LIVING / The Shadows of Their Smiles

The Shadows of Their Smiles

The Shadows of Their Smiles

30 March 2009 LIVING 18

Our regular readers already know that we have a big soft spot in our hearts for the dogs of the Yucatan... especially the malixes, the Mayan mutts. Those are the sleek, big eared, dark-eyed, short-haired dogs that you see everywhere around here. The Working Gringos have adopted two of them (URL and Mali), and we know many others with happy homes. But there are still so many on the streets, and in the shelters. We always encourage our readers to support AFAD, as well as any other shelter that keeps, heals and finds homes for lost dogs.

The following is a story sent to us by a reader, Terry Godown, who hopes to publicize the problem of street dogs and encourage anyone who is looking for a dog to adopt a dog.

The Last Day Dawns

It was our last day in the rented beach casa. My husband Bud and I were heading home to the States after a month’s odyssey in the Yucatan, Mexico. I awoke between 6 and 7 a.m. as usual to the sound of the waves and the twirping of the mystery bird perched on the Seagrape tree outside. I fondly called it the “cell phone” bird, because it sounded like a popular mobile ring option.

We had gotten into the habit of going to bed much earlier during our stay there because we had no TV or computer, except for a small local internet cafe in town called “Super Alex”, our only connection to the outside world. Among the eclectic supply of goods ranging from hardware to snacks, Alejandro (Alex) had 5 computer stations and one hookup for anyone who brought their own laptop. This was where we shared our time in Mexico with our family.

I threw on my pink hooded sweat jacket which doubled as my ‘Mexican bathrobe’, zipping it up enough to keep off the chill from the cool morning breezes. This morning I would cut up the remainders of pastry and fresh pineapple, papaya and mango we had purchased earlier at the local market, and then head over to Super Alex.

No matter how quietly I tread down the white-tiled steps from the bedroom, they always seemed to sense I was awake and out of bed. I knew because I could hear the playful groans and yelps wafting in through the screens on the breeze that poufed the curtains next to our bed. The first morning tussles had begun. As was our routine, I always made the coffee first, then cheerfully opened the door to say “buenas dias!” to my two wanton little amigas. Today I would greet for the last time their excited and hungry faces, wagging tails and fervent paws that pummeled the screen door no matter how much I tried to stop them.

The dual energy of expectation for breakfast in what they had come to feel was certainly a permanent home, tackled me right through the screen door... this exuberant, newfound lust for hot dogs, biscuits and whatever scraps were doggy-bagged from our prior meals. “Monsters!” I would say to them as I stamped my feet on the steps, exhibiting a lame excuse for effective canine discipline. But this particular morning I felt saturated with the dreaded melancholy that poured over me and fogged my eyesight as I tried to behave as if this was just another day in forever. I desperately needed the loving licks that would unknowingly offer me some consolation for the decision I had made, so I was poised to withstand the pouncing of sandy paws when I stepped outside. Immediately the three of us were reveling in what was to be one of the last exchanges of affection there would ever be between us.

The subject matter of my story is not really so unique. I imagine it is hopelessly repeated all over the globe at any given time, with each episode manifested in different circumstances. This story begins and ends in the Yucatan, Mexico in a small coastal community called Chelem. Here, a deep, indelible imprint was left on my 56 year old heart...

A Home for the Homeless

I can’t remember the exact day they appeared, but it was during the first several days after we arrived and after we’d driven around the first full day to get our bearings. They weren’t the first dogs we’d seen by a long shot. You couldn’t help but notice the exceptional number of painfully thin, malix(mixed breed) dogs without any evidence of ownership who wandered around as we navigated the sandy, unpaved access roads in Chelem. One boney dog I saw laid soulfully in the shade of a small farmacia in the town square. He had apparently lost most of his hair, exposing pink freckled skin. His hollow eyes seemed fixed and unmoved by passing cars or people; he looked hopeless and very old and was definitely one of the worst cases I saw.

I wondered what the average life span of a homeless dog in Chelem actually was. Probably not much different than back home I reasoned; the real difference was that apparently here in Mexico, the culture accepted their pathetic presence as part of life. This seemed to explain the overall indifference on the faces of the public that obliviously passed them by. When I mentioned the number of unhappy wanderers to several Americans we met, I was told that there was no Animal Control entity or Humane Society to monitor or pick up stray animals. The issue was recognized, but far from a priority to Mexicans; the only concerns seemed to come from tourists and ex-pats visiting or living there. My mind’s constant attempts to make peace with this reality became a part of each day in the Yucatan.

