My month-long yoga teacher training in Tzununa, Guatemala was full of yoga, new friends, delicious vegan food, amazing weather… and something not listed on the pamphlet: a lot of restless nights spent worrying about the suffering of the street dogs.
Of anywhere I’ve been in the world, I have never seen animals more neglected (understandable as it is a poor area and people need to prioritize feeding their children) and mistreated (children throw rocks at the dogs for fun and tuktuk drivers try to hit them on purpose).
A few days after arriving to Tzununa, I needed to go to San Marcos via tuktuk. We passed two identical puppies on the side of the road and my heart stopped.
the living puppy
One was dead, flies eating his skeleton-thin body, his rib cage so prominent you could count every single rib. The other puppy sat next to his dead brother – dazed, confused, and occasionally nudging his twin.
Anyone who knows me, knows I am obsessed with dogs. I love people but I have a special connection with canines. I have to hug them everywhere I go.
captured by Lavi in Cafayate, Argentina
What could I do in Tzununa? I couldn’t shut my eyes to the pain, I couldn’t pretend like it wasn’t happening, but I felt helpless against such a deeply rooted problem.
I did what I could, with what I had, where I was. I bought food in San Marcos, and vowed to feed the dogs every day.
Every day I would walk the steep path into town. I tried to feed the thinnest ones, the ones that looked like they were suffering the most – but especially the little black puppy that had tugged on my heart strings the hardest.
I tried not to tell anyone, but some of my fellow yogis found out what I was doing. Some tried to explain the futility of what I was doing, that I would leave and the dogs would starve again. Some supported me.
I sometimes do things that other people don’t see the use in, things that seem too small or too specific to matter.
I have found strength and comfort in a Hebrew phrase my husband taught me, which is that when you save one you save the world.
For me, in this instance, giving the dogs the feeling of a full stomach, of someone loving and caring about them, for even a short time in their short and cruel lives, was entirely worth it and entirely meaningful.
Almost every day, the small, scared black puppy would come to greet me and I would feed him. Every day, he warmed up to me more and more, even licking my hand before taking a bite of food.
As my days at the training came to an end, I was talking with my husband about the deep and piercing sadness I felt for the dogs of Tzununa. I felt useless, and defeated, and couldn’t stop crying. Guatemala doesn’t have almost any shelter facilities nor general population interest in adoption.
He suggested we bring the black puppy home, and try to find a home for him.
We couldn’t save them all, but we could save one.
We both knew that bringing a dog home from another country was no walk in the park (we’d brought Mickey from Thailand to Brazil, and from Brazil to Mexico), especially from a country like Guatemala. After days of phone calls and emails, I found a vet in a nearby village (an hour boat ride and 30 minute tutus away) who was able to do the export paperwork for adopting a street dog abroad, and arranged to bring the black puppy (who I named Shanti) to him at 2pm that day, as he’d be leaving for a week (and then it would be too late to start the process).
When I went to find Shanti in the village, he was nowhere to be found.
I wandered through the streets for hours before standing in the center square and crying with snot pouring down my face (I’m an attractive crier, which is good because I do it a lot… not). I looked around one last time, before starting back up the hill, admitting my defeat.
As I began my ascent up the steep path, a small movement caught my eye. In the heat of midday, Shanti was hiding in a dugout beneath a decrepit barn. I called for him, held out food, and he came scampering over.
I wrapped the emaciated, flea-covered pup in a blanket, and picked him up. He rested his head on my shoulder in exhaustion, and I cried even harder. I walked the long path to the boat launch, drawing many stares – a sobbing gringa snuggling a dirty, skinny puppy.
photo courtesy of the tuktuk driver – the day I took Shanti to the vet
Shanti barely moved in the following hours, unfazed by the boat, the tuktuk (even when the driver suggested we stop and take a photo with Shanti in front of his home), and the doctor’s examination.
The doctor advised keeping him at the clinic, where he would stay for a week’s observation, feeding, and treatment. A 5 month old black lab mix, he should have weighed around 20 pounds. Instead, he weighed only 5 pounds.
The doctor told me, kindly but firmly, that a dog in his condition likely would not survive the week. Shanti was severely starved, his immune system was compromised, and his bones and body were extremely weak. The doctor told me honestly not to have high hopes, but that he would do his best. He couldn’t administer vaccines now, but if Shanti was miraculously better next week, we could move forward with bringing him home. I thanked him, paid, and left.
