What a picture I must have made…

OK. Picture this if you can:

It is 8:30PM, pitch dark. I am standing at the open gate of a neighbor’s compound.  I am naked except for a  (I must say,  ravishing), emerald green, tie-dye cotton sarong wrapped around my waist and Birkenstocks on my feet. The vast whiteness of my belly is exposed to the world, my locally unnatural furry body proclaiming my foreignness. Perhaps, then,  it is fortunate that I am alone in the dark.

Pregnant with Freudian symbolism, in my left hand I am carrying a foot long, Kenyon-purple torch (flashlight for those of you in the Western Hemisphere) and in my right hand I am brandishing (for no other word will do) a four foot, rolled up, white umbrella, wooden handle foremost. With my gray hair and gray beard I am the very picture of an Avenging Angel of the Lord. Or at least one of the Lord’s more fey, pale, and decrepit Avenging Angels.

Got that pictured? OK. Don’t worry. A couple of stiff shots of arrack and an hour or two should be enough to clear it out of your mind.

True to my avenging angel role, I am yelling angrily for the occupants of the house to come out or I will call the police. And I am angry. Hot angry. Not under total control angry. I am shouting at the top of my lungs in a residential neighborhood of a foreign city. When no one appears immediately, I call out that it is fine with me if they stay inside and call the police themselves. Either way. No one save for Kris and my nangi, Anna, have seen me this hot.

So how did I find myself in this situation? Well, it has to do with an increasingly vicious neighborhood dog. There are dogs everywhere here, mostly strays, mostly in miserable condition, feeding off piles of garbage. I have found that the strays are never a threat, too enervated from disease and starvation to challenge a human. But there are some pet dogs, elevated one might say, above the masses. This is a tale of two pet dogs.

Mitzi Amarasinghe Gunaratne - Doggy Hero

Mitzi Amarasinghe Gunaratne - Doggy Hero

The first is the pet dog owned by our landlady. We willingly took on the responsibility for the dog both because we had just had experience with the difficulty of finding someone to care for pets when one is traveling and because we genuinely like dogs and knew we would appreciate its cheerful companionship.  She is a small dog with long hair, all white, weighing between 3-4kg (7-9 pounds). She is a bit small for my taste and she is a bit “yappy.”  She prances rather than walks, bushy tail high, mouth slightly open giving her the appearance of a happy smile. Her open-mouthed, excited greeting will give you a distinct whiff of “doggy breath” when you stoop to return her greeting with a pat on the head.

The dog worships the maid, who is conditioned by her culture not to return much affection, so the little dog is predictably desperate for attention, alone in the world without an accepting  “pack.”  But the maid bathes her weekly and feeds her daily and generally looks out for her. The dog is approaching twenty years old, a bit of a holdover from when the landlady thought that her two children should have a pet, and not much liked by the landlady either as we were to find out.  Though I have lived with the dog for seven months now, I am not really sure of her name. Between my difficulties hearing and my unfamiliarity with Sri Lankan names, the best I can do is “Mitzi.” And she looks like a dog an American would call “Mitzi.”

Early on, Mitzi earned a place in my personal “Dog Hall of Fame.” She is a credit to dogs the world over. Born into an unappreciative, un-understanding,  human culture, she has soldiered on doing what dogs do: standing guard; alerting on intruders; never failing to greet each family member enthusiastically even if the parting has been for only five minutes; and being continuously devoted to their family no matter how she is treated. Mitzi Amarasinghe  Gunaratne deserves a medal on this Earth and I am sure as an agnostic can be that she has a place in Doggy Heaven waiting for her arrival in the not-too-distant future.

Less charitable things can be said about the villain of the piece, a mostly black, short haired, male and maleficent dog belonging to the aforementioned neighbors. The dog is twice the size, so ten times Mitzi’s weight. I do not know this dog’s name either, but will use our maid’s sobriquet, “this bad dog” which is suitably descriptive. This bad dog first came to my attention in the first month of our stay when it challenged me as I was walking home from the University. This bad dog was hanging around the path that leads off the alley toward our house. It ran at me, growling, barking, and baring its teeth. I raised my umbrella and challenged it right back. This bad dog’s owner eventually appeared. She said that this bad dog did not like humans carrying umbrellas. I responded that humans have the right to carry umbrellas, not to mention their obvious utility in a tropical climate, and that the real point was that she should keep her dog under control. Displaying the obvious lack of control she had over the dog, she then proceeded to ineffectually herd this bad dog back toward her house. It would circle around her, coming back at me, until she would get between me and it and start the process over. The dog was totally unresponsive to her voice commands. In fact, this bad dog was one of the reasons why item number four in “101 Reasons to Carry an Umbrella in Sri Lanka” was noted as true and not humorous.

