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Sometimes I forget I’m living in America.
You must know what I mean. I’ll be flipping through the paper, or
doing the electronic equivalent — surfing, or scrolling — and
something leaps off the page at me and smacks me in the eye.
Well, then I’ll wonder where I am, where WE are a culture. Just look
at this: “The city won’t kill more stray dogs to clean the street,” the
Los Angeles Daily News reports, “for the Democratic National Convention.”
That sentence made my blood run cold. How massive euthanasia of stray animals was even considered appropriate preparation for a political convention for even one measly moment is incomprehensible. And I am not saying this as some — shudder — animal-loving wimp-ette who prefers pets to people, so please back off. Although, now that you mention it, my cat has yet to leave the toilet seat up.
When I was in my
Rosa Luxemburg phase, back before I realized commentary could be a tool to topple tyranny, I traveled to Guatemala and El Salvador and read what I could about human rights abuses in
Third World countries, until I woke up one day and looked around me.
What did I see? I saw an American public official, in the year 2000, who proposed eliminating street-animals for the convenience of visitors — before other more thinking, feeling human beings realized the implications of his plan, challenged him on it, so he backed down.
What I am talking about is wholesale, cold-blooded extermination of animals. Nazi-style. I’ve actually witnessed that kind of thing in Central America, and it is, in a word,
Come November, those of you who live in L.A. and care about such fundamental humane issues, please vote to approve a $140 million bond issue for building new animal shelters, if such a measure appears on the ballot. Or else,
protest before some enterprising idiot starts a website selling surplus “Dead Doggie Doorstops,” and then some well-meaning friend sends you one for your birthday.
Because the next time Dan Knapp gets an impulse to murder a few thousand homeless animals, there might not be “stinging rebukes from the Mayor and animal activists” to stop him.
So here’s the scenario. It’s all true. It happened. Absorb it. Yes, it’s Central America, but soon, with guys like Dan Knapp of L.A.’s Animal Services Department in power, it could be America. Your country, your city, your neighborhood, your life, your pet. …
They poisoned the dogs on a Tuesday.
We were three and a half hours by car from Guatemala City. Guatemala City, where a pygmy replica of the Eiffel Tower straddles a typically hectic urban highway choked by dark clouds of diesel fuel. Where multilingual lounge lizard and cabaret crooner Daniel Salazar wrings the international wimp’s anthem, “Feelings,” of every last annoying nuance of hypersensitivity.
Where a billboard heralds a new deodorant named “Success.” Where a bus line is christened “Eureka.” Where, it is routinely reported, nuns have been kidnapped and raped, and union leaders have been assassinated, and teachers are attacked by bombs after marching for better wages, and peasants have been taken from their beds and tortured and executed, and student leaders have been snatched off their campuses and decapitated by men with walkie-talkies.
Three and a half hours by car from Guatemala City, they were poisoning the dogs. Rancid meat on the streets. Meat laced with strychnine. Meat a starving child could misplace for manna.
Welcome to the picture-postcard-perfect paradise of Panajachel you have probably read about on the travel pages of your local paper — a mountain-lake village where they were poisoning the dogs. A place where profits seem more important than politics and politics more important than people, where exporting and mass-producing traditional indigenous-woven crafts has become a burgeoning business to the Americans and the French and the Japanese and other nationals eager to exploit a fluctuating currency’s favorable exchange rate, despite Guatemala’s ugly record of massive human rights abuses.
It was a Tuesday when they poisoned the dogs in Guatemala. As a Philadelphian, I felt right at home. Hadn’t we once had a mayor who bombed his own citizens? It was the same illogic at work. This is also the tale of two Larrys: Larry the Dog, dying or dead of strychnine, and his human namesake, Larry the Animal, also known as Dead Larry, the Vietnam Vet-turned-Contra-turned-junkie. “They” poisoned the dog, with rancid meat on the streets of Pana, meat laced with strychnine, meat that just as easily could — and did — find its way into the mouth of a hungry child. And there are still many hungry children in Guatemala, mostly Indians.
“The Indians did it,” shrugs a German girl at a gringo garden party, one of three gringo garden parties I saw in five days. “Though sometimes in the spring,” she continues, “the town does it before tourist season, because the tourists think there are just too many dogs here, running free, and that disgusts them,” she reports without regret or rancor. If you’ve been here, you’ve seen them, the skinny street dogs particularly appealing — gentle purposeful creatures that seem to have a definite destination in mind, usually a friendly restaurant where they can siesta at the feet of tourists and occasionally cadge some choice scraps from the kitchen.
Look, she says wanly, two of her own dogs were killed by the poison. She came home from work and saw them just standing up, standing up, strangely like cardboard cutouts, before they toppled over, suddenly stiff and lifeless. One of her dogs that died was the mother of six puppies. “Oh, the puppies,” she sighs, “how young they were. I am trying to feed them myself, but already two have died.”
She’s married to Nuno the waiter — incredibly handsome, old Guatemalan family, and what if they are all a bit strange with each other? She can discuss the merits of literature in translation. Her hair is cropped to her ears, short on top, skirt from Guatemalan quarte fabric, above her knees.
