Ok, I’m taking a momentary break from my commitment to song reference blog titles, but, come on, how many things that I write about rhyme with “blog”? It had to be done, folks. Plus, this is a pretty special blog post because it is about my doggy, Rocky! And he’s the most special doggy in the world (totally unbiased opinion, of course).
So as most of you probably know, I’ve been pretty insistent about not adopting any animals during my Peace Corps service—I will only be here for two years, I absolutely cannot bring any animals back with me, and the notion of "companion animals" is among the greatest cultural differences between Americans and Batswana. The way that American animal-lovers treat animals is very, very, very, very, very, very different from the way animals are treated here, so the odds of finding an animal a home that I feel comfortable with here are extremely low, and I believe that adopting an animal, wherever you are, is making a commitment to ensure that they will be cared for, long-term, not just while it’s convenient for you (and, incidentally, I would be on the first plane home if something happened to my mom and she could not care for my cats any longer).
So…how is it that I have a dog, you ask? Is it because of the hundreds of dogs literally starving to death in the streets—my heart finally broke and I took one? No; carry dog food wherever I go and feed as many as I can afford to, but most of them actually belong to people here; they just don’t take care of them the way most American animal guardians would. Plus, it’s a huge slippery slope—there are hundreds of dogs, everywhere, all suffering so much that even most non-animal-people in America wouldn’t be able to stand it and would take one in, but there are so many, I cannot help them all, and any help I can give one of them would be so short-term, better to put my resources toward trying to help them all here and there. Plus, it is socially acceptable here to beat dogs quite violently and for no apparent reason—I’ve seen men, women, and children, completely unprovoked, walk up and violently kick sleeping dogs in streets or parking lots. So there are few dogs that are not extremely scared of people—to socialize an animal, show him/her love, and then abandon him/her…I won’t do it.
So, really, how did I end up with a dog? Ironically, the reason I have a dog now, is the same reason I wasn’t going to get one in the first place. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, a few weeks ago while on a walk with a friend, an incredibly sweet, already neutered, and reasonably well-cared for dog appeared out of nowhere, immediately bonded with me, and followed me all the way home. After a week of him following me, and me talking to people about his history, I felt confident that they story I kept hearing about his past was true: he was the byproduct of just the sort of thing I was trying to avoid. He belonged to an American volunteer who had him neutered and provided him with a loving home, but then, at the end of his time here, left him behind—some stories said that the volunteer gave him to a Motswana who did not want him, others said the volunteer just left. In the meantime, because the dog was so friendly, and was accustomed to being well-cared-for, the dog had succeeded at getting enough food from the local Pakistani restaurant to keep himself in pretty good shape. Because he so clearly wanted to be my dog (and I had already fallen in love—you all know what a total sucker I am), and because he was already socialized and abandoned by someone else, I decided to keep him, and spend the next two years trying to find him a permanent home with someone who shares my views on the way companion animals should be cared for. So now I have a dog.
So, let me tell you a little bit about him! (Warning: this next paragraph is just going to be me rambling at a proud mother; fast forward to the next if you're just reading for the cultural-how-are-things-different-in-Botswana insights.) He is BIG! Maybe 70 pounds or so? As many of you know, I have done extensive work with cats and farmed animals, but almost none with dogs, so I don’t really know dog breeds, but I think he’s mostly a yellow lab mix. He’s incredibly smart—I can’t believe how quickly he has learned my routine, my places, and all of his street-savviness, as well as his manners (COMPLETELY house-trained, even though I know it’s been a couple of years since he’s been in one). Initially when I adopted him, he had a big biting problem—not aggressive biting, but playful biting, since for the past couple of years his only real companions have been dogs, and they play pretty rough here—but he almost immediately learned to stop, and believe me, I have NO idea how to train a dog, so it certainly wasn’t because of me. He gets along remarkably well with all of the other dogs in town, but he does like to maintain the alpha status, which is kind of cute, albeit worrying at times, and he finally totally trusts me—even though he had been following me, and staying with me, it was almost two weeks before he finally totally showed me his belly. And he’s really silly; he loves to herd all of the animals around here, even though he has nowhere that he’s actually herding them to, and he loves to go running with me (and I go running for 1-2 hours most of the time; he tries his best to keep up the whole way) and letting me get ahead, then waiting and running as fast as he can to catch me. And at night at my house, he loves to sleep by my bed, but if he thinks I’m staying up too late, he goes and hides behind the curtains (so it’s dark), and falls asleep and snores really, really, really loudly. And he loves chasing cars—he’s the ONLY dog here who does that…I hate it, but there’s not much I can do to stop him. Probably all normal dog stuff, but he’s my first dog and I love him, so I think it’s special and exciting and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. :oP Oh, and I named him Rocky, but I don’t really know why…he just seems like a Rocky!
