In the U.S. we view these cute rodents as pets.

I’ve not yet had the opportunity to try guinea pig in Peru, though I’ve heard it’s quite a delicacy. My Peruvian friends tell me the meat is tender with fine bones embedded - eating cuy provides delight but requires a level of vigilance.

Americans often feel a little squeamish thinking about guinea pig as a meal, and I get it, but I also find it fascinating. This is mainly because I’m always a little enthralled by which animals are deemed a protected - or, at times, condemned -class. My go-to example is always going to be the cow in India and Nepal. Because cows are sacred in the Hindi-majority countries, it is illegal to kill them. My host family told me cows hold that sacred position due to their usefulness; not only do female cows provide milk, but families with large swaths of agricultural land utilize cows in farming.

There are a few things to note with this. The first is a warning: if you are a traveler to Nepal or India, avoid beef on any restaurant menu. It may be that whatever cow turned into that food was sick or dead for a few days before being sold to the restaurant. There’s also a possibility that the cow was killed outside country borders and then transported back - again bringing up issues of sanitation and bacterial stuff.

The inability to kill cows also caused another problem: stray cows, usually of the male variety. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you why this happens, but it does, and it means often teenaged cows wander the streets leading to Kathmandu, as well as around the city itself. I never saw them cause too much trouble aside from adding to the congestion and filth of the city.

So intentional cow deaths are a no go in India and Nepal, as are dog and guinea pig deaths in the United States. Conversely, cultures around the world and across time (stereotypically in China, but also in countries in Africa, pre-Americanized Hawaii, and South Korea) consume dogs. A quick look at the history of eating dogs indicates some fascinating facts, such as that some cultures domesticated the wolf for their meat, and thus some breeds of dogs were developed specifically for consumption. I’ve also learned some cultures killed and ate dogs for ritualistic and religious purposes; often these dogs experienced a higher standard of living than other animals used for consumption.

Overall, it seems which animals are consumed in whichever culture is often based in centuries of history and development. My opinion on it is this: as long as the animals are treated well in life, I won’t judge a culture for which animals it eats. I also know that dogs respond to warmth in every culture I’ve been in - and I’ve been told that unexpected animals do as well, such as a turkey that was taken in by a family as a pet and became a companion in the way that a dog or cat is a companion for us.

So - my question for you is, what unexpected pets have you had in your life? What about unfamiliar meats you’ve tried?

Upon my return from Nepal, I wrote a blog post about the magic of the goat. The goat exists as a highly functional creature, producing milk and meat, and generally has a likeable comportment. It’s starting to gain popularity in the pet food world as a novel protein, generally allergen-friendly, with a flavor pets crave. I’ve also already mentioned the probiotics found in raw goat milk - seriously, one of my coworkers told me it saved a cat’s life after she recommended it to a customer desperate for a solution to their cat’s lack of bowel movements.

Photo by Leroy Huckett from Pexels

Sadly, I’m lactose-intolerant and the allergy applies to goat milk. However, I absolutely love goats, and their presence in Nepal was quite palpable.

Much of life in Nepal depends on agriculture, with rice and tea being huge cash crops and staples in Nepali culture. Within Nepal, the prevalence of Hinduism and poverty means most Nepalis are vegetarian - however, during a festival, if a family were to eat meat, it might be goat served with a side of rice and lentils. Thus, farmers wander towns with their goats in close proximity. I’ve been able to pet them as I’ve walked past. I’ve also made acquaintance with goats before I’ve eaten them; such was the case with the goat I discovered in the family barn the night before it was sacrificed. I tried to calm it by petting its ears. An ineffective method, as it nervous-peed on my shoes.

Indeed, goats made appearances in unexpected places. Once, two men on a motorbike passed me in the street on the way to Kathmandu - a goat nestled between them, legs dangling over the wheels. I can imagine how that ride must have transpired, but at that moment, the goat seemed to have accepted its fate, as it rode without protest.