Why not do something, organize the locals, I ask her. “We tried,” she shrugs again, “but there is nothing that can be done.” She returns to nursing her beer, and I wander off.
The poisoning of the dogs pales as conversation topic in this expatriate community, which seems more concerned with endless speculation on the fluctuating currency’s favorable exchange rate to outsiders.
Disgusted at this superficial level of socializing in the face of such cruelty, I return to the casita, the cottage my friend Mary Grace rents, where she and I were staying.
Out back, Larry the Dog has taken to sleeping on the patio. He’s one of the dogs known around town. He hangs around Los Amigos, the restaurant where his “person,” Brian, works. Before Larry the Dog’s poisoning, he was a real bruiser, picked up five extra pounds from the tourists feeding him, plus scraps from the kitchen.
The patio is cold concrete. I drape Larry the Dog in one of Brian’s soft old shirts with the collar torn off. In the morning, someone has placed a white wool rug with a deer design next to Larry the Dog. Day after day now, Larry the Dog lies out on the back patio. I’m pretty sure he’s dying, dying on the patio, day after day, lying there, sleeping, eating nothing, not moving much except when his body ripples with dry heaves, raging and growling even at Brian, his “person.”
“What Larry’s been through,” marvels Brian of his resilient canine companion. “Backed over by a truck. Sliced by a machete. Sight almost destroyed by an eye infection. Survived everything!! That’s why we call him Larry.” They always differentiate, Larry the Dog, or Larry the Animal, a living person who became a Contra after growing up on an army base in North Africa where, it was rumored, his father was a spy. Now Larry the Animal has dinero, moola, loot. He passes big bills to a begging lady. He has a new moustache and seems taller and skinner than ever. Oh, someone said, “Dead Larry,” he’s doing so much cocaine.
In contrast, Brian has both California looks and lifestyle: the macro diet, the meditation, the mediocrity. Trendy, from L.A. “Before when he was sick, we always gave him wheat-grass juice, and it worked,” Brian says of Larry the Dog.
The other Larry, or Lorenzo as he was sometimes called, has caused some consternation for my friend Mary Grace, who never realized that being a mercenary meant the guy may have murdered people for money, right, killed peasants for cash. Well, Larry the Person had just returned from Colombia, manically, maniacally high, so suddenly gaunt that his jeans flapped around his rear end.
Soon, Larry the Dog recognizes no one. Everyone has become an enemy. The dogs, of course, are a metaphor. The gringos there did nothing. They shrugged, that’s the way it was, sure, it was wicked but what can they do? They blame it on “The Indians” or “The Town” — even the ex-mayor who now runs a tiny cantina, “a place men go to talk and drink.” They have their patio parties. They show off their houses. To me that was truly reprehensible.
So it would seem the poison is silently, slowly eating Larry the Dog from within, like bad politics. One Friday, he had a good day: he got up, stood a little, vomited only half of what he ate: a baked potato left from my dinner, hacked with a knife in a bowl, mashed up with an egg, water, and garlic cream cheese. Finally, he couldn’t stand at all. His legs were shot. Brian, who was going to become a Yogananda monk until a trance channeler advised against it, was losing faith. He tried to cure Larry the Dog with wheat-grass juice again this time, but it didn’t work.
The day I left Guatemala, El Salvador exploded in renewed violence and there was for the first time in memory a U.S. Air Force transport plane at the Guatemala City airport. Larry the Dog was still dying out back on the patio, only there was something new, perhaps a portent, perhaps a revelation. Where Larry the Dog lies on the concrete, a drop of fresh blood, shining like a jewel in the noon-day sun. Was that, I wondered, a new kind of Death by Inches, torture from one part of the body to the next?
Was the same poison silently, slowly, inexorably eating Larry the Dog also destroying Larry the Person — and their country — from within?
Now I ask you, what could L.A.’s Dan Knapp possibly be worried about? The hour between dog and wolf? That’s poet Laura Wallace’s term. It’s when, as she writes, the sleeping dog “rises, fangs long, fur stirred to hackles.” Nah. I can’t see packs of wild dogs biting the bony, Al-Boring ankles of Democrat delegates, can you? But there is something he should be concerned about, and in this case it’s not just generated by dogs.
Yo, Dan, a bit of advice: if you go anywhere near either convention, get out your Pooper Scooper. You’ll need it.
And just maybe there’s a mythological precedent for Dan Knapp’s misguided animal-eradicating whims — Hercules Envy. In ancient mythology, Cerberus was a three-headed watchdog guarding the entrance gates to Hades, the lower world. While Cerberus, they say, permitted new spirits to enter the realm of the dead, it allowed none of them to leave, with few exceptions. The 12th, and final, labor of
Hercules — freeing him after a decade in servitude to King Eurystheus to purify himself of mortal crimes — was to capture Cerberus. Which Hercules did, as instructed by Hades, god of the underworld, with his bare hands. Alas, though Hercules did indeed bring Cerberus to the King, the ruler was so terrified of the spectacularly ferocious dog that Hercules had to return to Hades to take Cerberus back.
Although once, the Trojan prince Aeneas and the maiden Psyche were able to pacify Cerberus … not with poison, but with honey cake.