From time to time, this bad dog and one of his packmates would enter our yard and we would chase them off. But not too long ago, this bad dog attacked Mitzi on one of these forays. Mitzi received a puncture wound that our maid treated with an antibiotic. The location of the bite on her hindquarters made it obvious that Mitzi was in full submissive posture when bitten. Mitzi was obviously shaken, but recovered well after a day or two. We tightened our efforts to chase this bad dog out when he appeared and to make sure that Mitzi was safely locked up when we were not around to protect her.

Mitzi generally sleeps in a reasonably sized dog house outdoors as do many pet dogs in the neighborhood. This is as much to protect them as to confine them. Mitzi, while loyal, is not particularly bright and, even after twenty years, has not yet quite got the concept about the wisdom of staying in the dog house all night. She really wants to be with her family. A few nights ago, Mitzi was able to make an opening in the screen of her dog house and escape. Sadly, this bad dog found her that night. When I awoke in the morning, the maid had taken Mitzi to the garage. She was laying at the rear of the car, shivering violently. The maid had applied an antibiotic to the wounds, but, in addition to a deep puncture wound at one spot on her abdomen, there was a second wound that had torn the skin open, exposing the abdominal wall. I was not at all sure that Mitzi would recover with just home care.

I was frustrated and angry. A dear old pet dog should not be abused like this, especially not on my “watch.”  Dammit, this was a creature under my roof, even if it was a rented roof. I was tired of not knowing what was the culturally correct way to discharge my duties heretofore leaving it to the maid, leaving it to the neighborhood. I was angry, but not in any way out-of-control angry. But Kris knew I was angry and so did the maid.

Things began to happen. The maid took the dog to the vet where it received several stitches and more antibiotics. Kris wrote a carefully considered, even handed letter to the justice of the peace in Dongolla, to whom our landlady had introduced us before she left, pointing out among other things the danger to the half dozen children living on our lane younger than six.

The dog was in much better shape upon returning from the vet and the letter to the justice of the peace was acted on the very next morning. The justice of the peace called Kris to verify details and confirmed to Kris that this neighbor had caused some trouble before. He then called the neighbors and let them know  that if they did not control the dog, he would involve the police. He called Kris back to let her know that the neighbors had agreed to keep the dog confined.

And then came last night. Kris and I were finishing dinner when we heard a ruckous in the kitchen and the maid shooing some animal out the door. It was this bad dog. This bad dog had entered our house and attacked Mitzi. Fortunately the maid’s timely action prevented any harm to Mitzi, but once I appreciated what had happened, I went off.

While the maid and Kris chased the dog out the back door, I went through the house girding for battle. By the time I had collected sandals, torch, and umbrella, this bad dog had fled from the yard, but I knew where he lived. Kris asked where I was going. “Hunting,” I said. I marched to the neighbor’s house where this bad dog challenged me. He was loose, in clear violation of the agreement.

I will give the neighbor’s credit. They did come out. I’m not sure I would have  under the same circumstances. The man was placating, apparently accepting responsibility. The woman uttered simpering excuses about how she had put a collar on the dog, but “somehow” it wriggled out. What a miserable, pathetic, ignorant creature she was. It was so flippin’ obvious that the behavioral problems of this bad dog were totally due to her. By this time, this bad dog was defying all of their efforts to rein him in, standing in a narrow, human-inaccessable space between a parked car and a wall, barking away, ignoring their verbal commands. The man assured me that he had things under control  and, though I doubted it very much, I let myself be placated and returned to our house. The justice of the peace will  be called in the morning and we will see how it plays out from here.


A footnote to my dear friend Kara. Kara is my guru for all things about international education and was very helpful in helping us learn about acculturation by recommending some excellent books. She reads this blog and has contributed a number of useful and insightful comments. And I am ashamed that she now knows that by allowing myself to become angry, I committed one of the cardinal sins of intercultural communication. I will childishly snap back that intercultural exchange is a two way street,  but then I will beg to be allowed to remain in her virtual ashram.



  1. Kris said,

    June 3, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Well, and there’s more. I have been reading contemporary Sri Lankan literature during our time here, and one of the talents of the Sri Lankans is the perpetuation of long disagreements. We might learn how to do this if we stayed longer, as the incompetence of the bad dog’s “owners” is clear; but if we take matters into criminal territory (poison, ammonia, netting?) we will be obvious suspects. The police are rarely able to do investigation since they have been overwhelmed for some time by quasi-military duties. So welcome to the art of the feud. I don’t have much taste for such but I am also outraged that such an innocent and timid little dog can’t be safe in her own kitchen. And I worry sincerely that a dog capable of such attacks is also capable of attacking toddlers, even well supervised ones such as our neighbors. Stay tuned. The Justice of the Peace seems not to be home today.