The two amigas popped into our life quite casually actually. We had left the two big wooden doors of the gate open indicating a ‘welcome mode’ to the local inhabitants. I was retrieving some items from the car and suddenly felt them behind me. Theirs were not empty eyes though; they were happy, hopeful ones. They had no collars, but the unity of their actions seemed like a joint effort of introduction and oddly more typical of domesticated dogs; friendly gestures backed up by wagging tails and wet noses extending to sniff. As I bent and responded with pats, paws pounced abruptly on my legs and their excitement grew.

Both were females; one was black with white hair in a stripe from the top of her head and spreading down her muzzle, around her neck and chest and ‘socks’ on each of her feet. Her belly was loose and distinctly showed the wear and tear of motherhood. The other one was a golden brown color with black brindle stripes in her coat. The more boisterous of the two, she didn’t show the slightest reservation about jumping up on me. Her puppyhood was obvious. They were nothing alike except for body size and shape and that unmistakable lean look of hunger, but there was also an obvious bond between them that seemed to go much deeper than two scavenging compadres. I surmised that the brown one might be a pup from the black one’s last litter, perhaps a lone survivor.

After the greeters calmed down a bit I slipped inside with the items from the car as my husband was coming out. He endured a similar greeting with the two amigas, however with much less patience than I. From that point on they must have discerned that it might be worth hanging around a bit longer. We went out again and later when we arrived back home after a fish dinner at Pepe Luise’s Restaurant, they were there ready to welcome us all over again. They seemed certain that persistence would pan out, and they were right of course. I cleaned out a small garbage pail to serve as a water bowl, mixed up some crackers with a couple of eggs, divided them into two separate pots and stepped outside with the appetizers. It was boldly clear that New York minutes happen in the Yucatan as well... the food was inhaled in a split second. That was the first of a month’s worth of meals to follow and without shadow of doubt to them, the seal of a contract between dog and man.

Life With Dogs

The next morning we woke up to a bout of loud barking in the driveway below. My husband rolled over and murmured (loudly) “Now look what you did”. The reality of being awakened each morning in similar fashion struck me too. But in a soothing voice I reminded him that the guy living across the street was having a new gateway put in and the workers must have showed up early. He shot back “They don’t use modern tools, dear, they do everything by hand. The project could take weeks!” Yipes. No retort for that one. At that point I decided to get up and see if there was any way to deal with the problem.

Immediately at the sound of the opening door, two happy and famished faces tried to shove their way inside in a canine rendition of “Buenos dias, Senora!” The brown one could jump higher than any dog I’d ever seen. “You must be a kangaroo!” I laughed as their noses poked and their tongues licked my hands, groping hopefully to uncover any morsel of food. Breaking away, I inched my way inside again and gathered more bits and pieces of food from the refrigerator, which were consumed with the same lightning reflexes as the night before. After that ordeal, names popped into my head and I decided to call the black and white one “Socks” and the bouncy pup “Roo” because she must be at least part kanga!

As we drove out later that morning to tour Mayan ruins near Merida, I convinced my frustrated husband that feeding them was the right thing to do... much less the ONLY option for me personally!! We stopped at the Bodega Aurrera on the way back that day, adding a 70-count package of beef hot dogs and dog biscuits to our grocery list. And so it was that hot dogs and Pedigree biscuits became their mainstay. In turn the two amigas honored their part of our unspoken contract with total vigilance... they became our guardians. The presence of the two faithful silhouettes guarding the gateway to our casa became more familiar with each passing day. They bedded down each night in shallow holes they dug in the shade of the sandy courtyard outside. It was after all, the essence of the canine nature at work, wasn’t it?

Two hot dogs per meal, twice a day with biscuits was just the beginning of a dietary evolution for them. We ate out often, because dining was so economical in Chelem and even Merida. This meant that there was a constant supply of ‘doggie-bags” to serve as surprise additions to meals at home. Chowing down the remains of chicken drumettes barbecued in mojo sauce baked by the Bodega’s deli was without a doubt the biggest hit, and fortunately for the amigas, we bought them often. Each night presented another varied smorgasbord of food for the dogs, and each day their appetites were satiated a bit more than the day before. They had hit the jackpot when they took a chance on these particular turistas.

