Dogs In The Night

We are used to it by now. Well, we still wake up, but then we fall asleep quickly again. The first time you hear them, you get a scare. It’s a mixture of yelling, crying, whining, and howling with intermittent, barely recognizable barking sounds. It sounds desperate and urgent and you don’t know what’s happening. The only times now we don’t go back to sleeping right away is when there’s a bit more urgency or desperation than usually in all that cacophony of sounds. With time, you learn to recognize this tiny difference in urgency. Then, it means that they have a problem they can’t solve and need help, and you’d better put on your pants and grab your rifle.

I see them sometimes during the day leisurely walking around, but it’s mainly right before sunset that they come alive. Don’t ask me what breed they are--they are default dogs and look like default dogs. They all look the same, which means that they look like their mothers and fathers, siblings, and cousins. They have probably looked like this for ages. Some are a bit taller, others smaller, some have peculiar coat color markings, like a patch of white or black, but mainly they are light brownish, khaki, lion-colored, a good camouflage for a good predator in this part of the world. They mix in with the dust and the dry soil. They are lean and move with elegance.

I see them at sunset when they come fast, silently, and purposely, looking for the vervet monkeys in my garden at the foot of the Uruguru Mountains in Tanzania. They look like efficient commando soldiers on a mission. They come generally in teams of two or three. They are impressive, but the prey they come after are highly respectable adversaries and extremely difficult to catch. The vervet monkeys honor me every day with their visit. They bring the whole family and they obviously have big families, 20 to 30 individuals at the time, in all ages. The males are easy to spot, they are the biggest ones and they have gigantic blue testicles. The vervets are good fun to watch, especially the youngsters playing and fighting, but a pestilence to my vegetables and fruit trees. Amazingly enough, my garden seems to be able to support its humans as well as vervets exploiters, so I don’t really mind their presence and, on the contrary, I do enjoy it. In the meantime, I became good buddies with some of them and we share a papaya or a mango now and then; they come and take the fruit from my hand. I’m therefore a bit worried for my new friends when the sunlight begins to fade away and I know the dog squads will be coming. They, the monkeys, also know it. They grow a bit wary and more watchful, and suddenly they’re gone just a few seconds before the dog patrol raids my garden at high speed. It all happens swiftly are silently like an operation rehearsed countless times, like on a cue, which I’m sure is there, except I can’t see it nor hear it.

Villains at sunset, heroes at night, our friends the village dogs! I can promise you that you would not be able to enter our camp at night without being detected and attacked if you didn’t have the sense or the speed to retreat--don’t even try. These dogs are the rulers of the night. We all feel safer because they are there, alert and vigilant, even if they sometimes wake us up unnecessarily in the wee hours of the morning. Their sheer numbers is a factor to be reckoned with for any potential intruder. If one of them barks, it takes no more than two-three seconds for the whole group to start the most impressive barking choir you can imagine. Assistance is always available and fast too. In a few seconds a whole platoon is ready to take care of any optimistic or imprudent intruder, and they don’t ask questions either. The barking lasts until much longer after the intruder, be it human or not, has left, normally half an hour. It’s a different barking than when they just have a quarrel among themselves--which also happens. As a rule, they get along pretty well, but sometimes, especially at night, we can hear when a young dog or a puppy obviously crosses a border. It’s not a romantic world, these dogs’ world--it’s indeed the survival of the fittest.

Sometimes in the morning, we find one of them dead. That’s the price to pay for safety, for nothing is free in life, not for them and not for us, though often, we, not them, have a tendency to forget it.

--from Dog Star Daily’s international roving reporter Roger Abrantes