between street and domesticated dogs are completely different, at least in some studies on the subject so far. Some of it is obvious, especially to those of you who have rescued strays; I’ve written before about my little gremlin, who we love dearly, but who also came with a specific set of challenges. She desperately wanted human affection but couldn’t trust it. She guarded her food and bit anyone she deemed as a threat to anything she had or wanted. It took years of patience and kindness to win her over, but she’ll always be a little wary and guarded in some ways.

There’s another difference I didn’t realize could be related to her having been a stray until I read about it. Our male dog, as I said, has learned how to do tricks, up to the point where either his pride or salivary desires take over. Cora, the gremlin, will only sit and lie down; over the years, we have finally gotten her to an approximation of playing dead, but nowhere near to the levels of dramatization performed by our male dog. It’s not that she’s a dumb dog; she’s had to be quite resourceful in her years on this planet. But - it’s because apparently domesticated dogs and stray dogs have completely different abilities in reading human social cues.

To an extent, this seems obvious. Clearly, our rescue has a harder time reading whether there is an intent to harm, in contrast to our male, who trusts everyone. This is trauma-related. But at an even deeper level, I found this cool article on dogs being able to understand the human act of pointing. Domesticated dogs understood what pointing meant, and in general, there was a shared understanding of certain expectations. You do a trick, you get a treat. It’s easy to understand (relatively) what the trick is and how the human is teaching it to you. Strays, on the other hand, were much less responsive to pointing.

So a lightbulb has gone off for me in regards to our rescue and why she doesn’t follow our conventions. It seems there are a lot more unacknowledged differences, but they haven’t been studied as much, or the results of such studies aren’t as accessible to the average layperson (thanks, Google Scholar).

Then, of course, there’s what I actually see on the street. There are some generalizations I can make, but who knows if they’re backed by science. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve seen a lot of dogs wandering around in packs wherever I go. Often, this is a bunch of male dogs after one female dog - my generalization here is that, while I’ve been abroad, I’ve noticed that it’s very frequently the female street dogs who try to attach themselves to people, and often, desperately, to any person who crosses their path. On occasion, male dogs would approach and allow themselves to be petted, but often it would be in the wake of a female dog. In the town where I volunteered in Cuba, there was one female dog in particular always getting hounded by the males. Usually the tourists would try to find ways to defend her, but there was only so much we could do, and every time she’d have to accept her with submissive passivity. I get that it’s the way of the world, but it seems like an awful type of life.

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I spent my first day in Peru mostly asleep - it’s a permission I grant myself whenever I arrive in any new country. However, despite my relative isolation, I noticed something that seems very unique to Peru, or at least Arequipa: dogs live on rooftops.

Three dogs live on the roofs of the houses next to mine; when I saw them, I asked my supervisor if someone knew they were out there, in the hot sun, seemingly without food or water. He responded that, as a matter of fact, their presence there was not only known, but intentional. As it happens, dogs on roofs is as common here as dogs in homes, and it seems reflective of Arequipa’s shifting values in regards to the purpose pets serve.

Life on the roof seems to vary by household. The dogs next door remain without shelter under Arequipa’s three hundred days of sun, run around in piles of feces, and are occasionally fed with takeout. I don’t know if they have water or not. Furthermore, these dogs go without much company - something that breaks my heart is when I’m washing dishes and one of the dogs whines for my attention. Conversely, I’ve seen dogs here with some pretty lavish setups, including lean-tos and piles of toys.

The reason for this location of habitation? I’ve surveyed my Peruvian coworkers and have gotten a few responses. One was that the dogs are too cute to lose and thus keeping them on the roof helps them stay safe. This is an interesting one, as it’s true pets get lost all the time here - as in Ireland, dogs and cats often have free reign of the streets, but Arequipa is also bigger and with a more complex layout than Cork. It’s easier to accidentally disappear. And it’s true that there are a wide variety of breeds held in the rooftop position, as opposed to there being a dominant breed (such as the pitbull mixes outside homes in rural Hungary). But I also know families who simply keep their pets in the house with them. It’s an interesting mix.

