Reality spoils ending of my happy dog story

The story of Benji, the dog whose adoption by someone in the Centro we facilitated had a bittersweet ending, certainly not the one we expected.

Still, it taught Stew and I how little we know about the ways of rural Mexico and also about the perils of hubris, that mythological Greek sin of arrogance—in this case how things can go awry when foreigners here presume to impose their perspectives on the environment around them.

To recapitulate, Benji—who turned out to be a female—is one of  friendly pack of anywhere from five to a dozen dogs that hang around the gate to our ranch begging for food.

They are a discordant choir whose voices change daily, except for a few regulars like Benji, who’s been coming around for three or four years. In addition to feeding them, we took several to be sterilized when a spay-and-neuter mobile clinic came to a town near our ranch, and occasionally also others to the vet when they appeared sick.

Benji after her date at the vet and the groomer. 

One morning about four weeks ago, Benji, a scrawny fifteen- or twenty-pounder with long fur, showed up for her daily handout with a swollen, badly lacerated ear. A very docile, submissive sort, I suspect she got caught in the losing end of a dog fight.

We took her to the vet, who stitched her up and also groomed her to get rid of her matted, flea-infested fur. She spent two nights at the vet, plus another eight or nine days recuperating at the home of friend nearby who keeps dogs and had an extra kennel. The total tab for Benji’s redo came to four thousand pesos or about two-hundred and twenty-five dollars.

At that point Stew and I figured that Benji, whom we thought was a stray, didn’t have much future running around loose in the campo. 

For these free-range mutts, life is indeed nasty, brutish and short.

Félix’s first dog, Chupitos, was killed by other dogs and partly disemboweled by the time he found her. Negro, a big black and very sweet dog was poisoned. Osita, possibly Benji’s mother, one day disappeared.

On the nearby roads, carcasses of dogs and cats killed by cars are almost as ubiquitous as household trash. The hungry neighborhood mutts clean-up the fatalities swiftly and matter-of-factly: We’ve seen dead burros and horses disappear within forty-eight hours. 

So we advertised for people who might want to adopt her and found a guy who lived in downtown San Miguel and was delighted to take Benji, which coincidentally looked very much like a dog he had recently lost.

We exchanged handshakes with the new owner in the parking lot of the vet’s office, he took Benji, and Stew and I mentally patted ourselves on the back, proud of our good deed.

This feel-good story, however, quickly unraveled. Benji who seemed docile and friendly to the new owner decided she wanted to go home—back to the old pack of mangy dogs outside our ranch gate.

In an incredible feat of instinctual navigation that stills boggles my mind, just a few hours after her arrival at the new home, Benji escaped and over a period of no more than thirty-six hours, walked eighteen kilometers, through busy San Miguel streets and highways and other life-defying obstacles, almost to the gate of our ranch.

More precisely we found her on the road about one kilometer or so from our house, exhausted but walking determinedly home. When we called her name, she happily came and jumped into our car. We were going to town but turned around to our ranch, fed her and left her just outside our gate.

The prospective new owner, who was very upset and apologetic, by now was running ads for missing pets on the San Miguel radio station and was delighted to have Benji back, or so he thought.

But when we went to collect Benji the next morning to bring her to her new owner, I ran into Vicente, a farmer across the road.

I chirpily told him that we had found a home for Benji. Not so chirpily he informed me Benji was his dog, a member of his family.

Gotta be kidding, was my first thought. This skeletal wreck of a dog without a name, a collar or any sign of human care or affection is a member of your family? Presumably one of the ten or twelve dogs that come to our place begging for food almost every day?

I pleaded how Benji would be much healthier and happy in her new home. He should be glad that someone is adopting her. Vicente wasn’t moved.

I assumed he was angling for some money—another error on my part—and I offered him five-hundred pesos, or approximately twenty-five dollars.

But Vicente, stone serious, wouldn’t budge and I certainly wasn’t going to get into a bidding contest, over a dog that could have ended up costing us close to three-hundred dollars. 

So it was so long to Benji and my arrangements for a better life for her. We’ve only seen Benji once since her return. I suspect Vicente might have her permanently tied up after my rescue attempt.

Over the next few days, I started walking back the Benji story in my mind and parsing what went wrong. My two grievous sins, it seems were ignorance of the reality of how rural folk treat their animals, plus my assumption that I could, or even had the right to, intervene and make life better for one of them.

Vicente and for that matter just about all my Mexican neighbors have vastly different ideas about the worth and proper care of household pet. But for Benji’s amazing trip back, I doubt Vicente would have missed her.

Indeed, the nearby towns of Biznaga and Sosnabar teem with nameless, collarless dogs, many in awful condition. That might look to us like gross animal neglect but most of those dogs probably belong to someone.

