Canine killings rattle heart of Mexico City's doggie culture

About 18 dogs have been reported poisoned in recent weeks in the upscale neighborhood of Condesa. The dog population has burgeoned in recent years along with Mexico's middle class.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A warning is posted as officials investigate reported cases of dog poisoning in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City. It reads: 'While the investigation into the poisoning of dogs in Parque Mexico is being carried out, it is recommended that you shorten your walks and do not walk your dog without a leash.'

Little Krishna beelines across Parque Mexico on a recent afternoon, spotting a table stacked high with baked goods. Breathless, she stares pleadingly up at bags of vegan snacks and a towering stand of Halloween-decorated cupcakes.

“Do you need a cookie?” asks vendor Dodany Altuzur.

Ms. Altuzur already knows the answer. Barely two bites later, Krishna, a mixed-breed dog with flowing yellow fur, has put away a Lucky Dog coconut-pineapple treat made of all natural, locally-sourced ingredients.

For several years, Condesa, a leafy-green, upscale neighborhood in central Mexico City, has catered to pampered pets, offering a rising number of services such as four-footed pedicures, aromatherapy massages, and custom-cooked dog food delivery. There's even an expansive clothing selection for posh pups, whose numbers have multiplied along with the country's middle class. The pet care market nationally reached $2.1 billion in 2011, growing by roughly 13 percent each year since 2008. 

“Dogs are kids in the Condesa. Most everywhere else [in the country] they’re pets or guards,” says Mario Escareño, a historian who leads tours through Condesa and surrounding neighborhoods. 

But a recent rash of dog poisonings has served as a reminder that not all neighbors here are fans of the area’s masses – and messes – of doggies.

Dogs' longstanding presence in Mexican culture is visible through ancient statues of what is believed to be one of the world's first domesticated breeds, the Xoloitzcuintli, a hairless dog that you can still find here today. But for most of modern Mexico, the idea of a dog as a member of the family is relatively new, says Mr. Escareño.

But it's not so new in Condesa, where for nearly 15 years there has been cultural shift underway - with many residents waiting longer to get married or have kids, and finding themselves with more disposable income.

As the culture has changed, signs have gone up in Condesa encouraging people to clean up after their pets and keep their dogs on leashes. For the most part, the community has seen great improvement, says Escareño. It was only five years ago that some neighbors launched a campaign dubbed "killer meatballs," arguing any dog without a leash should be exterminated as a way to keep the neighborhood sanitary and to hold owners responsible for their pets.

But the recent deaths have prompted conversations about what more can be done. There are few public trashcans available, for example, and it's common to see plastic baggies of dog poop around the neighborhood, apparent signs that owners recognize the need to clean up, but stop short of carrying the goodies home with them for disposal.

And as the dog population has grown, so too have complaints about their ubiquity, says Ana Concepcion, who is handing out brochures on reporting crimes and registering complaints with the city at a tent set up in the park. Just moments earlier, she recounts, someone had passed by asking why there was a special area for dogs to run in the park, but no special area just for humans. Some resent the prominence and priority dogs seem to receive here, she explains. 

“I think there are probably more dogs living here than people,” says Gisela Lima Gonzalez, who works at The Animal Inn, a doggie daycare, grooming, and pet supply store along the park. Nearby, joggers jockey for space amid lumbering Mastiffs and skittering Chihuahuas on the paved trail that carves its way around the heart of Condesa.

Neighbors report that some 18 dogs have died of poisoning over the past few weeks. A number of theories are being bandied about, the most salient of which is that a city rat eradication campaign went terribly wrong.

But few concrete answers have been provided on how this may have happened, and last Thursday, the entire southern half of the park was cordoned off for cleaning after yet another dog was found dead. The city has launched an investigation, including tests on water, soil, and dead birds in the park, but so far none have shown evidence of poison, the daily Millennial reports. There has been a more obvious police presence in front of the entrance to the dog-run since the first poisoning deaths were reported.

Last Sunday, the park was enveloped in orange plastic tape reading, “peligro,” or danger, posted by activists, and a string of posters warned residents of the “serial killer” still on the loose. Signs warned passersby that animal abuse is punishable with up to four years in prison in Mexico City if the animal dies.

Neighborhood “brigades” have taken it upon themselves to sweep the park for discarded food or trash that might be contaminated, says Ms. Gonzalez. And PETA, the animal activist group, has announced a $5,000 reward for information that leads to the identification of the culprit behind the poisonings. A protest has been organized for Oct. 25, where dog owners are encouraged to highlight the loss of pets in the neighborhood by bringing their dog’s leash, but leaving their pup at home.

While the poisonings have many owners mourning, others here have noted small but positive changes in the neighborhood. As the community waits for answers, dogs are more likely to be seen on a leash. And some owners have kept their distance from the dog run in Parque Mexico, which is in the area where most of the pets fell ill and which is normally brimming with rambunctious pooches.

"Almost everyone is avoiding this part of the park right now," says Gonzalez. "They're afraid, and with reason," she says.

“There’s certainly less dog [droppings] on the sidewalks,” says a local antique shop employee. He gets a jab from his colleague, who tries to clear up any hint of insensitivity by adding, “It’s all very sad.”

Even for those who may harbor frustration over the neighborhood's dog mania, the lack of answers has caused concern. A resident named Alex, who asked not to use his last name because he didn’t want to come off as a “someone who dislikes dogs,” stands with two members of perhaps the second most ubiquitous group of loved ones paraded around this neighborhood: small children.

“Kids play here, too. I’d like to see this sorted out before a child gets sick,” he says.

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