Paloma: Patron Saint of the Dogs

Narrative by Belem Ortiz

Malinalco, Mexico

Paloma mounts her scooter, starts it and eases down the first few yards of the street. She has not even ridden a block when a stray dog approaches her, wagging its tail. It has recognized her. She pats it without dismounting, and after making sure the dog is far enough off the street, she speeds up a little and keeps on riding.

Scenes like this are pretty common in Paloma’s everyday life. This 50-year-old woman first came to Malinalco more than 25 years ago, attracted by the peace of what the Mexican government has officially designated a “magic town.” She was drawn not only by Malinalco’s famous archaeological site, but also by the great number of stray or mistreated dogs in the municipality.

“If there’s a guy smacking a child in the street, everyone would stop and say ‘Hey, what’s your problem?,’ but not with dogs,” she says. “They are the most vulnerable. Cats and horses too. But I can’t fight against the whole world. Horses are not so mistreated since they are useful for work.”

Paloma wears a t-shirt, sweatpants and sneakers. Her short, curly, graying hair is tied by a headband. She has small, dark brown eyes flanked by wrinkles. She frowns and raises her voice when she talks about animal abuse. She’s determined to change this situation. Ever since she moved to Malinalco she’s become the voice of animals, promoting better conditions for them.

Paloma rumbles into the office of David Salinas, the veterinarian in charge of the health jurisdiction for the Public Health Program in Tenancingo, which includes Malinalco in the program. She’s come to collect drugs for a sterilization campaign Paloma organized.

“I would like to have a Paloma in every municipality since the most important thing is looking after animals,” Dr. Salinas says. “She convinces people to participate and she gets drugs. If there are no donations, she buys them herself. Every three years, there is a new administration and she makes it possible to enact new campaigns, though she sometimes pays for them herself.”

Celia, Paloma’s friend for 28 years, says she is a very passionate woman, with a great love for animals, especially dogs. “She gives everything for them. She has earned people’s respect,” Celia says. “People come to her as if she were the veterinarian.”

When Paloma gets home, she opens the gate that divides the entrance and her backyard. Immediately ten dogs surround her, jumping and barking, trying to get her attention. Thirty other dogs run and jump throughout the playground. Another 15 are inside the house, in the backyard or on the roof terrace. Almost all were once ill, mistreated or malnourished, rescued from the streets, from abandonment or from houses where they were not taken care of. All of them are now sterilized, vaccinated, dewormed and ready to be placed in a home.

“Last month five of them were given up for adoption,” Paloma says with a smile. She says her priority is respect for dogs and to make people aware of the importance of sterilizations and human treatment. What she aims for is “responsible owners who look after their dogs and treat them well, not just because their child wanted to have them.”

A puppy jumps towards Paloma’s legs, and she pretends to stare at him harshly. Some seconds later she smiles, takes him by his front paws and lifts him gently. As she carries him, the dog doesn’t stop wagging his tail and she lets him lick her cheek a few times. As she puts him down, another one approaches and she also lifts him with laughter. When she wants to tell a dog off, she raises her voice and calls the animal by its name. She never hits them.

In every room of her house, a two-floor building surrounded by plants, there’s fur on the floor, stuck to the fabric and floating in the air. The dogs go in and outside the house freely. Although Paloma keeps her house clean, the smell of dogs is everywhere.

Vodka, Tomasina, Kobaltsky, Mapi, Coyote, Ratón, Jack, Scar, Bambi, Jajalpa, Riguel and Ania – these are some of the 55 names that Paloma knows by heart. She also knows the story behind every single dog. “The first dog I rescued was Pinolillo. He’s still alive. His mom was beaten up and I had to put her down since she was completely blind. He was on his own in a field, and I used to give him food. He had been beaten up too and had a broken hind leg. The bone was sticking out because of the violence he had suffered. We had to cut his leg off.”

Nowadays Pinolillo and three other dogs, Palomita, Bruno and Meca, live in a plot of land that a friend of Paloma’s is trying to sell in order to preserve it and also, Paloma says, because they are too territorial and can’t reside peacefully with the rest of the dogs at home.

“We don’t have enough money to take care of so many dogs, but we do have the dogs,” says Roberto, her partner. He comments that most chats with Paloma are related to dogs: whether one is ill, arguments about the lack of resources to feed them and vaccinate them all, and that debts they have accumulated. “Living with her is insane!”

Fernanda, their daughter is also drawn in , “My dad, just like me, has told her to limit herself. But she can’t come across a mistreated dog and do nothing.”

At least once, Paloma has second-guessed her role in this cause. Once when her daughter Fernanda was five, the family was driving on the highway and Paloma and her husband caught a glimpse of a dog lying in the middle of the road.

The dog was at risk of being hit by a car, Paloma says, “and we thought ‘we can’t just leave her lying there.’” Paloma and Roberto got out of the car just after telling their daughter to stay inside while they rescued the dog. They watched for approaching trucks and warned each other about the speed of cars. Paloma worried the dog might run away while Roberto tried to tighten the leash. They caught the animal.

Suddenly, Fernanda appeared beside her mother in the busy road asking her if they had succeeded. Paloma smiles with resignation as she recalls the scene. “My husband and I looked at each other and shouted ‘Idiots!’ We could have traded our daughter’s life for a dog’s! It was a hard blow.”

Still Paloma wasn’t deterred because, she says, “the gratitude you’re given by a dog is incredible. They would sacrifice their life for you, something that the two-legged ones rarely do.”

“Besides feeding the dogs here, she walks down the street with her bag of kibbles and feeds all the dogs she bumps into,” Roberto says.

For Paloma, there is always a way. “I spend more than I earn. But I’ve never run out of money,” she says. “When I’m about to, there’s always someone, an angel, and they tell me ‘Take this, it’s for the dogs.” She works as a fumigator and during the weekends she sells jewelry in order to earn 280 pesos, the price of the cheapest 25-kilo sack of kibbles, enough for one day. Despite this, Roberto says that the dogs have never gone without food.

“A friend of mine helps me by posting info on Facebook about sterilizations. Some send e-mails asking for donations. One’s got a magazine that has shown what we do. There are lots of people involved. They all help by doing little things,” Paloma says. “Most of my friends like dogs and help in some way. If someone tells me ‘I don’t like dogs,’ I don’t care about that person. We don’t have a lot in common.”

Paloma and her family feel they are making a difference. “Little by little people are becoming aware that adopting and sterilizing is better than buying,” Fernanda says. According to Roberto, “There are still dogs in the street, but not so many and not in such bad conditions.”

When Paloma comes home from work, she spends more time with the dogs than going out. “This is what I like the most, being with them. They are always with you. That’s why they are known as man’s best friend.”

“I’ll keep on doing this. I’ll keep on working so there will be more sterilization campaigns and people will be more aware. I want Malinalco to be an example of a possible solution, of something larger.”