This was in all probability the first time in their short lives they had ever felt human love or caring. When we walked on the beach or down the sandy beach road, they tagged along but only so far. There was always that unseen force compelling them back to guard their precious, newfound domain. They had established certain boundaries which if crossed, might pose an immediate threat to their co-existence with us. Hungry competitors were sure to be lurking anywhere and everywhere, intent on stealing our attention. An endearing relationship was quickly developing between the three of us. My husband was just an innocent bystander, swept up in the wave of my compassion for them. Now, we woke up on occasion to the sound of insistent warning barks, but most days to their playful yelps and Sock’s halfhearted attempts to discipline Roo for the annoyingly puppy games she would initiate when the first warm sunbeams broke through the cool morning air.

Life Goes On

I began to suspect that Socks growing belly was not the result of their new diet alone. Over the weeks the ‘wear and tear’ I mentioned earlier was becoming even more pronounced. It was clearly evident that she was hiding some serious carry-on baggage. During brief afternoon siestas as they lay in casual repose, Roo appeared to remember earlier days when food was available on demand. She’d snuggle up and poke her snout into Sock’s belly adding a few licks, which quickly turned into more aggressive play. Socks would tolerate that for short spurts but as Roo’s puppy games persisted, things would always erupt into another playful wrestling match. Roo needed a playmate of her own age and energy level. Still, despite the annoyance, nothing would push Socks off the pedestal of motherly patience.

We transported ourselves through new worlds of adventure each day. Every small village revealed treasures steeped in history, rich with culture, atmosphere and Kodak moments. We were awed by old churches, convents, haciendas, ruins and weathered walls draped with bright bougainvillea, but mostly just the beauty of the Mexican life around us. Our relationship with the dogs became deeper with each passing day... they wagged their goodbyes as we pulled out of the driveway and celebrated our homecomings with much bouncing and licking that eventually culminated in another night’s buffet dinner. Helpless to resist, my spirit embraced the two little divas.

Gradually with ‘water bottle training’, the dogs learned to stop jumping on me and the screen door when I would come out. I filled an empty dish detergent bottle with water and squirted them when they’d get too rambunctious. The force of the stream could easily shoot through the screen, solving the issue quickly and effectively. They eventually learned to sit at the bottom of the steps vibrating with excitement, listening to the sounds of me in the kitchen putting their meal together. Socks would get this funny smile on her lips as she was trying to contain herself. Her top lip would involuntarily pull up above her teeth creating an adorable, hapless smile that would melt even the coldest of hearts. I called it her “Mona Lisa” smile.

Some old habits truly do seem to die hard. Roo’s daily rummages turned up old shoes, flip flops, rotten coconut shells, plastic bottles and pretty much anything that stuck out like a sore thumb on the beach or the road. She’d pick them up in her mouth, toss them around a bit, then retrieve them for a satisfying chew. One memorable day as we stood outside the gate talking to a neighbor, I heard the pounding of paws running towards us with her latest find; a large, neatly knotted, green garbage bag was dangling from her jaws. Socks trailed after her with the look of helpless motherhood. Always reminded of our limited time together, I commemorated these funny moments in pictures whenever I could. Roo’s trash ventures added an extra 5 pesos to our disposal fees every few days, but I could hardly fault her. The garbage problem in the Yucatan is a clearly cultural issue that serves as both blessing and curse to homeless animals.

As our remaining days dwindled, I couldn’t help but think about the inevitable day when they would await the return that would never happen. The thought was unbearable, especially since I believed Socks would eventually prepare a place close to our rental house to have her pups. It would be a priority to stay near a reliable food source. I had to think of something, as we were flying home that coming Friday. Some expats had mentioned the AFAD shelter in Merida which was supposedly a no-kill shelter. So I asked Jorge, our bi-lingual realtor at Mayan Realty, to call and arrange for us to drop them off the day we left Chelem for Merida, staying overnight to be close to the airport for our return flight the next morning. Soon it was a done deal.

Our Last Day

March 6th - The early morning cab ride to the airport was uneventful and our flight left promptly on time. As the ground fell beneath the plane, my heart followed suit. In minutes, the Yucatan landscape melted into the earth’s surface. My eyes melted too as I settled into the seat allowing the memory of the prior day, to break through my consciousness.

I had fed them early hoping to avoid any car-sickness they might have on our way to the shelter. As I stuffed the last items in my suitcase, Bud went to give some bottles of leftover beer and fresh tomatoes to our friends down the road. I put a shiny blue beaded necklace from the carnival in Merida on Socks so she’d look pretty and fashioned a collar for Roo from a colorful woven belt I bought from a Mexican girl. I wanted my love for them to show.

