I recently returned from a trip to Kenya, where stray and feral dogs are the norm and pampered pets very much the exception. I came to know a few of the former sort quite well.
For about a week, my sister and I camped in a rural area on the grounds of a school that is under construction. Along with us, were the school’s founder, also from the U.S., and 45 high school girls, a cooking crew and a construction crew—all from Kenya.
By dinner on the first night, the camp had attracted three or four skittish pups. They were classic “village dogs,” small mixed-breed pups with short coats. Some were very skinny; others seemed to have figured out a fairly steady source for food.
I’ve traveled in other developing countries and usually give dogs on the street a wide berth. But these dogs were around all day. I got to know their habits, and watched them pluck treats from the garbage burn pile and make stealthy raids on the outdoor kitchen. During the heat of the day, they’d crawl under our table for shade.
Two dogs, whom we named Einstein and Boots (below), adopted our corner of the campground. I felt comforted by their presence. I’d been away from my own dog for almost three weeks, which made these dogs pretty irresistible. I violated the warnings of my good sense and the travel clinic nurse, and found myself scraping leftovers onto the ground and petting their heads. They responded to food and touch by moaning, rolling over on their backs and snuggling against our legs. Pretty much all the Kenyans with us thought we were crazy.
We established a fairly peaceable routine around the camp until the second to the last night: a graduation celebration with a big goat feast. As the aroma of roasting goat wafted over the fields, the population of scavenging dogs doubled. By suppertime, an ad hoc pack had created a tight circle around a table of girls. They swatted and kicked the dogs, but the strays were not dissuaded. Then we heard growling and sniping. We couldn’t see exactly what was happening in the light of the kerosene lantern but from the sound of it, the situation had turned dangerous. We learned in the morning that the girls had been tossing their bones on the ground, and the dogs were fighting over them.
I asked Tinyao, one of the Maasai warriors who had been teaching the girls and helping out in the camp, to disperse the dogs. The possibility of a dog bite was just too great. He grabbed a stick and some rocks and moved quickly in the dark. Then came the yelps and yipes. It was terrible. I’d helped to make the dogs feel safe among us and welcome to human food; and now I sent someone after them for the same reason.
The next morning, Einstein and Boots returned and settled under our table again. Even after what had happened, we were still the best bet around.
I worry about them now. I gave them bad, even dangerous information. And I can’t help feeling sad to think of them trotting into camp to discover the kitchen shut down, the shade tables packed away and only the construction workers, with their own rocks and sticks and impatience with dogs, left in camp.