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Peace Corps Pups

A leisurely warm soak is not something that Oakland resident Stephanie Giddings or her dog, Sinco, take for granted. The two lived in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic from 2006-2008, where Giddings adopted the poodle-mix during her Peace Corps service.
Written by Heather Bloch | Photography by Pam Biasotti
Both made do with cold bucket showers “which doesn’t cut it,” says Giddings, “even when it’s humid and 100 degrees.” Since returning to the States last November, they’ve both enjoyed the availability of warm, soapy water. Giddings luxuriates in hot showers, and, while Sinco still waits for his bath to be over, “he’s no longer trying to escape every time I turn my head.”

“Everyone knows stories of pets coming home with Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), but it’s not something we track,” says Nathan Hale Sargent, Public Affairs Specialist with the Peace Corps San Francisco Office. PCVs can’t bring pets into service, but officially, there’s no policy regarding adoption of animals overseas. Hale spent two years in Armenia, from 1998-2000, and remembers at least three volunteers, out of a training group of 30, returning with dogs. An email inquiry to the Northern California Peace Corps Association Yahoo group elicited half-a-dozen responses from Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) in the San Francisco Bay Area living with dogs from Africa, South and Central America.

“My dog and my time in the Peace Corps are two of my favorite things, so I’m always happy to talk about them,” says Kristen Simar, now living in San Francisco and involved in international development. She worked as a Community Health Education Volunteer in Georgetown, Guyana from 2001-2003. An animal lover, she remembers the Guyanan street scenes as difficult, with “stray dogs everywhere, packs of them, mangy-looking, bald or with black growths.” Phoenix, a little brown street dog, “this independent spirit,” came into her life when she found him very ill on her doorstep. She nursed him to health and, “by day three I knew we were meant to be together.”

Her Guyanese friends and colleagues were amused and curious regarding her adoption of Phoenix. “At one point 40 people watched me bathe this dog,” she remembers. Phoenix’s transformation from a sick, overlooked stray into a healthy, loving companion showed what care and compassion could do for an animal. Living by example, explains Simar, is part of the Peace Corps.

All the volunteers lived in communities populated with large numbers of stray animals in poor condition on the streets. Dogs that belonged to people were primarily kept outside and used to guard property. “I never numbed out to what I saw,” Giddings said of the diseased, starving and perpetually pregnant dogs in Puerto Plata. “If you’re a dog lover, it breaks your heart.”

She saw her adoption of Sinco as a natural extension of her work in youth, family and community development. He was vaccinated, neutered, fed nutritious food, trained in English and Spanish and had indoor sleeping privileges. Kids grew to love the playful canine bundle—they even gave him a birthday party—and parents saw that their children could interact with a dog without fear of sickness or injury. “You’re showing the community that a dog can be safe, healthy and part of the family,” she says. “Sinco changed people’s perception and experience of what a dog is and what a dog could be.”

Daniel Rabkin now lives with his dog, Casey Jones, in San Francisco and works for Operation Access, a medical nonprofit. He and Casey crossed paths in Comitacillo, Guatemala during Rabkin’s 2005–2008 Peace Corps service. Many Guatemalans live with chronic malnutrition; Rabkin worked in the food security program, helping families cultivate gardens, raise chickens and build stoves. A family offered him a puppy one day, which he named Casey Jones after a character in a Grateful Dead song on his iPod. The two became known as “The Gringo with the well taken care of dog.”

Much of Rabkin’s job required travel to the surrounding villages. He gave charlas (lectures) on alternatives to the tortillas and tamales diet on which much of the population, both human and canine, subsisted. Casey frequently accompanied him and became a sort of tail-wagging Show and Tell on the benefits of improved nutrition. Villagers couldn’t believe that the big, strong, healthy and friendly dog in front of them ‘es puro Comiteco,’ [is pure Comiteco] a dog from Comitacillo. He was a great conversation starter, remembers Rabkin. People were curious about his diet, his nutrition, the food he ate.