Another time, a bus trundled its way down my road, and I glanced up in time to register a goat curled up on the roof of the bus, placed as a bike or boat.

But my favorite #unexpectedgoat took place on the bus to Kathmandu, when another volunteer and I spotted a man bee lining for the bus with two goats in tow. We thought, “He’s not he?”

In Nepal, of course he would - and the goats reacted as expected, bleating and scrambling through the aisles of the bus as it lurched over unpaved roads. After a while they calmed and sat, but still received side eyes and glares from fellow passengers.

Goats are gaining presence in Portland as well. They can be rented out to demolish blackberry overgrowths, and take residence in homes as companions. I even recently saw a couple walking their goats on leashes in a Portland park.

I could rhapsodize on about the beauty of goat creatures. But, for now, I’ll leave you with my recommendations: try goat for yourself. It’s possible to find goat meat at world markets. I suggest fully saturating it with garlic and pressure cooking it until tender. Find a classic Nepali recipe - or other recipes from other countries around the world. Next, if you have a meat-eating animal and you love it dearly, try finding food with goat or goat-based treats. My personal favorite is the Sojos freeze-dried goat chunks - perfect for a picky pet or one with food allergies.

Finally, I have to ask you: which is your favorite nontraditional pet? Or, how have you come across goats in Portland or around the world?

I’ve started expanding my horizons in Peru; the past week I’ve been wearing borrowed pink gloves and showing up as the token white girl for Muay Thai classes. It’s a nice use of some pent-up aggression I have, learning how to punch and kick things more effectively.

One of the dogs of Flora Tristán

Now, what does this have to do with animals? Simply that, en route to my classes, I walk past an animal clinic and pet supply store. From this, I made the shocking discovery that they sell Acana and Orijen here - color me surprised, because I didn’t realize they had international distribution at this level.

I’ve noticed a thing or two about what you might find in the pet section at grocery stores around the world. I’ve also seen the differences in cultural impressions of animal diets.

Purina is everywhere. I’ve seen it in mega stores globally, in Hungary, in Nepal, in Germany, and here in Peru. It comes in varying shapes and sizes, advertises different qualities, and is omnipresent. And so it seems Purina is the international standard of dog food, yet I haven’t seen many dogs actually eating it.

For example, the dogs and cats in Nepal ate the scraps from our meals, inhaling bowls of rice, pickled vegetables, and lentils. Knowing what I know about animal diets, is it really optimal? No, but it is fresh food and the cats at least hunt to supplement their diets. However, during Dashain, when everyone indulged a little, the patriarchs of my host family came home with bags of dog food (Purina) and presented it to the dogs as they would a magnificent feast.

Empanada, the hostel mascot, and her demolished stuffed llama

I saw similar patterns when I was in Cuba, that stray dogs and pet dogs ingested remnants of suppers, animal bones with meat still on it, and other leftovers. Dog food, though considered something that dogs eat - indeed food for dogs - is also quite often a luxury in other countries.

I find it an interesting contrast with Portland, where dogs get dog food and cats eat cat food, yes, but where the culture of those items has become specialized. Our customers at Healthy Pets NW know to lessen iodine intake for pets with kidney problems, quiz us on the differences between kill-steps in the raw foods, and purchase things like fermented goat milk to give an added kick of probiotics. We’re in a position to look beyond labels and brands to care for our animal companions - it’s also a very classically American take on thinking about nutrition.

Peru is an up and coming country. Though the tap water is undrinkable and corruption remains a point of protest, there is a burgeoning middle class here. The stratification is visible on the streets, even as an outsider. Peruvians are learning about the problems in their own food, such as with the milk I’ve been told isn’t real, and the increasing vegetarian and vegan presence here. With pets, it’s apparent in the mutts who wander the streets wearing t-shirts as a signifier of ownership and the contrast with the owners who walk with their St. Bernards attached to a harness, feeding them popcorn as training incentive.

I’m still learning about Peru, and given that I’m here much longer than during my other trips, I know I’ll learn a lot more. I still have plenty of pets left to meet here.

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