The other answer I’ve heard is that the roof is a useful place to keep guard dogs here. For those who haven’t spent time in cities in other countries, frequently buildings are packed tightly on narrow streets with narrow sidewalks. Every available space has to be utilized effectively, and so things such as rooftop gardens and kitchens are common sights. More homes and businesses have balconies than in the United States. Upward development is a necessity while yards are a rare luxury. In this way, families that might keep their guard dogs outside - such as in rural Nepal and Hungary - don’t have the option of tying them to a fence in the yard, and so the roof becomes the de facto place of residence. In terms of effectiveness? I’m not sure, because if there ever was a real intruder, not much could be done from the sky, and the dogs bark at almost everything anyway.

This is something I’ve seen to the point where I can comfortably say keeping dogs on roofs is an Arequipenean thing, but not all families do so. Many of my friends have pets who stay within the home - one friend has a beagle she picked off the street for whom they have to cook homemade meals. It’s a pretty familiar situation.

Has anyone travelling abroad noticed something similar? What about in other Latin American countries?

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While generally I don’t go on my trips as a tourist, I do sometimes partake in touristic activities. I have complicated feelings about tourism; on the one hand, I recognize it’s a powerful economic driver, an important source of income for many countries. I also am a huge believer in cultural exchange. But. I think tourism industries can lead to exploitative situations and can often get in the way of cultural exchange,

I’ve had hours-long conversations about this, party economies, and more. But, because this is a blog about animals, we’ll talk about tourism as it involves them.

Full confession: I have participated in both elephant and horseback rides, one being in Nepal and the other in Cuba. Addendum: I am not terribly educated about animals in tourism, but I know there is a strong faction against the use of animals in entertainment. I lean that way because of what I’ve seen with my own eyes.

Cecilia sees the world from the back of an elephant.

It’s easy to understand why people engage in elephant (and other) rides. Seated on what was essentially a caged table on the back of an elephant, I saw the jungle in Nepal from impressive new heights - things I’d been nonplussed about on the ground (particularly the leech-infested waters we waded through in sandals). The elephants themselves were gentle and easily distracted, pulling up long grass in clumps and whacking off the dust on their shins. I was also told that the nature conserve providing the tours was one of the more compassionate to the animals involved and one of the more effective at conservation.

Yet I’m not sure this is saying much. For one, the implements used to train the elephants looked dangerous, more like weapons than tools. The trainers themselves hit the elephants, hard, with sticks between the eyes, and scarcely did we finish our trip than the elephants went back out again with new groups of tourists on their backs. The final sad point was, when we were introduced to the facilities, we saw the elephants kept on chains. The only two elephants who interacted with each other were two babies who stretched the chains to their full extent to make contact. The rest slept or drank water from pails adjacent to piles of hay.

So it’s this I don’t get: if conservation is another purpose of these tours, then why aren’t the elephants allowed to have some semblance of life in the wild? Why aren’t they participating in the natural ecosystem of the jungle there? Mind you, this wildlife reserve also called itself home to rhinos, boars and other wild animals that were allowed to roam free.

Riding horses on the beach.

So while the experience itself was fun, I was overall left with a negative impression. I felt the same horseback riding in Cuba - the sights were incredible, the stars like freckles, and the bats were plentiful. But our horses frothed at the mouths, walked slowly, and were, again, beaten into submission with whip-like sticks. Mine kept veering off the path to eat and refused to return. Once again, they seemed exhausted and depressed. Animals in these situations are often thought of as tools, and not always tools that are taken care of.

I understand the economic purposes behind everything, that in Cuba and Nepal, wages are very dependent on bringing tourists to an area and providing them an “exotic” experience. A higher volume of tourists means more money. But, like many things in life, I wonder if it’s worth it for us, the tourists, to participate.

I’ve yet to do any such thing in Peru, though there’s an alpaca petting zoo near my home. I’m not sure if would be any different than what I’ve seen in other countries, though I’m interested to know more.

Tell me, what do you know about animal conservation? Have you ever purchased an experience that depended on animals?

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