  2. Matt said,

    June 3, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    “And I worry sincerely that a dog capable of such attacks is also capable of attacking toddlers…”

    There is no question.

    As I sit here watching Matthew sleep, I can only encourage you to pursue (within all reasonable bounds) the destruction of the animal. From canismajor.com (a random site found in a Google search):

    “Eye contact is also one of the ways order is kept in a wolf pack. Only an alpha animal may use the stare to remind everyone who is in charge. When you initiate eye contact, you express your alpha position.”

    A child is taller than a dog, and can casually establish eye contact. With an animal this poorly behaved, that will be grounds enough for it to attack the child. (More authoritative sources on this subject can certainly be found.)

    My point: the animal is dangerous, at best, and should be put down.

  3. SHANNON said,

    June 4, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    Wait a few days, say no more and the quietly slip an overdose of whatever pain pills you still have into some meat and toss it over the fence in the middle of the night. You could wait for this until just before you vacate. You’re out of the country-not chargeable and the landlady is not involved.

    I know it is not customary for dogs to sleep in the house even when they are senile in most countries, but couldn’t she have a small part of a kitchen corner that is secure?

  4. Kris said,

    June 5, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Thanks, Matt and Shannon, for supporting us. Since her house is evidently not well sealed, and we could not find a good prefab one, Mitzi has been in the garage most nights, a fairly secure and much larger space than her house. It is also close to the kitchen so it is easy to check on her.

    Since Tim’s rant above, the Mayor called to see how things were going and we told him that this dog had gotten loose again, and actually came into our kitchen to attack again. Fortunately, the maid, Rani, was quick to chase him out, but Mitze trembled for an hour. She got a good report from the vet today, and is the picture of bathed white dog without bandage, but an ugly yellow ointment will mark the sites of her wounds for weeks to come.

    The Mayor promised to involve the police, which he said meant jail time for the neighbors. I don’t know what to expect, but they seem to be dimwitted types who are mindless of their responsibilities. Our former neighbors in Los Alamos were like that–people who liked the idea of owning dogs but hadn’t a clue about their behaviors, disciplines, or hazards. I suspect that if the police show up, crisply tailored as they always are, and armed with both firearms and copious red tape, it will put the fear of God into them to take action rather than risk jail time. We have seen the prison in Kandy, visible from the road above it and through its main gate near the vegetable market, and it is a fearsome place. Its walls contain the petard for criminal execution by hanging, among other operating machines of justice. So we shall see.

    As for the poison, Shannon, I am surprised at you! I was thinking along the same lines, actually, but stumped how to do it in spite of a lifetime of reading murder mysteries. And several years as a criminal court journalist.* We will have time for further plotting when you get here…

    *The real criminals I covered were mostly quite stupid, caught redhanded or at the end of an incredibly obvious trail of clues, such as footprints in the snow! K.

  5. Tim said,

    June 5, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    Let us please remember that some of the readers of this blog do not know you personally. If they did know you, then they would realize that none of you, animal lovers all, would ever truly be part of a scheme to poison an animal. So while I know you are kidding and interpret your comments for the humor intended, others may not have the necessary information to know that you were kidding.

    The act of poisoning an animal would be especially offensive in a Buddhist culture even as it is odious to our own culture. So let us all remember to add notes or smiley faces or “just kidding” to our posts to help avoid misunderstanding.

  6. Kara said,

    June 7, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    Tim —

    I’m blushing!!!

    Seriously though, interculturalism does not require you to remain calm in all circumstances or put up with physical attacks on your family (including adopted pets), nor does it require you to be perfect. It does require you to be *mindful* (Stella Ting Toomey, Communicating Across Cultures) — thinking through your actions and reasons, which it sounds like you did (mostly, anyway)– and do your best to work within the culture, which it also sounds like you did. The Mayor and co. seem to be pretty responsive, which means that you A) acted responsibly and within bounds, or B) they’re trying to placate the scary foreigner (you are one of the least scary people I know, by the way). You can use Rani (and other Sri Lankan friends) as a cultural gauge — are they giving you any indications that you acted “outside the bounds” by getting angry?

    Occasionally working within the culture can mean being much more confrontational than you might otherwise be. Surely I told you the story of my students from India telling me to carry an umbrella while I was there, and that I needed to be ready to use it — not just against the rain, but against random men trying to paw me in public? Can you actually picture me yelling at and thwacking someone in public? I still can’t, but it was recommended by experts in that particular culture. 🙂

    So, if I can be said to have an ashram, virtual or otherwise, you are still most welcome, and I’m truly glad that you’ve found my suggested reading useful. 🙂

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