Rabid Dogs and Hypochondria and All

8 Jun

Now that I am pretty confident that I don’t have rabies, I think I’m ready to discuss the dog situation around here. If I turns out I do have rabies someday, then scratch this whole piece and go ahead and shoot me. Meanwhile, read on:


Like many countries without a giant budget for animal control, there are a lot of stray dogs. In fact, apparently only about 30% of dogs in Mexico have homes.* And since no country throws out food like the U.S., stray dogs are not fat little scoundrels roaming the streets. So even though we made fun of her a little, we all also understood when my stepmom Karen, an animal lover and protector by nature, freaked out at the massive amount of skin-and-bones canines as far as the eye can see.


First she tried to buy a (tourist-priced) hamburger for them. Instead we talked her into the more reasonably priced order of pescadillas (fried fish tacos) sold by one of the numerous women who walk around selling homemade food on the street. Then she insisted on buying actual dog food, so she could just carry it around in her purse and feed a little to every dog she sees. You can imagine what a process it was just to walk down the street with her and her dog-pity like this. Once we were eating at a beach-side restaurant, and the staff came and asked us to please quit feeding the dogs.


Once she came back from a jaunt to go feed a particularly skinny and sad-looking dog, and she was very disturbed. “I think he might be dehydrated or something because he didn’t want to eat the food. It took a long time to get him to take it.” And she told us all the details. Conan’s mom, Paulina, was there, patient although unimpressed by this care of all the strays. “I doubt he’s dehydrated. I think it’s much more likely it’s the first time he’s ever been offered anything but leftover tortilla! He’s never seen dog food before!” And we all had to laugh, even Karen.


The stray dog situation doesn’t really bother me much, probably because the majority of my sorrow-for-strangers goes to people; hunched-over grandmothers carrying huge loads of firewood on their backs so they can cook a meal, small kids out selling junky souvenirs late at night with no parent in sight, folks walking around barefoot because they can’t even afford a pair of flip-flops, not to mention the things you don’t see, like families who just had tortillas with salt as an entire meal.** (This is what it looks like, dear “conservative” U.S. citizens who complain about taxes, when there are not social programs to help vulnerable populations.)


So I can appreciate Karen’s concern for the dogs, because her heart is big enough to worry about all the people and all the animals, while mine just isn’t, apparently. Furthermore, I can’t worry about the wellbeing of all the dogs when some of the time what appears to be a stray dog is actually somebody’s pet. But don’t get confused, dear compatriots, by the term “pet” in the U.S. versus Mexico. While of course there are some folks with enough money and extravagance to treat their canine like children and/or royalty, for the most part you won’t find dogs with their own bed, their own hairstylist, eating gourmet food, having expensive surgery and the like. Of course, I know people here who love their dogs, take them on walks, have pictures of their dog on their cell phone, make their dog part of the family.


But in general, as a cultural norm here in Puerto Escondido, dogs have a much lower status and priority than in the U.S. My next door neighbor leaves his dog tied to a tree for long periods of time, sometimes for days on end. Some dogs never leave their yard. Many, many people here have dogs only as a form of protection for their house, and sometimes folks mistreat their dog to make it meaner, without anyone blinking an eye about it. (Of course there is mistreatment of dogs in the U.S., too, but there it’s a giant scandal and people raise a bunch of money for the publicized dog, which, sadly enough, they don’t usually do for mistreated people.)

Lucia playing with Nery's puppies, who are far from mistreated

Lucia playing with Nery’s puppies, who are far from mistreated (by Nery at least. by excited children, maybe)


As much as I hate the idea of people mistreating their animals, I think I am more pissed off by this general culture of dogs as guard dogs, when half the time they are not even fenced in with what they’re guarding. Sometimes I’m walking down the street and there’s a dog presumably protecting its territory, but there’s no dividing line between the dog’s territory and the public domain. And you don’t even know if the dog you’re about to approach is a furious guard dog or a lazy bum who won’t even glance as you pass. Meanwhile, Conan has taught me that often being more dominant than the creature will make it back off. So you pick up or rock and get ready to throw it, or at least yell at the dog and swat your hand. It’s not a 100% guarantee, but it has worked for me some in this crazy jungle of dogs in my neighborhood. Mostly I felt okay to walk around wherever in the daytime, although less so at night when mean dogs have even more free reign.


