A Difficult Cultural Difference In Our Feelings For Pets…



I was just chatting with my mother in law the other day about the different cultural treatment and feelings of domesticated animals here in Panama. I felt the need to tread gently when talking with her about this subject because she has the biggest heart when it comes to all animals but especially dogs. The last thing I want her to think is that all the Panamanian people are cruel or mean, because they aren’t. There’s just certain ways of life that are unlike our ways such as their perspective on dogs and cats, this happens to differ greatly from what we are accustomed to. This in no way makes them bad or mean or even necessarily wrong, It’s sad to those of us who don’t understand, but just because it’s different doesn’t make it ‘wrong’. I have a strong belief, that something can be ‘wrong’ to me but that doesn’t mean others need agree with what I think is ‘right’. I’m not unlike my mother in law, in my adoration of dogs. They almost all melt my heart no matter what breed, I just love them so much.

In my mind, dogs are a little like babies in that, they cant’ tell you how they feel or what they need. So naturally, my protective instincts click in when I see a dog who needs a little love. And let me tell you, all the dogs here need a little love. The way that the Panamanians culturally live amongst domesticated animals , really breaks my heart sometimes. Although I try my best to understand and respect this particular cultural difference, I don’t think I’ll ever feel good about seeing how they treat the dogs here. It’s sad to me and I’m sure to many others who move here from other places where pets are cherished and cared for like a part of the family. Admittedly, us North Americans can at times (okay…a lot of times!) go overboard with our obsessive treatment of our pets. I cant even imagine what the Panamanians must think of us crazy Gringos with our pets sometimes. (a virtual eye roll for them!) I know, they are, after all “Animals”. True, but we’re responsible for their care when we decide to make them our pets, at least that’s my perspective. And here’s one area where our way of thinking differs greatly from most Panamanians,( not all Panamanians, I know there are many who do care deeply for their pets, I hate to generalize and say that ALL Panamanians believe or behave the same way, that’s never the case). But I have observed that the vast majority of them don’t feel the need to feel responsible to provide much of anything, sometimes not even food to the dog that faithfully lives outside their home. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that the main reason for allowing a dog to live there is for protection. The dog will bark if an intruder tries to come near the home and I suspect this is the motivation for having them around. And it’s funny because almost all the Panamanians I’ve met are terrified of dogs! And I’ve seen the way that my two little adopted dogs react to the fear…they become quite vicious. You can tell that the dogs are very leery of most people, especially strangers.

There are many Panamanian dogs who live with families that are so poor that they can barely afford to feed their children, so the dogs must fend for themselves. And so I’ve noticed that Panamanian dogs are very independent and seem to, (no, not seem to, they do) roam around freely. I bet most of these dogs have never had a collar on or been limited to staying in a fenced in yard, although there are some who are left chained up in the yard and I just cant even look at these poor dogs. They eat trash when they can get into it and whatever else they manage to get. In Boquete the way that they deal with the dogs getting into the trash is that they have these tall , cage-like containers sitting out near the streets that everyone piles their garbage bags into. There are no garbage cans sitting on the street waiting to be emptied, No, the dogs here would have no problem knocking those over and having a feast. The bags full of garbage are in these tall metal cages in front of homes and along streets, and the garbage trucks come around and collect the bags of trash from the cage each week.

I’ve observed that this behavior of unkindness, or indifference to animals starts at a very young age too. The other day as I was driving home I saw a little girl, (an indigenous child, maybe 3 or 4 years old), walking with her family. And the family dog, at least it looked to me like the dog was with them, came walking up, tail wagging, next to the little girl, not in an aggressive way at all, the little girl hit the dog with and angry look on her face. She wasn’t scared of the dog, just mad that the dog wanted to be next to her. Now, I thought, “How Sad”. That dog just wanted to be near to the little girl and most kids are happy to have a doggy around. No, even the small children learn from example at an early age ,how to behave with animals, and it’s not with kindness or gentleness at all.

The expat community here in Boquete has formed an organization to help lower the amount of stray dogs and cats on the streets. It’s called Amigos De Animales and It’s quite impressive what an impact they’ve had on this problem. (Here is a web sight where you can read more about them and even donated to help support this great organization http://spcai.org/index.php/programs/shelter-support/item/687-fundacion-amigos-de-animales-boquete-boquete-chiriquie-rep-de-panama.html) ( http://www.fadab.org/ )They sponsor an ongoing spay and neuter clinic and it’s a really big day of volunteering for so many who generously give of their time to make it happen. I’ve talked to many friends who have participated in this and let me tell you, it’s exhausting. Not only physically but emotionally as well. They get several local vets to volunteer their time to do surgery to sterilize many many animals in one afternoon. There are many different areas to volunteer , there’s the prep of the animals before the surgeries and then there’s the actual operating room and then the recovery room where people comfort the animals as they are coming out of anesthesia. They get a huge amount of people who go lend a hand and are able to not only sterilize the animals but also attend to other various health issues while they have them there, including immunizations and things like that. Some animals have wounds and injuries and other issues that would have otherwise gone untreated. But, sadly, there’s just no way for them to find homes for all these animals and so many of them must be set free once again. 😦 shrug…that’s just the way it goes. But, It’s such a wonderful thing that they do and It really warms my heart to know that fewer animals will be out there trying to survive without anyone to care for them.

