Mexican hairless dog. (Photography by Alfredo and Sara Aguirre, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Dogs ruled the streets

In an excerpt from his new book, I Speak of the City, Mauricio Tenorio Trillo chronicles the canine history of Mexico’s capital.


hablo de la ciudad ...
de los perros errabundos, que son nuestros franciscanos y
nuestros bhikkus, los perros que desentierran los huesos del sol …
—Octavio Paz, “Hablo de la Ciudad”

The interaction between science and the city can be seen through an obscure character of the sidewalk, an unmissable one in the streets of Mexico City in 1880, in 1930, or today; namely, the dog. Dogs have been the companions of beggars and street children and the indispensable presence in markets and vecindades; they have been loved, feared, and killed; matter of science and matter of literature. In pre-Hispanic times, dogs were urban companions, sources of much-needed animal protein, and also the escorts in the one-way trip to the underworld. Bernal Diaz del Castillo found the dogs of Tenochtitlán astounding with their quasi-hairless nature and their peculiar attribute: no barking.

In the barrio of Acolman, an entire market was devoted to the commerce of these voiceless dogs. The various kinds of itzcuintli (pre-Hispanic dogs) gradually procreated with the dogs brought by the Spaniards, and by the eighteenth century the city was a pack of dogs. A part of the city was then known as la isla de los perros, because, as historian Artemio del Valle-Arizpe records, during the many floods suffered by the city, dogs found refuge in high areas of the city, waiting for the water to come down so that they could go in search of needed food.

In fact, even in the pre-Pasteurian era the countless dogs were a steady problem for the city—they were believed to carry illness, odors, and dangers, especially when they trudged the streets in packs. In 1792, according to the curious chronicler Francisco Sedano, Viceroy Revillagigedo ordered the first of the many massacres of dogs that would continue for three centuries. Sedano explained that there were so many dogs in the city that guardafaroles (men in charge of lighting lampposts) were paid four pesos for every hundred dead dogs, and thus, said Sedano, by 1792 dogs were gone from the city, but only to become a problem once again the next year. By 1798, for instance, dog killers reported 2,718 sacrificed dogs in February alone, and 9,213 in January 1799.(1) By 1820, the city government still paid for dead dogs, and an official report on the overpopulation of dogs stated that people protected stray dogs unaware of dogs’ dangers, especially for women. The odd report feared of course not rabies but women who “have for dogs a vehement passion, though when dogs are in heat they rapidly hug anyone who offers them any warmth and thus they are very dangerous and should never be allowed inside girls’ toilets.”(2)

Starting in 1880, with the steady growth in size and prosperity of the city, dogs once again became a very serious problem, especially if seen through the new Pasteurian sanitary concerns of scientists and bureaucrats. In 1888, sanitary codes from all over the world were studied, and Eduardo Liceaga, the most important hygienist of Porfirian Mexico, traveled to the Pasteur Institute in Paris to bring the rabies vaccine.(3) Thus he traveled back to Mexico with rabbits carrying the vaccine. The new science of the city thus started to make of dogs dangerous inhabitants of the sidewalk. A new sanitary code was passed, and Liceaga, together with engineers Roberto Gayol and Miguel Ángel de Quevedo, was placed in charge of cleaning the city and redesigning its sanitary profile.(4) But over the Porfirian years a new technology against rabies was developed: decades of dog massacres.

In late nineteenth-century Mexico City, dogs seemed to be totally out of control. In the surroundings of the city, people feared the attacks by packs of wild dogs that traveled from the city to nearby towns. In the marketplaces, where food was abundant, the dogs were epidemic. Starting in the 1890s, the city government signed yearly contracts with private contractors to exterminate dogs. The science was there to justify such an action; although many advocated similar measures regarding rats, especially in periods of Bubonic plague and typhus epidemics, no other animal seems to have been targeted as strongly as dogs in Mexico City. Horses and mules were often part of the sidewalk experience in Mexico City, and people often complained of the mistreatment of animals in the streets. But only dogs, as El País put it in 1904, “ramble over streets and plazas in complete freedom and as if protected by the exclusive privileges of their species.”(5) Indeed, dogs ruled the streets.

