Since I was a small child I was aware of the stray dog situation in Puerto Rico, it’s hard not to be. Each store parking lot has at least a half dozen, mangy-furred, weary-eyed critters begging for food and lying under cars to avoid the blazing midday sun. But for me it was also because opinions about the creatures varied so greatly in the Davila branch of my family. My mother was brought up to believe that dogs were livestock to be kept outside and employed as security. But her stepmother, my beloved Mamita Nivea and my grandfather’s second wife, collected stray dogs like most people collect knickknacks. There were always at least a dozen mutts ranging about the house, smalls ones barking at you from under the rattan furniture, large ones loping around the exterior of the house, their fur caked with the tar from my grandfather’s trucks. Nivea would sit on the porch in her rocking chair with at least three or four of them draped across her body, their eyes closed with pleasure as she scratched behind their one remaining ear. But my grandfather hated them. I remember sitting on the porch one day as he shuffled out in his pajamas yelling towards the back yard, shaking his cane and waving a gun. I screamed as he shot at a stray that was scurrying by the pool. “They’re only blanks!” he yelled at me as if I should have known, my ears ringing from the blast. The dog took off into the bushes, its stringy tail between its legs. “If I don’t scare them away that woman would take them all in until there was no room for us!” he muttered as he shuffled back to his bedroom, cane in one hand, and gun in the other.
But he is looking down from heaven in dismay as my beloved Tía Georgina has taken after Mamita Nivea rather than him. From the day she moved out of my grandfather’s house and on her own she has grown and nurtured her own brood of disheveled but well-loved hounds, her real estate choices dictated by the now thirteen dogs that live with her. The back of her SUV always contains two large bags of dog food and a container of water. Over the years while traveling with her around the island we’ve stopped by the road on the way to El Yunque to feed the strays that wander by the road, on a side street in Humacao, and every trip to the supermarket includes a meal and fresh water for the parking lot’s canine residents. I always smiled and accepted this as an integral part of this woman I loved, but an odd one. But it wasn’t until this February that she managed to pull me and my son Carlos into her efforts…it wasn’t until then that I really began to understand.
Once we had settled into my Tío Esteban’s condo in Luquillo, Georgina arrived to take us to lunch, but said she had a stop to make on the way. We drove along the narrow side streets, wondering where she was taking us. Finally she pulled the car to a stop at a dead end. I couldn’t imagine what she was doing: there was nothing there but trash and palm fronds rustling in the wind. She asked Carlos to help her get something from the trunk, and I saw them hauling a massive bag of dog food towards the edge of the trees. I should have known. I resigned myself to watching her feed some gristled old mutts when suddenly seven tiny creatures came stumbling over the bank, all long legs, fur and ribbed torsos. Carlos and I stood transfixed as she carefully poured piles of food on the ground and the family of puppies watched with careful eyes from the shadows of the trees. Half of them looked like boxers, the other like any number of dog breeds all mixed together. The mother watched in the distance as Georgina poured some water into a discarded plastic to-go container she found on the side of the road. Carlos tried to coax them closer, but they would skitter with any movement of his arm, any step closer. Realizing we probably wouldn’t get to pet them, we contented ourselves with watching them gambol about, tumbling over one another on the grass as they waited for us to leave. We watched them begin to eat in the rearview mirror and felt happy we had helped fill those small bellies for at least one day.
Needless to say, we went back the next day. And the next. By the end of the two weeks, the boldest one would stand near as we poured the food, his brother and sisters a few feet away. As we cooed over them, my aunt offered to ship them to anyone who might want to adopt them stateside. Carlos and I lamented our asthma, our allergies. Otherwise, we would have taken at least one home. Carlos’ favorite part of the vacation was not the hours of body surfing at the beach, the shopping in old San Juan, or even the generous gift of a Nintendo DS from Titi, but rather the daily ritual of feeding the puppies. We talk about them often, even now, realizing with not a small amount of sadness that they will be full grown by the time we visit next year: that is, if they survive. A sato’s life span is not a long one, and our only hope is that the efforts of people like Georgina will pay off in no-kill shelters, and more comprehensive neutering plans. And the press attention that Selena Gomez’s visit brought is sure to help, but there is a long way to go to change the society’s perception of the canine species. But until then, when we visit the island, we will always have a bag or two of dog food in the back of our rental car, and though I’m not sure my mother would understand, Mamita Nieva is looking down at her great grandson Carlos and smiling.