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A Change of Heart
Adopting a dog, Belize-style
Originally named Maaga--Belizean Creole for skinny and meager--eventually dubbed Maggie as she recovered from her ordeals.

We were afraid it was a heart attack. My husband Bruce felt pressure on his chest, stiffness in his neck and on his left side, and struggled to breathe. So we drove our beat-up SUV 3 hours over rough bush roads to the hospital in Belize City. It was this frightening incident, and waiting for the doctor’s results, that landed us at the new Belize Humane Society.

Let me take a step back to the weeks before Bruce’s health scare. After 15 years living in remote areas of Belize, we’d recently acquired a television and were catching up on American culture, including Animal Planet. One of our favorite programs, “Breed All About It,” matched humans with dogs that fit their lifestyle—a totally new concept so far as we were concerned. I was impressed that people might select a dog based on predetermined requirements. After a few months of everything from Aussies to Yorkies, we pretty much decided it was time to have a dog in our lives again.
So we let our friend Karina know that maybe—well, it was still early but perhaps—we might like a dog, if it was exactly the right sort of dog. Karina had founded the fledgling Belize Humane Society after years of feeding and finding homes for the thin, feral animals roaming the mean streets of Belize City. Delighted with our interest, she called us from time to time.
“A nice big dog was just turned in, we might want to look at it? Puppies found under a porch, take a look? Beautiful litter of Husky/Shepherd pups?”
“No… no… and no thanks.” Our beautiful Suki had been part Husky and came to Belize with us when she was 10. She lived to be 15 but her long, heavy coat and northern preferences made her susceptible to hot spots and other skin irritations. I didn’t want to go there again. No long-haired dogs for us.
Thanks to the helpful people behind “Breed All About It,” we had narrowed down exactly what sort of dog was right for us, with requirements I didn’t think were too stringent given our circumstances. We’d decided on a medium to large dog, nothing small or yappy. I was adamant about short hair—no more treating hot spots on an overheated dog for me. A young adult dog would be fine, no need to go through puppyhood. A male or female, either way, we would be sure to have it neutered not wanting to add to the feral dog population in Belize via unplanned progeny. And, of course, we wanted our new dog to be healthy and well adjusted, friendly and outgoing. And a good barker since part of his or her duties would be to sound the alarm near our house. I didn’t think we were being overly picky either.
Finally, Karina called us about a female “Weimaraner type” dog, about a year old, short gray hair with a white patch on her chest. Very pretty, very nice. I was skeptical about the breed designation as the vast majority of dogs here in Belize are mixes eventually evolving into the tan “potlicka” found on every street corner and roaming every village.
Feeling vulnerable after hours with the doctor, we decided to “just have a look” at the Karina’s “Weimaraner.” Although it was sort of a whim—after all, we could more productively run some errands—my heart was in my throat because I was pretty certain that if we saw the dog, we would take her. It seemed a big step for a long-time dogless, peripatetic couple.
Bruce navigated the narrow winding streets of Belize City, deftly dodging pedestrians, bicyclists, garbage and feral dogs. Finally, he wedged our old 4WD into a narrow space next to a two-story cement building with an “Animals Hospital” sign. We entered a small lobby area, still, damp and quiet with burglar bars bolted over the windows, like any establishment in Belize City. Narrow wooden benches lined the walls for patients but the place was deserted. I introduced myself to the pleasant looking woman sitting behind the desk, the receptionist I guessed, and inquired about the female Weimaraner-type dog up for adoption.
She was puzzled. “This is the temporary location for the new Belize Humane Society, no true?” I mentioned Karina’s name. She thought a moment and allowed as it was. I dropped Weimaraner from my description, instead said we were here to see the gray female dog that was up for adoption. The woman’s face cleared.
“Dat dog foun’ who she b’long to.” Her delightful Caribbean lilt was typical of Belize.
“Oh, well that’s good then.” It sounded like a happy outcome to me. Bruce and I exchanged a glance. “Do you have anything else?” I inquired. I imagined being led to some enclosures to consider other dogs. Big, sleek, healthy ones of a type that seemed right for us. Animal Planet dogs. Her brow knit again. “You want an inside or outside dog?”
“Well inside, I guess.”
“Only wan we have is dis.” She jerked her head back over her shoulder.
“We have dis wan.” She pushed back her chair and nudged a small, miserable-looking creature curled up on a towel behind her chair, wedged next to the wall. The dog reluctantly got to its feet, tail curved between its legs and slunk off the towel. The receptionist—Felicia, by her name tag—nudged the dog into the light and picked her up. “Someone foun’ her on d’streets las’ week and tun her in.”
This was so not what we had envisioned. After a dozen episodes of “Breed All About It,” some viewed more than once, big and healthy was what we wanted, that was the right dog for us. Small and dejected, the dog hung its head. I couldn’t imagine a little dog like this surviving Belize City streets for long. There were rats just about its size and scrappy wild-eyed cats and cocky streetwise feral dogs. Not to mention boa constrictors. I thought about the Snake Man who stood on the street corner with boa constrictors looped around his torso. How did this dog dodge the cars and bicycles careening down the narrow winding streets?
Felicia thrust the lump of skin and bones at me. I regarded it at arm’s length. Female. Very small, with badly barbered white fur sticking out in short wiry tufts and patches of bare skin. Her backside was naked and pink, like a baboon’s bottom or an upside-down heart. She smelled to high heaven—of chemicals. Felicia explained, the dog had been badly matted so they’d hacked her hair off and then flea dipped her. Her bare backside was due to flea allergy dermatitis. She was very thin and no doubt suffering from heartworm as do most Belize strays.
I glanced at Bruce. He shrugged. Felicia said tactfully, “We leave you ’lone for a few moments” and pulled him out the door.
Please don’t, I thought, this is so not what we want. The dog was dead weight in my arms, almost lifeless. This country, I thought, you can never get what you want. After 15 years, I knew that was petulant and spoiled of me but I was tired of settling for what was available. I struggled to come to terms with big, sleek and healthy versus small, scruffy and miserable.
I focused back on the dog. What was her history? What unfortunate circumstances brought her here? And what kind of dog was she? A terrier maybe. Or poodle? We regarded each other. Inexplicably, the little dog’s eyes brightened. Weird eyes. One was blue and the other brown. I tried to harden my heart.
Big. Sleek. Healthy. Remember that.
Her floppy ears went back—in some mysterious way, her expression had changed. Was her plumed tail beginning a tentative wave? The trim wasn’t as bad as I first thought. She was actually, sort of, well, appealing.
And just like that, it was all over. She’d grabbed my heart with a gap-toothed grin. Missing teeth, both top and bottom. But, that didn’t matter. Didn’t matter at all.
“OK, that’s it,” I announced to Bruce as he rejoined us. “We’re bonded!” He smiled happily; he’d liked her all along. We made arrangements for the little dog, our little dog, to get her inoculations and picked out a red collar for her. Then we returned to get the doctor’s results—good news, just a bad reaction to a medication. Bruce’s heart was fine. And so was mine. And when we returned to pick up our scruffy little dog, she was wagging her tail to greet us. Somehow, I felt the “Breed All About It” people would be OK with that.


Carolyn Miller is an occasional blogger for TheBark.com. She and her husband, Bruce Miller, live in Gallon Jug, Belize, where they study "bats 'n' cats". Read more about their adventures on the Belize Field Note blog. bzfieldnotes.blogspot.com

Photo by Carolyn M. Miller

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