Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Death to Barking Dogs

(Apologies in advance to sensitive dog lovers)

The above statement appeared on one of my favorite bumper stickers and perfectly represents my feelings on the matter. Well, okay, death is kinda drastic and terminal: How about; A Good Smack Across the Snout to Barking Dogs. Anything to shut ‘em up.

A gal I once knew who was from Vietnam said they don’t have any problem with them there; If they get too noisy they quickly find their way to the dinner pot. Once again, kind of a Final Solution for someone’s beloved (or otherwise) pet. I don’t necessarily want to see them go to dog purgatory or hell (they definitely don’t go to dog heaven; not the barking ones, no way). I just want them to quit their useless, maddening yapping.

I especially dislike it when they disturb my peace and reverie as I walk along by surprising me with loud angry barking. In the city they are usually tethered or behind closed doors. Just walking past their door late at night will start some dogs barking. Sometimes I get my revenge by barking back at them. Wow, that really sets them off and they bark like crazy for a long time after. I always hope in those circumstances that it wakes up their owners and maybe even their neighbors who would then pressure them to teach their dog to shut up; meanwhile I’m long gone. One time, during the day, a large tethered dog shattered my calm as I was walking by. When I barked back, it was so taken aback that it turned tail and ran into the house. The owner, who was sitting outside clearly thought I was nuts, but what did he think of his own dog, some protector it was.

I admit my ears are very sensitive, but who likes the shrill sound of barking dogs? Khmers evidently don’t mind, or don’t care, but that’s maybe because they’re all half deaf from the many times their ears have been deranged by loud noises. Every wedding or party I go to is a painful experience for my ears even when I’ve got my regulation foam earplugs firmly in place. I feel really sorry for little kids when I see them hanging out up close to giant speakers blasting out at full volume… oops, I’m getting off topic.

For a long time I thought Khmers let their dogs bark frequently because they were too lazy to train them or didn’t know how but I was recently forcefully disabused of that notion. Two years ago the owners of my Phnom Penh flat, who own three different buildings at the end of my alley, got a pair of really small, really shrill, really stupid dogs. There’s now about five of them - I’ve lost count - each as dumb as the other. They bark a lot, nobody ever tries to shut ‘em up. Even after two years they still don’t know me and bark at me quite often when I access my place. For sure, every night when I come home late they get all worked up and create a real din.

Maybe their owners just love tiny, noisy dogs or they possibly they like them to be noisy for the security aspect. Nobody can get by there without them giving notice. I feel sorry for the two guys who sleep out, who get woken up at the slightest disturbance. (I believe they are related in some way to the owners and in addition to night watch duties also chauffer the family around.) Thing is, I’ve never heard of a rip-off near my house and I attribute that at least in part to the fact that those guys are always there. A quiet thief could’ve gotten by them before the dogs arrived on the scene but in the three years I lived there nobody had, so there wasn’t much reason to fear.

The dogs have a cage where they are locked up at night and other times during the day. I was surprised when I saw one of the outdoor guys giving a signal, an almost subtle one at that, to the dogs to cage up, and they went quickly and easily, so training is not the problem. To top it off, they just got another dog; this one larger, louder and at least as annoying, if less shrill.

Maybe Khmers just like the idea of dogs running free and doing their thing. Ironically, one of my favorite Dylan songs, from the New Morning album, is “If Dogs Run Free”,

If dogs run free, why not we?

Across the sands of time…

While I get the concept, in practice it’s a real hassle, like when I got bit a few months back by a free running dog owned by the people who caretake the public toilet on the corner of Streets 13 and 178 across from the National Museum. It was about midnight and nighttime is when dogs yap and threaten the most. I had heard it barking at someone else as I approached about 50 meters away but didn’t think much of it; Khmer dogs bark a lot but don’t bite very often and this was kind of a small one. When I got within proximity it circled around me and without barking or any threatening gestures it struck, leaving a very interesting two rows of puncture holes in my calf – only the upper teeth sunk in.

I was really pissed, as you can well imagine, and chased after it like a madman while yelling obscenities and threats like, “kill dog” in my rudimentary Khmer. I kept searching for a rock to throw at it as I was running after it, but could find none, it’s all grass there. It would have evened things out a bit if I could’ve beaned it. Meanwhile I had roused the whole caretaker family (and probably half the neighborhood) and they were trying to figure out why I was so lividly irate and screaming about killing their dog. They understood pretty easily when I moved over to the light and showed them my bloody leg. I’m sure they were relieved that I didn’t demand compensation.

And as any sensible responsible person would do I went early next day to get a rabies shot: Not. I know you think I must be half crazy to take a chance on certain death for the small cost and relatively minor inconvenience of preventative shots but I weighed the probabilities and decided against it.