The contract signed in 1902 with Rafael M. Carmona for the killing of dogs is emblematic of the various contracts that were signed between 1890 and 1909. The city's government, through the Junta de Saneamiento, visited the establishment (in Santa Cruz Acatán) where the dogs were kept after capture. The government specified that dogs with no identification be collected and kept in captivity for twelve days, and if they were unclaimed, killed in special cremation ovens, which were designed according to a new technology of mass killing: gas chambers and cremation ovens that collected and used dog fat. This kind of contract was complemented by other contracts signed in the 1900s with entrepreneurs specialized in placing chunks of poisoned meat in different parts of the city to kill street dogs. The person in charge of this killing reported monthly and by section of the city the number of dogs killed.(6) For ten years, many contractors were hired to kill, poison, liquidate in massive gas chambers, and cremate in gigantic ovens thousands of dogs. In one single month in 1905, for instance, one of the eight districts of the city reported up to 800 dogs killed. And that was only one month and one district.

The final solution, however, did not work. During the difficult years of hunger and violence, 1914 and 1915, dogs were a real threat in the nearby countryside and within the city. In 1915, the revolutionary city government, like the Porfirian one, hired a private contractor to massacre dogs in the streets of the city. As in Porfirian times, people complained, for poisoned meat was placed through the city, and many non-stray dogs died. By 1928, the city established laws for the possession of dogs.(7) Over the revolutionary years, dogs abounded in the city, while in the surrounding area, they increased their numbers with the coming and going of revolutionary troops. Every revolutionary platoon, either Zapatista or Villista, included many dogs. Famous photos of the Revolution have seemed a depiction of peasants, sombreros, and soldaderas, but if one looks carefully, there it is: the dog.

By 1920, the city government estimated a population of thirty thousand stray dogs, and sought more humane approaches; many people seemed to object to Porfirian-like final solutions. Dogs were defended by people, stated a 1920 report, for both sentimental and practical reasons: they were companions of beggars, street children, and vendors, as well as part of the life of vecindades. But also their feces were useful in treating leather, and dogs cleaned streets and plazas of dead birds and rodents; they protected against thefts; and above all they provided warmth and companionship: people and dogs, said the 1920s report, made public displays of physical affection “¡horrible inhumanidad!”(8)

In fact, the dogs won against both the city and the Revolution, and survived so that nowadays they populate the entire city’s streets, the taquerías, cantinas, and markets. And in some part of the city, dogs survived to exercise, as in European cities, the only new form of citizenship imagined by the Western world since the French Revolution: dogship and catship—the new first-class citizenship of European cities.

Science, dogs, and streets were not only a matter of extermination. Dogs were also important participants in the growth of scientific institutions in Mexico City. In view of their availability, dogs were used in laboratories to investigate typhus, rabies, and even the effects of marijuana and pulque consumption. In 1910, doctors reported the story of a dog fed only with pulque for a fortnight. The animal became slow, sleepy, and grew fat until his liver and belly exploded.(9) In epic research on typhus fever, many dogs were used as flea and lice carriers and as rat catchers. And in markets dogs served as tasters of all sort of foods.

School recitations, popular verses, and the urban language as a whole had also incorporated the dog. In the 1890s, one of the most popular poets, one who was recited aloud in schools and public events, M. J. Othón, using the voice of a dog, expressed, alas in a very tacky fashion, dogs’ loyalty:

no temas mi señor: estoy alerta
y si llegara con paso taciturno
la muerte, con mi aullido lastimero
también te avisaré ... ¡descansa y duerme!

Fear not, my lord, I am alert
and if death with silent step were to come
with my pitiful howl
I’ll also warn you ... you rest and sleep!

And the most modernist literary magazine, La Revista Moderna, included an illustration by Roberto Montenegro—the expressive and tender face of a dog called Mr. Bonifax—and a poem by Diego Fernández Espiro, whose dog, Monsieur Bonifax, was not a dog but a Nietszchean superman:

Por mi parte he llegado a pensar y no yerro,
que Monsieur Bonifax, superhombre,
se ha ocultado en la forma de perro.

For my part, I have come to think and I don’t err,
that Monsieur Bonifax, superman,
has hidden in the form of a dog.

After the Revolution, when the city regained its centrality, once again the dog gained the attention of urban dwellers. Describing a walk, 1920s poet Miguel Aguillón Guzmán wrote a vanguard description of the sidewalk in which the dog became the central place of memory: “Se desploman de sueño los semáforos ... /El ladrido de un perro se me ha enredado al cuello” (The stoplights collapse of sleep ... /The barking of a dog has wrapped around my neck). The dogs’ voice became thus part of the melancholy produced by the sidewalks. For poets and ramblers not only feared stray dogs, but also loved them, pitied them. In 1912, in a modernist magazine a young Gregorio López y Fuentes—who would eventually become a prominent novelist of the Revolution—published his fascination with the dog in the streets: “So life looks at the rheumatic dog, and as it is a life of meditation, after meditating the dog finds the ennui and then, raising its pointed snout, howls; howl that only it and the other dogs can tell whether is a moan or a song inspired by nocturnal peace . . .”

The dogs frequently constituted a metaphor of loyalty, sacrifice, and victimhood that was even more relevant in view of their natural background: the unbound city. In 1925, poet Juan B. Delgado wrote an urban story in verse in which the dog is the city's soul and spirit, betrayed by humans’ cruelty and by progress and technology: “Like a formless mush” an emaciated dog lay beside the road, killed by a car, and a passerby cum philosopher claims:

—hombre cruel, si así pagas el cariño
del que te amaba con sinceros mimos,
que ha de esperarme a mí, que latigazos
recibo como premio a mi trabajo.
Malhaya sea el hombre y su progreso
si la muerte ha de dar con sus inventos.(10)

Cruel man, if thus you pay the love
of that which loved you with sincere affection
what is in wait for me, that get lashes
as a reward for my work.
Cursed be man and his progress
if death is to come from his inventions.

The emergence of urban short stories and novels meant the transcription of the feeling that the dog produces in the streets. In 1907, Ricardo Colt wrote the novel Es el amor que pasa ... La novela de los perros: modernist love equated to a bitch in heat, followed by many stray dogs in the streets of the city, expressing in their desire all the atavism that science, romanticism, and liberalism assigned to Mexicans.(11) Carlos Noriega Hope, an urban bohemian, artist, and vanguard writer, wrote a short story in 1923 in which Ernesto, a typical urban inadaptado (misfit), reached his house and faced a stray dog's gaze: “On the threshold, curled up, slept a stray dog, pressing his ribs against the wall as if eagerly seeking a centimeter of protection. Ernesto did not pay attention to the dog until its two timid little eyes fixedly faced at his greatcoat (hopalanda). It was a gray gaze full of a mute despair, which could do nothing, which only sought, as sole offering, a little bit of oblivion.” The dog, like Ernesto, was an inadaptado in the city.(12)

The same kind of brotherhood in desperation is found in some photographic images of the city by the 1940s. Helen Levitt’s images of poor neighborhoods are especially telling. These pictures awaken one to the bizarre textures of coexistences on Mexico City’s sidewalks, textures that surprise us both with familiarity—the capturing of a known daily occurrence—but also with grievance—any walker develops ingratitude and blindness in order to live and survive the sidewalks of Mexico City.

Thus dogs were at once a scientific problem and an essential part of Mexico City's urban experience. Unsurprisingly, even in the twenty-first century dogs and Mexico City remained inevitably linked, as in the harsh depictions in the successful Mexican film Amores Perros (2001).



  1. Artemio del Valle-Arizpe, Cuadros de México (Mexico City: Editorial Jus, 1943), 165–­82. Sedano is quoted by Valle-Arizpe; the reference is very likely the García Icazbalceta reedition: Francisco Noticias de México, recogidas por D. Francisco Sedano ... desde el año de 1756, coordinadas, escritas de alfábetico en 1800. Primera impresión, con un pró1ogo del Sr. D. Joaquín García Icazbalceta: Y con notas y apéndices del presbitero V. de P. A. de México” (Mexico City: Impr. De J. R Barbedillo y Ca, 1880). See also “Los perros aztecas y el origen de los perros de hoy,” Anales del Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía, 11, quinta época (1937): 90–92.
  2. Archivo Histórico del Ayuntamiento, Perros, esp. 12, 1820; Demetrio Medina, “El perro que asesinó a su dueña,” Todo, 11, 83 (April 12, 1935): 45–50.
  3. Liceaga’s memoirs, Mis recuerdos otros tiempos (Mexico: n.p., 1949), and his conference in the Hygienic Exposition at the Centenario, “Progresos alcanzados por la higiene de 1810 a la fecha,” in SSA, Box 9, Exp. 9. See also his paper delivered at the Sociedad Pedro Escovedo in 1911, “Algunas consideraciones acerca de la higiene social en Mexico,” SSA, Box 10, Exp. 3. About how the rabies vaccine was brought to Mexico, see Congreso Médico Panamericano, vol. 2 (Mexico, 1896), 899–905. About the way the vaccine was developed in Mexico, see N. Ramírez de Arrellano, “Higiene: Profilaxis de la rabia,” Gaceta Médica de México, 24 (June 1, 1889): 206–9.
  4. In 1944, Dr. Gerardo Varela reconsidered Mexico’s Pasteurian history—the various failed rabies vaccines, the creation of an Anti-Rabies Institute, and finally success in 1900 when the vaccine developed by Fernando López Prieto was used in more than three thousand persons who had been attacked by infected dogs, with 2.2% mortality rate. See “Proyecto de Código Sanitario de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, sometido a la Secretaría de Gobernación, 30 de Junio de 1889,” reproduced in José Alvarez, ed., Historia de la salubridad y de la asistencia en México, vol. 3 (Mexico City: Secretaría de Salubridad, 1960), 327–29. Gayol was named general engineer of Mexico City in 1884. Gerardo Varela, “La vacuna antirrábica, su introducción en México,” Gaceta Médica de México, 76 (1946): 19–22; Ana Cecilia Rodríguez de Romo, “La ciencia pasteuriana a través de la vacuna antirrábica: el caso mexicano,” Dynamis, 16 (1996): 291–316.
  5. Article in El País (January 22, 1904).
  6. Memoria del ayuntamiento (1902): 559.
  7. AGN GRBI Box 26, exp. 22, “Contrato para matar animales, José Quesada; reglamento de posesión de perros,” in Fondo Plutarco Elías Calles, Archivo Calles-Torreblance, exp. 143, inv. 156618, Dec. 1928.
  8. Archivo Histórico del Ayuntamiento, Perros, Suplemento al noticioso general número 736, del viernes 15 de septiembre de 1920.
  9. Memoria General del IV Congreso Médico Nacional Mexicano, efectuado en la ciudad de México del 19 al 25 de septiembre de 1910, bajo los auspicios de l;a Comisión Nacional del Centenario y el patrocinio de la Secretaría de Instrucción Pública y Bellas Artes (Mexico City: Tipografía Económica, 1910), 122.
  10. Gregorio López y Fuentes, in Nosotros: Revista de artes y educación (Dec. 1912): 127; Juan B. Delgado, El cancionero nómada (Mexico City: Herrero Hermanos Sucesores, 1925).
  11. Ricardo Colt, Es el amor que pasa ... La novela de los perros (Mexico City: Botas, 1907), 9.
  12. Short story by Carlos Noriega Hope, in La inútil curiosidad (Mexico City: n.p., 1923), 135.


Excerpted with permission from I Speak of the City: Mexico City at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press, 2013) by Mauricio Tenorio Trillo.