In 2009, my wife and I joined the Peace Corps. We were assigned to live in a rural town called Pucayacu, located in the mountainous subtropics of Ecuador. One aspect of life that stood out as remarkably different was the sheer number of stray dogs roaming the streets.
They were everywhere, packs of dogs, hundreds of them, chasing motorcycles, digging through piles of trash, barking and howling constantly. It wasn’t too long before my wife started hinting that she wanted to adopt one of the countless puppies wandering the streets. And even though I protested, I knew that it was going to be difficult to say no for a whole two years.
While nobody kept dogs in the house like we do over here, nearly every little kid took in a puppy now and then. These weren’t permanent relationships. The little fuzzball soon outlived its cuteness and the parents would kick the dog to the curb. About a year into our service, the neighbors across the street found themselves in this exact situation.
This little girl came over to our house one day, hysterical, she was holding this five-pound mutt, no bigger than football really, it was black with a white belly and two eyebrow-shaped brown spots on her forehead. “Please Joannah,” the little girl sobbed, appealing directly to my wife, a wise decision, because I was already shaking my head no.
“Please, my parents are making me get rid of her. Will you take her? Please?” And my wife got all doe-eyed, she looked at this dog, it had a big red ribbon tied up into a bow where a collar should have been. She looked at me. I looked at the dog. In a moment of weakness, I said yes.
I never wanted a dog, not really. We always had a dog in the house when I was growing up, and for whatever reason I never forged much of a connection with any of our pets while I was living at home. But once I said yes, that was it, the deal was done. The little girl smiled, ran out of our house, and this animal that we verbally agreed to adopt immediately took a dump on the floor.
Our neighbor called the dog Pelusa, which means “fuzzy” in Spanish. Most people in Ecuador who had dogs gave them similarly literal names. Black dogs were named carbón or sombra, meaning “charcoal” and “shadow” respectively. We weren’t crazy about Pelusa, so we changed it to Gladys.
She was hyperactive the way all puppies are, but as she grew up, she never lost any of that boundless energy that made her so difficult to control. If anything, she was getting stronger. One time she escaped the house, jumped over a fence, and didn’t come back for a solid two days. When she finally returned, parts of her fur started falling off, which the local vet diagnosed as mange. I didn’t even know mange was a thing, it’s a disgusting skin-eating parasite that required pills and creams for a couple of weeks.
Another time, she got loose in a chicken coop and actually got a little bloodthirsty. “I’m really sorry,” I told our uninterested neighbor as we coughed up the money to make up for the birds that Gladys has mutilated. The lady was probably thinking, what did you expect? There’s a reason nobody keeps these things in the house.
It was weird. Gladys was really sweet around us, but she definitely had a feral streak. Nobody else in town liked to walk too close to her, and people looked at us like we were nuts when they found out that we let her sleep inside.
But we had always planned on bringing her back to the States with us, and we figured that getting her fixed was a part of that process. What if she escaped again? What if she was in heat? Wouldn’t that sort of complicate things if she all of the sudden had a litter of her own puppies?
So we brought her to the nearest city and found a vet willing to do the surgery. We dropped her off in the morning, but when we came back to pick her up that afternoon, something wasn’t right. For one thing, she couldn’t move, at all. What kind of stuff did they use to knock her out? “Don’t worry,” the vet assured us, “It’ll wear off … eventually.”
After hauling her immobile body onto a pickup truck to make the hour-long trip back to our town, Gladys wasn’t acting like herself anymore. She wouldn’t eat or drink, we couldn’t get her to move from this one spot underneath the table. She had to have been in pain, and when we went to take her bandages off to clean the wound, it was obvious that the doctor had messed something up.
The incision wasn’t the tiny inch-long cut I had remember seeing on our family’s dogs back at home. This was like a six-inch gash, and not even a straight one. The area was swollen, and as the night went on, it started to get bigger. By the morning, it looked like it was going to burst. A few hours later, that’s exactly what happened.
The rest of the story is pretty gross. The vet was an hour away, so I had to hold Gladys down while my wife went to look for some local help. She came back with one of our neighbors who had experience performing basic veterinary care to his cows, and so he drugged her up, stuffed everything back inside, and sewed up the wound with really thick cattle stitches.
When it started swelling again, we returned to the vet, who performed yet another surgery. At this point, Gladys had been put through enough torture. When her wound opened up again the day after that, we knew what had to be done. Our cow doctor neighbor gave me an injection he said would do the job, and it did, instantly.
There were so many dogs in our town, and they died all the time. They would get in fights and bleed out, or they’d get run over by cars and buses. If the packs got overly populated, neighbors would put out poisoned food and the streets would be littered with dead dogs for days. Nobody buried animals. A few times I saw men picking up a carcass with newspapers and hauling it into the river.
But I just couldn’t do that to Gladys. I borrowed a shovel, took the body out to the woods and started digging. The whole process was a nightmare, a singular experience so far removed from anything that I’d ever imagined myself doing back at home. On my walk back home, I was caked in dirt and sweat, I passed a group of men who started making fun of me, asking if I was going to wear black to the funeral. The fact that I was now being laughed at, on top of everything that we’d just been through, this was so far outside the realm of what I could process. It felt more like a disjointed dream than actual reality. I couldn’t even get mad. Here I was, this total outsider, spending all of this time, energy, and not to mention money, on a dog. From their perspective, this was actually crazy.
News of our theatrics spread across town instantly, and the very next day, a different neighbor showed up at our house with a new puppy, the one that made it back to the States with us. It was like, look, don’t be sad, there are plenty of puppies. Here, have another one.
Everything worked out the way it did, and I love our dog that we have now. Would I have done anything differently? I don’t know. We didn’t know any better. And Gladys had been put through so much pain. Even if she had recovered, she would have probably been emotionally scarred from the whole ordeal. That’s what I tell myself anyway.
But every once in a while, I’ll think of one memory that stands out. It was while we were waiting for her third surgery in that nearby city. We were early, and the vet wasn’t open for another hour or so. Gladys was in bad shape, but my wife got her to calm down somewhat as we hung out outside. I went for a walk to buy a couple of sodas, and as I came back to where they were waiting, Gladys looked up at me from maybe half a block away and started wagging her tail, the way all dogs start wagging their tails when you come home or when they’re happy to see you. It crushed me, her loyalty, that insane indescribable bond that you can develop with an animal. It was like, despite the hell she was going through, she still saw me and thought, OK, here he is, this is totally normal, and everything’s going to be OK.