Counting Every Rib

--image by dominique bergeron on Flickr

–image by dominique bergeron on Flickr

At a table at a beach-front open-air restaurant in Boca de Tomatlan in Mexico, my date and I are approached by a Chihuahua who is even tinier than he would be if you couldn’t count all his ribs. I think the poor fellow must be starving, and this is distressing enough. But then I see nearby a much larger dog, a Doberman-mix who is nothing more than dull eyes and dry skin over bones. The Doberman, I conclude, really is starving.

Are there degrees of starvation? “Six degrees of starvation?” Let’s see: Hungry, starving, dead. That’s three. Maybe snackish could be No. 1 and hungry No. 2. Then what? Famished? No, too much like a Beverly Hills teenager. Dead is certainly No. 6, though.

Now that I think of it, it’s “six degrees of separation,” not starvation. Well, dead is about as separate as it gets. Separate. Distant. Some distance from these mutts would be good right now. Not in miles, though; I’m trying to have a vacation here, my first vacation in 35 years, at age 70, and I’m not going to give up just because of … somebody starving. Oh dear! What I’m trying to do is get some distance between myself and what I’m thinking. What must it feel like to be starving and watch others dine?

How is this making me feel? feel? Me, the only person I know who never let go of that hugely confident notion in the Sixties that we could “make the world a better place to live in.”

Such unpleasantness in a restaurant where we’ve come to eat a lot and have a good time!

And then a third dog nears our table. This one is a terrier who looks as though he crawled into a dustbin last week and just crawled out again. Is he more starved or less starved than the other two? Now, I feel guilty about having ordered my tacos. The food is there on my plate, arranged nicely, looking as though it will be delicious. But how can I eat while surrounded by such need?

We have two dogs with us, at our feet—two well-fed and well-cared for dogs who are now looking for what we who eat well call “treats.” So, five dogs now surround our table.

I look around me at the other diners. The majority of them are Mexican families. They are on holiday on the last day of the Mexican Semana Santa (Easter Week), and they are having a good time. Children are cavorting here and there. Bebés are being passed from mamas to papas to abuelas to amigos at other tables. Senoritas are changing from bikinis to more demure attire under cover of beach towels. A young papa is proudly showing off a tattoo of his baby son—an almost perfect likeness, we agree, when he shows us a picture of the boy. At a table near the kitchen, a guy with a paunch and an air of authority suddenly falls asleep, his head narrowly missing his meal.

Nobody is paying any attention to the dogs except me.

So, OK. I hand a morsel of chicken from my first taco to a suddenly animated Chihuahua, who moves forward next to my Lilly Dog. To be fair, I give Lilly a bite, too, and I hand a bite to my dinner companion to give to his Lucy Dog who is on the other side of the table. With that, the Doberman moves forward very, very politely and sits himself between Lilly and the Chihuahua. Lilly moves over a little so everyone has enough room. She doesn’t seem threatened by a dog who might intimidate her after a hundred big dinners between those bones and that skin.

The Doberman gets another bite. Now, the terrier moves closer and gets her first bite of chicken. I watch as she becomes in that moment considerably more alert.

I take a bite of taco and then give each waiting dog a bite, then take another bite myself. And so it goes until my meal is finished, at which point I offer my plate of crumbs and some leftover tortillas to the Doberman. He’s the biggest and therefore most in need. I hold the plate for him. I feel so loving. I am so engrossed in this scene where I am a benefactor doing my infinitesimal part to make the world a better place, at least for dogs.

Several days later, remembering my good feeling, it occurs to me to wonder how the Mexican diners were reacting while I was improving a few dogs’ lives. Mexicans are notorious for their poor treatment of what they consider to be “animales, únicos animales,” and I thought they might not have approved. I call my date and ask if he noticed.

He laughs. “They were looking at me like, dude, what’s she doing? I just smiled at everybody, a big smile, like there was nothing unusual going on at our table. I mean, really, they were the ones taking off their clothes and passing out over their plates.

“Then,” he continues, still laughing, “by the time it got to the big dog licking from the plate, they were grimacing as if I should do something immediately. Me, I just continued with my big smile and said, in English, as if I understood no Spanish at all, ‘She loves animals.’”

He’s right. I do.

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