Now, although I have not had a dog in the States, I can still say with confidence that the experience of having a dog here is very, very, very different. First of all, unless you are lucky enough to have a government house, which all have fenced yards, or do not live on a shared living compound like myself and most Shakawe residents, there’s no way to really “keep” a dog. Keeping them inside would be inhumane (not LETTING them inside, that’s always humane, and my Rockydog sleeps with me every night I’m at home; it’s KEEPING them inside that’s not safe). It’s incredibly hot, houses are not insulated; and my house, like many here, is only a tiny 15’x15’ room. The windows are far too high for him to see out of so even if the temperature and space weren’t issues, he would have nothing to do all day. And, again, unless you live on your own property with your own fence, which almost no one here does, you cannot keep them in your yard unless they decide they want to stay there, because people are constantly coming and going, the gate always opening and closing. So that means that most dogs, mine included, either spend the day on their own, exploring, or they follow you and sleep outside wherever you are (or follow you, then decide to go exploring because whatever it is that you’re doing is too boring, and, let’s face it, we’re humans, so it probably is).
For a dog like Rocky, who now has a loving mom who takes case of him, it’s a pretty fun way of life for the most part. No leashes, no rules—even though it is socially acceptable to beat dogs, it’s also socially acceptable for dogs to go anywhere they want (as long as it’s not inside), including other people’s yards, farms, business, etc. It’s even ok for dogs to mark any territory they want. One day when I came out of the grocery store, I was horrified to see Rocky marking someone’s car—I was sure he was about to get beaten, and I was about to get an earful. To my great surprise, the owner of the car stepped out, completely unfazed, and didn’t do a thing—and I’ve seen it happen with my and other dogs ever since then without anyone giving a second thought. It’s also kind of a big party scene for the dogs—although almost all of the dogs are in pretty awful shape, they all seem to know each other, and love to play and go on adventures together. After all, Shakawe is full of chickens, goats, donkeys, and cows to chase, and the river to frolick in (although I really wish I wouldn’t—it’s not even safe for people to go in because of the crocodiles). Of course they also fight, especially at night—I don’t have to worry about keeping Rocky quiet, because all night long the village echoes with the painful sounds of dogfighting. And for most of the dogs, their “adventures,” center around the common goal of finding food. But for Rocky, when he stays with me, he gets to have a belly full of food and a night full of sound sleep after a day full of fun, rather than spending the night struggling for survival after a day of hunger and scavenging.
Although this world creates a lot of entertainment for Rockydog, it is also a big source of stress. Sometimes Rockydog decides to go exploring and then cannot find me—he will go missing for a day or two, and I will later find out he has been to my friends’ houses, my workplace, etc., and waited for me when I wasn’t there. (I’ve asked people to call me if he comes looking for me, but since people don’t care for animals the same way here, I haven’t been able to get anyone to do it.) Worse yet, since he doesn’t feel like he has a “home base,” whenever I have to go somewhere by car, it’s literally heart-breaking—he follows the car as far as he can, and then doesn’t know what to do.
As an entirely neurotic pet-mom, it’s maddening. Sure, he’s a tough dog and has been taking care of himself for a long time…but there are so many cars and drunk drivers, and so many crocodiles in the Delta, and even though he’s stronger than most of the other dogs, if his alpha tendencies land him in a fight, one bite in the wrong spot could mean he’s a goner. Or if a person attacks him, and he bites the person out of self-defense, he’ll have an automatic death sentence. Not to mention the fact that I adore him, miss his company like crazy when he’s not around, and it kills me that he might think I’ve abandoned him and that he’s going to have to be homeless all over again.
Honestly, his running away has been a great source of anxiety for me, but, as with most of my experiences here, it’s forcing me to grow, and to accept that a lot of things are simply out of my control. And his companionship has already helped me through so very much—and given me one more reason not to ET, even on those especially difficult days. And fortunately for me, even though I don’t have a government house with a fenced yard, the other PCV in town does, and she is also a huge animal-lover. Thanks to her kindness, I’ve been trying to make that feel like “home base,” and it seems to be working—he now goes there most of the time if he’s looking for me, and she either lets him stay with her in her yard, or calls me to let me know to come get him (he’s still my dog—he follows me everywhere, when he knows where I am, hehe…). And I am so, so, so grateful, because I have to leave soon for IST (in-service training--y'all know you've missed those Peace Corps acronyms), which means I’ll be away in Gaborone for a couple of weeks. Without the other PCV’s support, I am quite sure that the thought of leaving him for that long would cause me to have a complete emotional meltdown.
Anyway, just another small perspective on life here in Bots; this time through the eyes of a dog. Please send good thoughts/prayers/etc. that I’ll be able to find him a really good home before I leave—I’m already stressing over it!! (Yes, even Botswana Chelsea is still apparently completely Type A and neurotic when it comes to animals. [I'm sure you'll all kindly keep any comments about my neuroticism on non-animal issues to yourselves...haha :oP.])