Until a couple months ago. I was buying tortillas from this woman a few blocks away. She has two or three dogs who seem nice enough, probably neither mistreated nor spoiled, like a lot of dogs around. There was a super skinny-scrawny stray dog hanging around as well that day, but for the most part strays are not threatening. They are usually caught up in their own dog drama, quests for food and pleasant naps, so while I don’t rush up to make friends, I don’t fear them, either. I got my tortillas and strutted right past this one, but when I went to throw my leg over my bike I felt a sudden sting in my leg.


It took me a second to realize the dog had bit me, I was so surprised. I put the bike between us and it started to go around the bike. “Me mordió!” It bit me, I think I said, aghast, and the lady who makes the tortillas started yelling at a little girl, who was also buying tortillas, to get her dog. “Go take your dog home!” She scolded the girl. “It’s not my dog, ok,” she assured me, in case the dog put me off from buying tortillas there. The little girl was holding onto the muzzle of the dog I was sure had been a stray. I just nodded, got on my bike and rode back home.


Once I was at home and completely free from danger I discovered I felt a little shaky from the surprise of being bit when I was so utterly not expecting it. I inspected my leg and discovered it was a very small spot where it had broken the skin. I cleaned it with peroxide. I sat down and told myself it was no big deal. When I was four, I’d gotten a dog bite on my face that needed 20 stitches (from the beloved pet of a dear family friend), so certainly this was nothing in comparison. I started to calm down. But then, like any good hypochondriac, I started to think about diseases. I was up on my tetanus shots, so that pretty much only left rabies as a possible danger.


‘Rabies, once symptoms are present, is incurable and almost always fatal’ I read on the blessed information superhighway.  I checked to see what “almost always” really meant- only a handful of cases of survival, mostly of people who had previously had a rabies vaccine after a bite. I read about the agony people suffer while dying from rabies- including being terrified of water, unable to swallow, with excessive saliva running down your chin. “Death usually occurs within days of the onset of these symptoms,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site reassured me- although can you imagine passing whole days like that?! Not sounding good for the home team.


I sat at the internet cafe and read about the rabies vaccine and the timeframe for effective prevention. I started to panic that I had cleaned my tiny wound with peroxide instead of the copious amounts of soap and water recommended by the internet. Hours had passed, so it was probably already too late for soap and water to wash out the dog’s saliva. It was probably already traveling through my bloodstream, while I was there wasting time reading about it.


Although it was not on my agenda for the day, I decided to pursue a rabies vaccine. But where to go for such a thing? Who to even ask? You don’t just google things around here and get answers. So I went to one of those pharmacy doctors, where you can get a free or cheap consultation, usually with no waiting.


I explained what had happened and the doctor examined my wound while- I’m pretty sure- trying not to laugh in my face. I tried to explain that I just thought it was better to be safe than sorry; that no, I didn’t know if the dog had rabies or not but that not knowing was exactly why I’d prefer to go ahead and get the vaccine. He said the hospital probably didn’t have it, and even if they did they probably wouldn’t give it to me because it’s a very expensive and hard-to-get vaccine. I tried to pressure him for any other possibilities on where to get the vaccine, and he assured me that my chances (both of getting rabies and of getting the vaccine) were low. Then we had a nice statistical chat about the risk of getting rabies when you’re bit by a dog versus being bitten by, say, a raccoon. And he threw in that really if you’re in the kind of place where you get bit by those kind of wild animals then you probably deserve it (okay maybe those weren’t his exact words, but close enough.). I was not impressed by the statistics because I could be in that small percentage and then there will be 100% of me dying a horrendous death in the very near future. I did not feel like he really appreciated my angst and anxiety about this rabies thing, to say the least.


Meanwhile I had called Conan to come get me, so after the unhelpful doctor I went and found him. “I just need to freak out for a minute,” I warned him, and proceeded to cry like a baby. “I know it’s super unlikely that I have rabies,” I choked out between sobs, “but I might! And it’ll be too late!” I continued.