I felt like I was holding my breath the entire week, before the moment finally came for me to see how Shanti was doing. When I arrived to the clinic, the vet was “at lunch” and the necessary export paperwork hadn’t been done as promised (and paid for), or even started. I waited for over an hour past our appointment time, and he never showed up.
The attendant assured me everything was fine, and asked for more money, and told me I could leave. Warning bells were sounding in my head. I told her I’d pay after I’d seen Shanti. She seemed nervous, then went to the back room and made a call I couldn’t hear.
Upon returning, she said she couldn’t take him out of his cage because he didn’t know her. When I offered to go into the back room to get him myself, she said I couldn’t. Why? Because… well, no.
She again told me I didn’t need to wait, I could just pay more, and leave and the doctor could get in touch with me.
I had a really weird feeling, but I don’t like being confrontational. I was starting to sit down to wait more, when a surge of conviction stopped me. This is my dog, and I have a right to see him.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I need to see him now. Right now. I am very worried. Please, help me.”
Looking defeated, she went into the back room, and immediately returned with a small cage. She set the cage on the floor in front of me, and I was overwhelmed by a horrible smell. I looked inside, and Shanti was cowering in the back. I reached in and pulled him out, brushing wet, urine-soaked newspapers with my arm.
He was covered in shit.
He was terrified.
Crying, I couldn’t believe I had let this happen to him. Maybe he would have been better off on the street. I tried to compose myself, and told the nurse I would take him to the nearby park. I asked her to call the doctor, that he needed to come as soon as possible as we had an appointment he’s over an hour late for, and she can call me when he arrives.
after cleaning him off – waiting in the park
I sat in the park for two more hours waiting, holding the scared and shaking Shanti until he finally fell asleep, while looking for someplace else he could stay on the Internet (I found one – I highly recommend anyone staying on Lake Atitlan to check out the Hummingbird Hostel). We returned to the doctor’s office when the nurse called.
I tried to remain as calm and pleasant as possible when I told the doctor that it looks like Shanti hasn’t been eating enough. The doctor laughed awkwardly, and told me he’d been feeding him meat, great food, all kinds of luxury. I smiled tightly, telling him, thanks but I’d found a different place for Shanti to stay, he wouldn’t need boarding at the clinic anymore.
We made plans to meet again next week. This time I told the vet that I was leaving an hour after our meeting, so he couldn’t be late, and the paperwork needed to be completed as promised.
The meeting the following week THANKFULLY went as planned, with the paperwork completed, the vaccines administered, and Shanti having gained 2 pounds in one week of care. He looked like a different animal – happier, healthier, less scared.
I left Tzununa with so much more than I’d arrived – a yoga teacher training certificate, amazing new friends… and this beloved little dog.
in Antigua, on our way home
While I brought Shanti home with the intention of finding him his “furever” home, I quickly fell in love with him and wanted to keep him with us.
Unfortunately, my other dog, Mickey, does not get along with Shanti (or most other dogs, to be honest) and I’m needing to keep them separate at all times. I can’t even walk them together without Mickey snipping and barking at Shanti.
We found a lovely family living near Mexico City with two children who wanted to adopt Shanti and provide him his forever home.
How to Adopt a Dog from a Foreign Country
the rough guide to adopting a street dog abroad: from Guatemala or anywhere else
If you’re thinking of adopting a dog from a foreign country, remember that a dog is a decade-plus investment.
Animals adopted from the street often have severe health and psychological issues, with their issues being exacerbated by the length of their time on the street and the severity of their maltreatment. My dog Shanti is no exception, and it has been a struggle (and a joy) teaching him to adapt to home life.
When you’ve decided to undertake the mission that is bringing home a pet from abroad, you will need at the bare minimum:
Vaccination record – vaccines usually need to be completed AT LEAST 30 days before flying
Anti-Parasite record – worms and fleas are very common, and you don’t want them in your bed anymore than the airline wants them on their plane
Export documents – you will need to find a vet who is capable and experienced in preparing these. They are a necessity and need to be completed in advance (but not too far in advance), usually 10 days before leaving. My friend didn’t have export docs for cat and she couldn’t leave and had to miss her flight.
Import documents – you will need to contact the embassy of the country you are bringing your pet into, along with the airline. Not every airline allows pets, either in the cabin or as checked bags (We flew with interjet: Pets fly free!)
**MAKE 2 EXTRA COPIES OF EVERYTHING**
The three most important steps are checking with your airline, checking with the animal division of whatever country you’re leaving, and checking with the embassy of the country you will be bringing the animal into.
Photos of Shanti after he came home to Mexico: