Counting Every Rib

by Katharine Valentino

Photo by Daniel Case via Wikimedia Commons


At a table at a beach-front open-air restaurant in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, my date and I are approached by a Chihuahua who is even tinier than he would be if you couldn’t count all his ribs. I think the poor fellow must be hungry, and this is distressing enough. But then I see nearby a much larger dog, a Doberman-mix who is nothing more than dull eyes and dry skin over bones. The Doberman, I conclude, is starving.

Are there degrees of starvation? “Six degrees of starvation?” Let’s see: Hungry, starving, dead. That’s three. Maybe snackish could be No. 1 and hungry No. 2. Then what? Famished? No, too much like a Beverly Hills teenager. Dead is certainly No. 6, though.

Now that I think of it, it’s “six degrees of separation,” not starvation. Well, dead is about as separate as it gets. Separate. Distant. Some distance from these mutts would be good right now. Not in miles, though; I’m trying to have a vacation here, and I’m not going to give it up just because of … somebody starving, What must it feel like to be almost dead and watch others dine?

Such distress when we’ve come to the beach just to eat a lot and have a good time!

A third dog nears our table. This one is a terrier who looks as though he crawled into a dustbin last week and just crawled out again. Is he more or less starved than the other two? Now, I’m feeling guilty about having ordered my tacos al pastor. Three of them, there on my plate, arranged nicely, marinated meat topped off by sweet pineapple on fresh corn tortillas, salsa on the side. Delicious! But how can I eat while surrounded by such need?

We have two dogs with us at our feet—two well-fed and well-cared for dogs who are now looking for what we who eat well call “treats.” So, five dogs now surround our table.

I look around me at the other diners. The majority of them are Mexican families. They are on holiday on the last day of the Mexican Semana Santa (Easter Week), and they are having a good time. Children are cavorting here and there. Bebés are being passed from madres to padres to abuelas to amigos at other tables. Señoritas are changing from salty bikinis to more demure attire under cover of beach towels. A young papá is proudly showing off a tattoo of his baby son—an almost perfect likeness, we agree, when he shows us a picture of the boy. At a table near the kitchen, a guy with a paunch and an air of authority suddenly falls asleep, his head narrowly missing his meal.

Nobody is paying any attention to the dogs except me.

So, OK. I hand a morsel of chicken from my first taco to a suddenly animated Chihuahua, who moves forward next to my Lilly Dog. To be fair, I give Lilly a bite, too, and I hand a bite to my dinner companion to give to his Lucy Dog who is on the other side of the table. With that, the Doberman moves forward very, very politely and sits himself between Lilly and the Chihuahua. Lilly moves over a little so everyone has enough room. She doesn’t seem threatened by a dog who might intimidate her after a hundred big dinners between those bones and that skin.

The Doberman gets another bite. Now, the terrier moves closer and gets her first bite of chicken. I watch as she becomes in that moment considerably more alert.

I take a bite of taco and then give each waiting dog a bite, then take another bite myself. And so it goes until my meal is finished, at which point I offer my plate of crumbs and some leftover tortillas to the Doberman. He’s the biggest and therefore most in need. I hold the plate for him. I feel so loving. I am so engrossed in this scene where I am a benefactor doing my part to make the world a better place, ala the Sixties. We all thought then that we would make the entire world a better place. Now it’s come down to a few mouthfuls for three dogs.

Still holding the plate for the Doberman, I glance up at my date. I’m expecting approval, but the expression on his face… At the next table, there’s a boy, maybe 7 or 8, pointing at me. His face is full of provincial pique, and he’s yanking on his mother’s skirt. His mother is staring at my date with her eyebrows raised. Clearly, he should do something about this situation. Other diners at surrounding tables seem to agree; they’re all staring at me.

I’ve been told that Mexicans consider stray dogs to be “animales unicos” or “only animals,” more like wild pests than pets. It wasn’t uncommon for them to treat strays poorly as a result. Obviously, they don’t approve of my feeding dogs at the table.

“Well,” my date says, leaning forward to pat my shoulder, “it’s kind of neat to be the weirdest thing these amigos have seen all day.”

He turns toward our audience, and now with a genuine smile and a chuckle, says, “She loves dogs.’”

He’s right. I do.



Katharine Valentino worked for 25 years at menial jobs before acquiring a BA degree in journalism from Indiana University in Bloomington. For the next 20 years, she worked at slightly more interesting jobs and occasionally was even allowed to write some technical thing or another. Now retired from full-time work, she stays busy as the owner of Setting Forth ( She writes creative nonfiction, edits everything from user guides to poetry, and publishes some of the books she edits.

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