I was amazed at how trusting and compliant they were when I loaded them into the car. I sat in back with them during the ride to Merida and together we experienced their first car ride. Roo lay close to me, her head buried in my lap the whole way. Socks was lured to the window by the rush of air that caressed her fur. As my husband drove, my eyes filled up as I talked to them, petting them calmly.

We couldn’t find the shelter. We passed it 5 times. Bud was agitated because we were supposed to meet Jorge at one o’clock to tie up paperwork on the casa we bought and it was already about 12:30. We stopped to ask some students for help but the language barrier prevented success. Finally a man who could speak broken English was able to direct us. All this confusion robbed me of what quality of time was left with my two little amigas. We unloaded them and entered the gates into the shelter.

Trying to communicate with the two volunteers there was useless and resorted to emotional hand gestures. All the while the amigas stood, chained to two posts watching me anxiously through the doorway of the office. As I dolled out a donation, Bud signaled impatiently and pointed to his watch. I hurried back over to say goodbye and pat my amigas for the last time. Roo sat nervously and Socks was laying quietly next to her, both uninterested in the food they were given... both sets of eyes locked on me. No paws pounced on my legs and there were no licks offered... their small forms blurred by my tears. I couldn’t see their expressions but I could definitely feel them. It was like they knew... they just knew. Snapping one last picture of them standing there I blew a prayerful kiss and headed through the gate to the car.

Telling Their Story

Endless melancholy enveloped me the rest of our last day in Merida. I promised myself that I would do all I could to help them find homes, hopefully together! I would do it with words... telling our story. I would remind people that of all the lost shadows in Mexico really, my amigas were just two of a haunting multitude. I would shove what portion of their lives I shared into one glass slipper of an article and post it anywhere on the internet that might grab the attention of a loving Yucatan prince or princess on a white horse... or just a bike for that matter, ready to swoop them up and take them home to love and live happily ever after.

In the End

The story does not end, of course. A few weeks later, Terrye asked a contact here in Merida to follow up with AFAD. Here is the letter that she received:

Hi Terrye,

I spoke to Lidia, the president of AFAD, who I know from an adoption I did a few years ago. She gave me an update...good news and sad news...

Socks was placed in the home of a woman who always takes the pregnant ones so they have a more nurturing environment for the birth. They even brought a vet in to assist when Socks was showing signs of getting ready to give birth, so she was in competent and loving hands. But she had a heart condition, and sadly, she died of a sudden heart attack before she was able to give birth, so the puppies also did not survive. I am SO SORRY to have to tell you this. But be comforted that this would have happened whether she was with you, on the street alone, or at the home of this very caring woman. And what better circumstances than to be in a loving home where there was medical attention and a caring new master. And she died very suddenly, without any suffering whatever.

Roo has new owners! She has been or is being spayed this week, and will go to her new home in a week or so. Lidia said to tell you she is happy and healthy, and doesn't seem to show signs of missing Socks; after all, Socks left for her new home shortly after you brought them to the shelter so Roo has adjusted to being without her.

You did a great thing...if it hadn't been for you, Socks would have died alone. And Roo would end up pregnant and the whole cycle would go on and on.


Which brings us to our point, people. Or rather, our multiple points.

  1. If you want a dog, adopt or rescue a dog. Contact AFAD ( They have lovely, healthy dogs looking for good homes. Sometimes they even have puppies.
  2. If you see a dog that is suffering, you can call AFAD to pick them up or bring them to AFAD. If the dog cannot be helped, they will put the dog to sleep in a kind and humane manner. We have brought two or three dogs there, and we always accompany the dog with a donation and/or a bag of dog food. This is a privately funded shelter and needs all the help it can get.
  3. Sterilize your dogs. Of course they would make cute puppies. But have you seen how many dogs there are in Mexico? Mexicans are very resistant to spaying and neutering. Let's not contribute to dog overpopulation and dog suffering. There are plenty of dogs to go around without adding more.
  4. It's HOT out there on the streets. Do as we do and leave a bowl of clean water outside your door for the street dogs (and cats). Don't leave a bowl you don't want to lose... an old paint bucket or any plastic bowl works. Anything other people won't think it's worth stealing. Fill it with water and on hot days, check it often. We've been amazed how many times during a hot day we walk out and that bowl of water is empty.

They say that when you die, all the animals you cared for come to greet you and help you cross to the other side. OK, we know it's a myth, but we like a good story. We're looking forward to a pack of happy, healthy doggie angels with dirty wings and Mona Lisa smiles for everyone.