I’ve attended the local church for baptisms and first communions, and it’s not unusual for mangy dogs to amble in and park themselves somewhere to scratch their fleas as if they were part of the service.

Vicente wasn’t kidding about Benji—our moniker—being a member of his family, not some stray animal for me to rescue much less buy.

For her part, Benji dramatically made her choice to return, against all odds, to where she hangs out, squalid as precarious as her living arrangement may seem to us.

Essentially she said to me, “Alfredo, thanks but no thanks. I’d rather stay here.”

Ron, a dear friend of ours from Texas who used to be a Roman Catholic priest, and who now lives even deeper in the campo than we do, once gave Stew and me a piece of advice about dealing with the often illogical way—or so it seems to us—that Mexicans around us navigate through life.

It’s a nugget Stew and I keep repeating to each other at least once a day.

“Life in Mexico, ” Ron counseled, “is what it is.”

Not what we think it ought to be but what it in fact is.  Foreign do-gooders with big ideas: Proceed with caution.

12 thoughts on “Reality spoils ending of my happy dog story

  1. I was just thinking about Benji yesterday, and was going to email you to ask after her. I began reading this post with dread, praying, until I read, “… is one of…” and I knew I could go on without my heart breaking. Thank you for the update. A friend in town recently had a similar encounter with a dog down the street from her that she passed everyday. Always tied up, ribs showing, forlorn looking. Never anyone showing any attention to it. She offered much of what you did for Benji, yet the owner wanted the dog, and would not even accept a paid vet's visit.I like Ron's words of wisdom to you. My nugget, which I got when I was in a quandary over something after first moving here, was, “Life is often messy.”Indeed, it is what it is, and often messy.


  2. Anonymous

    The story of Dolly: Dolly lived across the road in a fancy house rented by a gangster, he neglected her. Dolly was his wife's dog and the couple were estranged, living apart, he in Ohio, she in Florida. He would put the dog out in the morning and maybe put it in at night It was always in the road. One day some guy stops and told me in a loud angry voice to keep my dog out of the road while I was tending a roadside flowerbed. Next time my daughter was home from college, I sent Dolly back with her to Toledo. All is good…The next time my daughter came home, Dolly ran back to the gangster's house but he soon went back to putting her out all day and off to Western Ohio she went. This happened three times until the guy had to up sticks for some reason(gangsters are like that). Dolly is blind, deaf and has a broken leg now, she is somewhere north of 18 years old. She gets carried outside, inside, hand fed, I would argue better stuff than I get.Sometimes it all works out for the better.And I knew the gangster would not kick up a fuss, high profile gangsters end up in some local corn field-it was not worth the risk.


  3. During my childhood in Maracaibo, Venezuela, the “Sanidad” or sanitation department would drop poisoned meat in the streets every six months or so. The next day they would collect the carcasses of all the dead dogs lying in the streets. It is what it is… When staying in San Miguel two years ago, Shelagh would say T.I.M. every time I was shaking my head in disbelief at something or another, “This Is Mexico”.Thanks for the follow-up.


  4. Anonymous

    It is what it is. At least you tried. Some things in this world we can fix, other things we just have to learn to live with. Good luck!Robert GillPhoenix, AZ


  5. I don't want to give up completely. We still plan to volunteer time and money to Amigos de Animales for their spay-and-neuter campaigns, but at times I feel they are hardly making a dent. Al


  6. Someone told Stew that not too long ago Mexico City used that same strategy for controlling stray dogs, though supposedly they've abandoned it. In exchange for what, I don't know. It's odd when we visit the States or Canada that we seldom see any stray dogs meandering about. It's a different


  7. Thanks so much for this story — and please keep helping with spay/neuter efforts. Those clinics (at least in my area) serve people who want healthier, safer lives for their dogs, but don't have the resources to pay for vet care. It doesn't change the world, but it does help some dogs and some families, and that's worth it.


  8. Anonymous

    Another all-too-common response from foreigners in Mexico is reporting partial or downright erroneous information as truth. Colonia Condesa, one neighborhood in Mexico City, had a spate of dog poisonings about a year ago; the poisoner was not the government, but was a private individual. I've lived in CDMX for years and in other parts of Mexico for 37 years and have never heard even a whisper about any kind of government strategy for controlling stray dogs by poisoning. On the contrary, the majority of people who live in that neighborhood were shocked, scandalized, and frightened by these poisonings. The attitude toward domestic animals (at least in Mexico's urban areas, although perhaps not so much in the area where you are) has changed enormously over the last 10-15 years. Spay and neuter is the norm, rescue leagues abound, and animals are often called “perrhijos” or “gathijos”–my dog child, or my cat child–and are treated with love and respect.


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