What I did do early next morning was check out rabies on the net. For one thing you’ve got a window of about 10 days to get the shots if they’re going to save your life. Also the speed at which you die depends on how close the bite is to your head. As mine was in the lower leg it would’ve taken about six weeks to reach my brain when I would’ve started foaming at the mouth and soon thereafter died.

I learned that an average of seven people a year die of rabies in Phnom Penh. Those of course are the ones who didn’t get the shots. I also learned that Cambodians are especially fond of dogs and have twice the number per capita compared to neighboring countries.

What I didn’t find out was what percentage of Cambodian dogs have rabies. In developed countries that number is now close to zero. I really don’t want to put weird rabies stuff into my system if I don’t have to so if the ratio is one out of a thousand, I’d take my chances. One in ten and for sure I’d get shot.

The thing about rabid dogs is you can easily tell, though I’m not sure if that’s true of all stages of its infection. They’re aggressive, they foam at the mouth and they look crazed. I remember seeing one back when I was very young. I may actually be remembering a picture or educational movie, but in any case, rabid dogs are easy to spot. This dog showed no signs of the disease; in fact, I’ve never seen or heard of a rabid dog since I came to Phnom Penh 8 years ago. At any rate I took my chances and dodged the bullet, however rare.

I did get a malady from that dog because I was very weak for three days after. Dogs have a lot of weird stuff in their mouths from eating shit and all kinds of strange foods, so it’s not surprising that I’d get something. I saw the same dog more recently as I was walking by late at night. I grabbed a nice chunk of wood to rap it with in case it got too close. It barked at me because it knew I was pissed at it, but no need for the wood, it was muzzled.

I’ve had dogs a couple times in my life but I did such a terrible job taking care of them I decided it wasn’t for me. It’s not that I don’t like them – as long as they keep their distance - I just never had the energy or desire to play with them or show them the affection that dogs like and need. I’ve decided it’s enough trouble taking care of myself and don’t need another living, breathing thing to be responsible for.

Meanwhile, just to prove my heart isn’t totally hardened towards them, I give my neighbor’s dog in Phnom Penh a little section of my morning toast and butter every day. The way the apartment is configured, she can look at me while looking all hungry and forlorn while I’m preparing breakfast so at a certain point I couldn’t resist sharing with her. She’s a mellow dog that doesn’t bark much except when she has pups so is worthy of my gift. Still, it does seem a bit wacky to feed butter, which now costs more than $10 per kilo, to an animal. She also gets chicken skins and fat trimmings from other meats from me so she hangs out at my place nearly as much as her own. I tried playing with her a little but it just isn’t in me.

Meanwhile in many ways Kampot, where my second home is, is a lot worse in the canine category because there they really do get to run free. You know, I can really dig it from the dog’s perspective. They get to run around and fuck a lot and sniff at everything. They get to hang around with their friends and have a good time and yip, yip, yip, bark, bark, bark to their heart’s content. They also get to harass anybody who dares to be out at night walking or bicycling, which is clearly my problem because I’m a night person.

My house is at the edge of town and almost rural so there are even more dogs than usual and I also have to pass through a severely pockmarked, potholed section of road. This was a big problem when I was on bicycle since I had to go slowly to negotiate the rough surface, which left me a sitting target, so to speak, for the dogs. It also meant my bike light didn’t work well since I was going so slowly. In town on paved streets I might not be able to outrun them, but at least I’d be able to get out of their way pretty quickly. It was especially bad in rainy season since I’d also have to dodge huge puddles and pools of water.

As you can imagine, part of my problem is that I’m not terribly comfortable around dogs and they sense that and think I’m an evil person who needs to be harassed. I walked home at night for a month or so when I first moved to Kampot and then bicycled for several months after that until I bought a car. I always made sure I had a couple of rocks handy in my basket. Barking dogs at my heels combined with trying to find my way on a rough road in the dark did cause me to spill out a couple of times causing a flurry of curses.

When I tried to stay calm and ignore them it worked out a lot better and anyway I managed to survive without getting bitten. Still it’s a great relief to have a car and really be able to ignore them. But I like to walk and bike very much so it’s kind of a loss and a waste to fire up the car to go such short distances – it’s never much more than a kilometer to anywhere I go at night. I walk in Phnom Penh at night so it’s nutty that I feel I have to drive in Kampot.

The barking dogs of midnight is practically the only thing I don’t like about Kampot. One or two will start their stupid yapping, sometimes totally unprovoked by any real event, and then are quickly joined by five or ten others in the immediate neighborhood, which very soon translates into every dog within a kilometer going crazy in unison. Ninety-nine percent have no idea why they are barking their heads off but are moronically happy to join the chorus just the same. Some people get positively deranged by the needless din. I don’t like it but mostly just let it pass me by… though at times I do think some of the worst offenders deserve the cook pot, at least there they’d serve a real purpose.

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