It’s the middle of the night (3:20 A.M. to be precise), and I’m writing this post in the darkness of my bedroom, after being wrenched violently from the serenity of slumber, unwillingly forced from my somnolent torpidity, by the one thing that all foreigners complain about in Belize – the dogs.
In Belize, almost everyone has dogs. Their purpose is simple – to be a visual (but mostly auditory) deterrent to any would-be home invaders. And in Belize, with its high crime rate, deterring would-be invaders is a priority. Hardly anyone actually has a dog as a pet – you rarely see anyone walking them, and they don’t live inside their owner’s homes; they’re fed, watered, and left outside to sleep, piddle, poop, and bark.
Now I’m going to throw my cards on the table here and say that I don’t like dogs. The truth is I’m not too crazy about ‘Man’s Best Friend’; in fact, I think they’re filthy, lazy, stupid creatures. Some people (mainly dog lovers, a group I view with much suspicion, for willingly sharing their lives with such creatures) will tell you that’s not true, that they’re loyal, intelligent animals. I think that’s piffle, balderdash, claptrap, flimflam, tommyrot, and poppycock. Dogs (like all pets) show loyalty to their owners simply because they feed them, if their owners ceased bringing them sustenance their loyalty would disappear as quickly as their dinner had (in fact, there are several documented cases of elderly people dying in their homes, surrounded by their precious pooches, only to have the starving canines start to eat them, before their masticated remains are discovered by the neighbours. That’s how loyal a hungry dog is!). But what about Greyfriars Bobby, I hear you ask, the cute little terrier that stood guard at his owner’s grave in Edinburgh for years? That’s not loyalty, the stupid animal was just too dumb to realise that his owner wasn’t coming back (and, according to recent findings, the whole thing was actually a Victorian-era publicity stunt designed to drum up tourist business – apparently there were several dogs, all trained to sit in the graveyard).
Intelligent? You show me an intelligent animal that eats its own excrement and vomit. Look into a dog’s eyes and there’s nothing looking back at you but the vacant stare of a creature that’s paused briefly from chewing on its genitals to see if you’re either bringing it food or going to kick it up the backside.
But they have such personalities! No they haven’t, unless you call slobbering all over you and gnawing on your furniture ‘character’. Stop anthropomorphising it and accept that it’s an animal, not a hairy little person! Humans seem to find dogs endlessly sweet and entertaining (maybe puppies are, but not adult dogs), but when I meet someone for the first time and I sniff their crotch and hump their leg, it’s not cute then is it?
Now all this anti-canine vitriol doesn’t mean that I don’t like any animals. Having grown up with cats, I’m definitely more of a cat person. Not to the extent of an elderly spinster in a house smelling of cat wee and full of screeching felines and hairballs, but I do think that cats are cleaner and more intelligent – when a cat goes to the toilet it buries it, when a dog goes you’re lucky if it just leaves it there for you to step in, if you’re unlucky it eats it. Then it resumes licking its unmentionables. And then you let it lick your face!
Admittedly, I don’t think cats have much of a personality either (but that’s because I don’t think any animal has much in the way of a personality – animals are driven by instinct rather than reason, and while individual animals may have individual preferences for certain things, and particular ways of going about the same task compared to other members of the same species, that small amount of variety does not constitute a personality, certainly not in the human sense of the word). But I’m convinced cats are smarter and they’re certainly more independent and low-maintenance – a cat can survive if its owner doesn’t feed it, it can catch its own dinner. When was the last time you saw a dog catch anything other than a Frisbee in its drooling mouth? (of course, most dog owners don’t seem to mind the fact that their mutts are so dependent on them that they become a slave to their hound, they accept having to leave work early so they can get back home to let Fido out of the house so he can do his dirty business all over their garden).
I’m not saying I hate dogs, or never liked any dogs, or never enjoyed a canine’s company, or that I don’t appreciate the benefits of dog ownership. Dogs do provide companionship (to people who are too old to have any living friends left, or too weird to be able to form relationships with other humans), not to mention an opportunity for people to make use of names they can’t give to their kids, like Maximus and Rocky.
But I don’t like them and nor do I want one. I know many people will find this curmudgeonly, strange, maybe even un-British. That seems to be an especially common trait of dog owners – a failure to understand that there are some of us out there who just don’t love their beasts as much as they do.
“Stop snarling! It’s OK – he loves kids!”
“Oh, he may growl like a grizzly bear, but that’s just his way of saying Hello.”
“Don’t worry, he won’t really bite. He just nips you when he’s playing!”
“Oh, he’s just a puppy. Aren’t you, Killer?”