I know, I’m a sucker for animals. I just can’t help myself. I have two dogs who have discovered the Sucker Gringa! I feed them twice a day and they hang around and just love my attention. Yes, they have owners, I know this. And I’m aware that I cant take them with me when I move someday. 😦 They just seem so happy to have just a little attention and I love to give it to them. I bought a ball to play with them but sheesh! they don’t’ even know how to play with a ball! I swear! I tried to roll the ball to one of the dogs and he just kinda jumped out of the way, like it would hurt him! I’m sure they’re used to people throwing rocks at them and just don’t know how to play. Sigh. So, I”ll love on em’ and I know they’ll be confused when I leave, I’ll be sad to leave them but they do live here in this neighborhood. And when I move, I hope I discover other dogs who live in that neighborhood who I can give some attention to. And Of course I’ll find a dog or two to adopt! No doubt about that! Let’s just hope I don’t go overboard and become the “Crazy Doggy Gringa!” Hah!

This is yet one more aspect of living in another country that differs greatly from what I’m accustomed to. My intent in writing about this isn’t to make a judgement or point out that it’s wrong. Just that It’s an aspect of the culture here in my new home that I must adapt to, not that I suppose they should change for me. Yes, I find it quite sad, because my perspective on animals is not the same. But no one says we all must have the same thoughts and feelings in this great big world. While I live here, I need to learn to adapt and accept what’s customary, this doesn’t mean I have to change my ways…acceptance is all I need adapt to.


11 responses »

      • You did not sound judgmental at all. I feel just lime you and how lucky for the two little poochies who get your love and attention! I’m also aware of the cultural differences. There is no judgment of right or wrong, just noticing it and explaining it how it is. You gave a very good explanation.

  1. I agree with Karen. You didn’t sound judgmental at all. We deal with the same cultural differences with animals here, too. I asked a local friend of ours, who returned from his first visit to the states, what was the craziest thing he saw. His immediate answer was, “Do you know they dress their dogs in sweaters and jackets?” LOL He just couldn’t understand that at all. Not many Nicaraguans would understand how we consider our pets to be a part of our family. They consider them to be protection for their homes. When someone stole our hammock on the second story porch of our casita, they first thing they told us was to get a dog…a perro bravo. haha

  2. Wow, you really hit a nerve with me on this.one. Seeing the status of the street dogs was really hard for us on our last trip, especially since we have two totally spoiled girls that share our bed (don’t tell anyone!). But we do understand it’s the culture there and we respect that. It’s interesting – when I was growing up in West Texas, we had dogs but they were always kept in the back yard. We didn’t really think of them as members of the family – and yet we were really traumatized when they died. In fact, most of the people in my small town kept their dogs in the back yard. But I digress . . .

    I think it’s great that there are volunteer orgs in Boquete to help animals and we are looking forward to helping with the spay neuter clinic. It’s a small thing to do that can make a very big difference.

    Anyway, I love that you shared your insights in a very non-judgmental, thought-provoking way.

  3. I love hearing that you feed the dogs who visit you & of course they love your attention! Dogs love & want to be loved. My two rescue cats are very pampered & wonderful company…I’m never alone as they like to be with me. All cultures are different with animals; in India, the cows are revered & I’m a bit scared of cows!
    The amigos for animals is a wonderful beginning in helping the dogs & cats….and perhaps seeing your kindness will affect one person & then another.
    I always enjoy your blog, even though I don’t comment very often.

    • Deanna, Thank you so much for your comment. Its nice to hear from people, it lets me know I’m writing something others enjoy and can maybe relate to just a little. Cheers! 🙂

  4. I love dogs too. We adopted a retired racing greyhound when she was almost 4 and she didn’t know how to play with a ball either. All dogs or rather all animals deserve love. Even the grackles that have set up a nest on my deck and squawk at us when we come out of the house. 🙂

    • Hola Holly,
      Tienes toda la razon. Todos los animales merecen ser tratados con compasion. Me gusta mucho tus articulos. Me ecanta oir tus experiences pues soy de Panama (Bocas del Toro).

      • Ines, muchas gracias por su comentario. Me hace muy feliz de saber que te gustó mi post y que no era ofensivo para un panameño nativo. Intento tan difícil de escribir lo que siento, sin ofender a la gente o que aparecen para decir que los demás caminos están mal. ¿Vive usted en Bocas del Toro? Me estoy tomando mi hija allí en mayo! Estoy tan emocionada de mostrarle su hermoso país y mi nueva casa!

      • Buenas Holly,
        No es ofensivo en lo minimo porque escribes con mucho respeto y consideration. Yo vivo en Minnesota pero añoro regresar pronto a mi hermoso pais. Viajo todos los años a visitar a mi familia en la isla. Si por casualidad estas en Carenero, mi sobrina Penny es propietaria de Bibis on the Beach. Espero que la pases de maravilla con tu hija. Felicidades.

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