The volunteers agreed that their pets immeasurably enriched their experience just by being their lovable doggie selves. “He made my home seem more like a home, said Rabkin. For Simar, Phoenix’s playful enthusiasm eased bouts of boredom. “You’ve read all your books, written all you can write, there was no TV. I was desperate for entertainment. So, we’d go outside and throw a ball.” Sinco was Giddings’s support system, morale booster and sounding board all rolled into a furry, huggable companion. “I talked with him all the time,” she says. “He loved me on bad days and supported me when projects weren’t going as I wanted them to.”

Loneliness is an acknowledged state of being for many in the Peace Corps. Alison Upton López, now a graduate student in the education program at Stanford, lived in Santa Maria Ostuma, El Salvador, from 2006–2008. As a Municipal Development volunteer she worked with youth groups, set up recycling programs, organized computer projects and taught English. She mixed with many in the community but recalls acute periods of loneliness. “Sometimes I would just spend days inside (at home).” But things changed when she adopted Canela (Spanish for cinnamon), a high-energy dog. “She forced me to get out,” López remembers, “Canela wanted to make friends with everybody, and when I was with her, attending events, for example, I didn’t feel like I was alone. She was my partner-in-crime.”

Part way through her service, López and Canela had a scare, but the experience revealed how the two had become part of the community. One evening when Canela came inside she was shaking violently, a sure sign of eating poison. “I was a disaster area,” says López, remembering her panic and feeling of helplessness. Her friend the mayor came over and prescribed a dousing of lemon juice followed by lots of milk. Others came as well, to sit with López and Canela as a neighborhood boy ran around at 11 p.m. gathering lemons. “I was frantically cutting lemons, squeezing them into Canela’s mouth and then giving her several bowls of milk.” Canela recovered and López felt enormous relief and gratitude. “People who would normally not do anything for a dog rallied to save Canela,” she says, “I really felt they cared about us.”

When it came time to leave, there was no question among the four volunteers that their dogs would come with them. “He was ‘mi hijo’,” Giddings says, “my son.” Plus, she adds, her commitment to Sinco was another demonstration of his value, that he, like other dogs, was worthy of love, responsibility, care and protection.

“Each pup comes back on an individual basis, and its owner defers to the same importation laws and airline regulations as anyone else bringing a dog into the country,” explains Hale.

López said that bringing a dog home was pretty straightforward, a sentiment echoed by the others. The process primarily involved securing an appropriate shipping crate and the necessary paperwork (from a vet or official) verifying the health of the pet. “I gave him a Mohawk before we left and took him around to say good-bye,” says Giddings.

Back in the States, the dogs, like the volunteers, have gone through an adjustment process. American life has certainly presented canine perks—large expanses of soft, green grass, tastier food (reflected in Sinco’s rib cage, says Giddings) and comfier, bigger beds. But there have been trade-offs. While Sinco’s in the thick of his new life, with different toys and great smells, his world has shrunk in some ways, says Giddings. The two used to go almost everywhere together, to work, on buses, on daily home visits; now Sinco’s weekday hours are spent in Giddings’ apartment while she works at La Clinica de La Raza, in Oakland. “I miss him,” she says. Still, she takes pride in her dog’s transition to a new country, his resilience, and bilingual abilities. “He’s a real Bay Area citizen.”

Phoenix, now middle-aged, has mellowed, says Simar. One of his initial adjustments was getting used to other dogs; in Guyana he mostly interacted with people, not the street dogs. The noises of urban living—cars, planes and dishwashers—made him skittish at first too. Simar says she used to look at him and think, “Is he wondering where all the cows have gone?”

But his paws are now firmly planted on American soil. He and Simar hang out at dog parks, the beach—they’ve even taken a road trip to Zion National Park. “When people ask me about him I tell them he’s a Guyanese Longhair,” says Simar, “and the best in his breed.”

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Heather Bloch is a freelance writer with a special interest in animal issues. She lives with her muse Gracie, an Aussie cattle mix, in Berkeley, California.
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