  • Sharon 13 years ago

    I read this story months ago as my husband and I were planning our trip to the Yucatan. It brought tears to my eyes too...then and now. I wondered when I was first reading it how I would feel about seeing all of these street dogs during our visit and whether we would end up with our own "adopted" beach dogs during our stay. It was very sad to see all of the dogs roaming around with no apparent home. The only thing remotely positive was to see their "friendships" with each other. Many of them seemed to travel around in pairs and look after one another. I was awed by their street smarts given the 3 dogs I have at home who don't even know to take cover when it rains.

    We did end up with a regular visitor at the house we were renting. She found us on the beach our first morning. She looked like Bambi with a spotted coat, white chest, and the sweetest eyes. She wouldn't come close to us - she just wanted to walk along with us but pretend we weren't really there. We didn't see her again until the next morning when we found her lounging just outside the kitchen door - looking very hopeful for a meal yet not quite ready to get close. We fed her various things and found that she was not interested in tortillas or bread - just meat or cheese! We left fresh water outside for her. Each visit, she became more friendly and before long she was running up to us and diving onto the ground for a belly scratch. She was definitely an independent dog as she would visit for a few hours and then disappear to continue on with her daily routine. We were only there for a week and she seemed to know on our last night that we would be leaving soon. She had an extra big meal and hung around much longer than usual.

    She didn't come for her usual morning visit so we didn't see her again before we left. I'd like to think that maybe she did have a home and was just visiting us while we were there. I'm still thinking about her and hoping that the next visitors will share some meat, cheese, and belly scratches with her.

    Thank you Terry for your story and to Yucatan Living for having a place where people can find out how to help.

  • Jayne Brunel 13 years ago

    I am still in tears after reading this heartwrenching story!! My husband and I will be travelling to Telchac, Yucatan on Monday 30th November for a two week holiday. We are both animal lovers and have helped cats and dogs on the island of fuerteventura where we have both lived for the past 15 years. We will no doubt befriend some of the stray dogs whilst we are staying, but would like to help in anyway we can whilst there. I will make a note of the number of AFAD.

  • Working Gringos 14 years ago

    You'll have to call AFAD. You can get their number at

  • Cala. 14 years ago

    I recently just saved a puppy from the street and i was wondering if you could give me the number of your place.

  • Jackie 14 years ago

    Thank you for taking the time to post this really does help tourist from America in particular prepare for their stay, as far as finding a way to cope with this sad situation.....I was in Merida in Jan for 3 weeks....and found my self feeding these hunger stricken inocent dogs, granol bars, candy, chips, anything I had in mu purse while site broke my heart, and it is a cultural shock to see how it is a mexican way of life for most people of mexico to not see these hungry creatures....bad karma I say... As Ghandi so eloquently stated " You can measure the humanity of a society by the way they treat their animals" Thank you for the tip about leaving water out.

  • Mary 14 years ago

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for caring about the homeless dogs and sharing their story. So many animals around the world in dire need of a loving and compassionate home. Shelter pets are so thankful to those individuals adopting them, giving them a second chance at life.

    We've been blessed many times by the arrival of homeless dogs and cats on our doorstep. I'm so glad they "knew" we were a safe haven.

  • Margot Lee Shetterly 14 years ago

    Dog tales are my favorite! We adopted two spirited little creatures, Birdie and Beck, from a nearby parking lot (or perhaps they adopted us) and they have brought so much to our lives.

    I think the treatment of dogs here reflect the wealth gap in general. Although many dogs are homeless and have to fend for themselves, wealthy dogs have lives that are orders of magnitude more comfortable that those of most people in this country.

  • Amy Lynne Adams 14 years ago

    If I won a million dollars the first thing I would do is use that money to help the homeless animals starting in USA and Mexico and expanding to other countries. It is heartbraking to see and learn about. I have rescused two dogs myself here in America but travel often and have great difficulty with the sadness of the homeless dogs I see in my travels. To learn more about my dogs and travels you can see my blog at

  • Working Gringos 14 years ago

    We keep dogfood and water in the back of our car too!

  • JOANNE 14 years ago

    You will never cope with what you see. I have gotten in my car in a happy mood, then seen a dog looking for food and I would cry the rest of the way I was going. Now I keep food and water in my car and I will stop and feed them. Remember, DOG is GOD spelled backwords.

  • Scott S 14 years ago

    It was sad to see how animals were treated in Mexican and Central America during our travels but much sadder to see the suffering of poor humans especially the children.

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