“Okay. We’ll go find the vaccine.” Conan tried to reason and assure me.


“I don’t want the stupid vaccine. I don’t think I’ll get rabies….but I might!” And then he tried to tell me again to at least go find out if they’d give me the vaccine, at least make an effort if I was going to be all weirded out and worried about it. But still I refused. And still I continued to be upset, to lay out all the facts I had learned, to throw out some statistics, to reason about my odds. Unfortunately, it started to make Conan upset, too. We went to a friend’s house close by so I could (rather belatedly) wash my leg correctly with copious amounts of soap and water. Then I called my mom, the expert at letting me freak out and talk through everything without getting upset herself (or at least not showing it…must be all that psychology training I used to bitch about).


Talking through it helped, and I didn’t further pursue the rabies vaccine. And here I am writing this, not frothing at the mouth, a couple months after the fact. But now I am more cautious than I’d like to be. I don’t like to walk and bike around in fight-or-flight mode every time I see a dog, because I see dogs like every 10-60 seconds. And I’m not even particularly worried about being bit in and of itself; I’m not scared of the pain of it. I feel like I just need to be prepared for it. Well, and I might still be scared of rabies.


I’ve tried to figure out why this rabies thing was so panic-inducing for me. I mean, sure, mortality is always a little scary, but I do things that are much more likely to cause death than passing by dogs on a regular basis, and it doesn’t phase me. A traffic accident is much more likely to kill me than maybe getting rabies from maybe being bit by a dog, yet I don’t get scared crossing the street or riding in vehicles. I don’t flinch when there’s turbulence on the airplane. I smoked cigarettes for years, with only a nod at the very likely possibility of that killing me, even after watching my paternal grandmother die from it. And I certainly enjoy other little risks, like roller coasters. In general, I know it’s senseless to walk around calculating and worrying about everything because of course I could die at any moment from just about anything, just like everybody else.


Maybe it’s the idea of days of frothing at the mouth, hallucinating, afraid to even calm my thirst. Or maybe it’s the fact that there is this life-saving vaccine that I may or may not have access to. Or the most likely possibility, knowing myself, is how much I know I would beat myself up for not spending the time and energy to get a vaccine if I actually did get rabies, however unlikely. It’s imagining that regret would eat me alive before the rabies, spending whatever hours or days there were, between realizing I had rabies and losing my mind, repeating all the what-ifs that would make it un-happen, being mad at myself for not seeing it coming and doing something to change the fates. Absurd, right?


I guess it’s not so much about rabies, but about getting comfortable with things that make me uncomfortable, for better and for worse. I don’t want to get comfortable, for example, with people’s poverty and misery. Or at least I don’t want to be complacent about it. But I also realize that I can’t go around, say, handing out nutritious meals the way Karen can hand out dog food. Nor does it help anybody for me to be in a constant state of distress.


But I do want to get comfortable with the dog situation, with the complete unpredictability that is their animal nature. They’re not going away. Sure, I can keep being pissed off about the percentage of people here who train their dogs to “protect the house” aka be aggressive to people. I can be nervous every day, the multiple times a day I walk or bike down the street, but it’s not going to change anything.


I’d like to get to the point where I can be just slightly cautious, be aware of the dogs around me, without my heart racing in preparation every 30 seconds. I’d like to get to the point where I wouldn’t waste time blaming myself if something did happen, where I could put just a little more faith in the universe, where I could keep in mind a little better that what’s going to happen is bound to happen. So there’s my message to myself for the week: work on getting comfortable with the uncomfortable, rabid dogs and hypochondria and all. But I still expect somebody to put me out of my misery if I suddenly start to salivate.



*according to statistics from the House of Representatives (la Cámara de Diputados), from this report:


**Almost 20% of the population in the state of Oaxaca suffer from malnutrition, according to a report published by Mexican governmental agencies, and that’s a bit lower than some statistics from other sources- link


More than half the population under age 15 (in the state of Oaxaca) is living in “multidimensional poverty,” defined as a situation in which a person is not guaranteed at least one of his/her basic rights and the household income is insufficient to acquire needed services and goods. (loosely translated from this report (which is a really eye-opening read if you can read Spanish):



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