Anyway, back to the local fleabags. As I said, Belizeans don’t really have dogs as pets – they’re bought to be a deterrent, and, as they’re left in the yards and fed on scraps, they don’t cost their owners too much time or money (some people may find the thought of a dog that never gets walked rather sad, but at least the Belizeans aren’t slaves to their pooches. And at least they can roam free[ish], there are plenty of people here who keep them chained up their whole lives [even I find that a little sad, and it makes the animal far more aggressive, a frightening prospect when you go round someone’s house and the thing’s straining at the leash, barking like crazy and slavering like Cujo, trying to get at you]).
The dogs are there to bark, and that’s what they do. And that’s the main problem – a combination of all instinct and no training means that the canine population seems to spend its whole time barking. Belizeans (who either don’t realise that you can train a dog to not bark all the time, or do realise it but can’t be bothered to carry it out) have got used to the noise from birth and are somehow able to close their ears to it (to be fair to the locals [human and animal] it’s not just Belize and it’s not just dogs – the developing world is generally quite noisy, and its inhabitants have become used to this, and with high populations, heavy traffic, noisy animals and loud music all contributing to the din, the only option is to just get used to it). But as a foreigner from a country with double-glazed windows and noise pollution laws, the noise is one thing I’ve never been able to adjust to. Every weekend my neighbour plays music so loud and bass-heavy it threatens to blow my windows in and launch me across the room, yet when I stare out the window in a futile attempt to shame him into turning it down, he’s sitting in his garden with one or two friends having a quiet conversation, surrounded by speakers so large you could hear it on the Moon. It’s so loud it must make conversation nigh on impossible, yet they, and so many other Belizeans, don’t even notice. I actually envy them, I wish I possessed their God-like powers of imperception. And so it is with the dogs.
During the daytime it’s not so noticeable, as there’s plenty of ambient noise to cover the barking. But at night, in the quiet stillness, that’s when the little $%&@! keep me awake. Sometimes the visitors are other dogs, sometimes stray cats, occasionally itinerant salesmen ringing bells to alert potential customers to their wares; they all get the same treatment, and none seem to notice.
Tonight is typical – a stray dog is wandering the nearby streets. You can tell where the animal is, as there’s a circumference of barking surrounding it – you can’t hear the dog itself, just all the other ones around it in a one-block radius. As the stray gets closer, the wave of barking moves with it toward us. By the time the mangy cur’s venturing down my street, all of the resident dogs have been alerted to the intruder’s presence and are enthusiastically vocalising their unhappiness at it. The entire road is now effectively sealed inside a bubble of noise, not a flimsy bubble of air inside the bath, but an air pocket sealed up deep inside a glacier, a bubble from which there is no escape. We’re surrounded on all sides by demented dogs throwing themselves against fences, straining against chains, and barking furiously. The howling, growling, snarling, snapping, yapping and yipping of every size, shape and breed all combine into some dreadful canine orchestra. If Dante had written The Divine Comedy in modern-day Belize, this would be the tenth circle of hell. Yet at no point do any lights come on in any of my neighbours’ houses, no buckets of water are thrown from balconies, no curses shouted from windows. Is everyone else apart from me deaf? Or dead?
Finally, the stray, having rifled through the street’s rubbish bins and sniffed at various random patches of road (and all the while completely unperturbed by all the commotion it’s caused), seems to have had enough. And with one final casual piddle against the neighbour’s car, it slowly trots off. The wave of barking slowly recedes as the next set of dogs take up the call and the local ones finally calm down.
Perhaps the locals have got so used to it that they don’t even notice it anymore (many times, my neighbour has had conversations with people over his fence, and neither of them have seemed aware that a large German Shepherd is loudly interjecting into the conversation. And on one occasion, another neighbour, getting out of his car, asked me why I was throwing stones at a stray outside my apartment [admittedly, it was the middle of the night and I was in the road in nothing but my boxer shorts and Crocs, but you’d have thought he would’ve worked it out. He just looked at me like I was strange and went in his house]). But, because of the way the locals react, I’m not sure if the dogs actually protect the owners’ property – the barking becomes so ubiquitous that everyone who can ignores it. People react to it in the same way they react to car alarms – by silently cursing and then going back to sleep (but not by getting up and going outside to investigate). As a result, people still get their homes broken into, and soft foreigners like me have to suffer the nocturnal tortures of the permanently damned.
Maybe just having one in your yard is enough to put off some would-be burglars. Whatever the reason, the cacophonous canines are here to stay (at least while the crime rate remains high and the locals remain uninterested in dog training). So, if you’re thinking of coming to Belize, do come (it’s a beautiful country full of varied cultures and friendly people). Just bring earplugs!