Saturday, July 30, 2011

Dog Days

I have sometimes thought about adopting a dog here on my Philippine island.(1) The thought only lasts for a few moments, and then I dismiss it as impossible. I have also thought about getting a cat, since I have always preferred the feline emotional diffidence to canine dumb devotion.

Dogs and cats serve a purpose in this poor country that is not immediately apparent to a stranger. At first I thought their function was the defense of property or pest control. I soon realized that Filipinos pay as little heed to a barking dog as Americans pay to a sounding car alarm. (And the rats here are bigger than the cats.)

They actually function as garbage disposals in a place where waste disposal is left to people's imaginations. Whatever food is left over is usually horsed down by the animal who gets to it first. Since there is never enough to go around, nearly all the local dogs and cats are the scrawniest domestic pets I have ever seen. Many of them are afflicted by what looks like mange - a skin disease that results in large patches of hair falling out. Their growth is horribly stunted by malnutrition (2), and dogs in particular often bear the wounds of the fights I hear in the night.

But the only way I would consider having a dog or cat would be if I could keep it clean and healthy - in other words it would have to be confined inside my house. It's the only way I could protect the animal, and myself, from the wide variety of maladies and parasites with which it would come in contact. But how could I possibly keep it in my house? A dog would have to go out to do its business, and a cat would quickly discover a way out.

Whenever I consider adopting a dog or cat I have to remind myself that it would never work out. But lately I have had to face similar second thoughts about having a child in this place, and mostly for the same reasons. I say this despite the fact that, since my arrival, I have - so to speak - come up in the world and I now live in a barangay that is better off than some others, like the last two I lived in.

Recently I met an American who had come to this province to fetch a three-year-old boy whose mother had provided him with satisfactory evidence that the boy was his. He was staying at a nearby tourist hotel that as charging $25 a night. That sounds cheap until you calculate that he stayed there for about a hundred days. He was what was once called an "old Asia hand" had knocked around the Philippines many times since the 1980s, when he was in the Marines. I never asked him directly, but I figured he was going to all the expense and trouble with Philippine customs to get the boy and his mother out of the Philippines as soon as possible because he found the idea of his boy spending a minute in the Philippines longer than he had to unacceptable.

I won't make the analogy that many pet owners make between cherished family pets and their children, but it would require much imagination to look at the filthy, starving pets in my barangay without wondering what the place must do to children. I have written about the children I see every day on my island, an estimated fifteen million of whom aren't in school, playing in the streets because there are no playgrounds. I asked a question more than two years ago that needs asking again: when the world is unfit for a dog to live in, how can it be fit for a child?

(1) I call it "my island" for the same reason that the mad Irishman in Braveheart said of Ireland "it's mine".
(2) I watched a neighbor's puppy over the course of a few months not grow at all. It was the same size at six months that it was at one.

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