The most obvious downside to life as a Copan dog is that virtually all of them look like they're starving to death. Whatever traces of wolf remain in the domesticated dog of today, the ability to hunt down food appears to have been reduced to a desperate rooting through garbage in search of scant leftovers of tortillas and beans. Cats may turn feral quite easily in the absence of people, but dogs just end up looking sad and hungry.
On the upside, a Copan dog does have its freedom. Street dogs and owned dogs alike wander wherever they like. They roam late into the night, barking and howling whenever the urge strikes them and clearly spending very little time worrying how their human neighbours feel about that.
They can poo without shame on any surface that strikes their fancy. They can stretch out for a nap on a hot bit of sidewalk with no concern that passers-by will do anything more than perhaps give them a kick to move them out of the way. They can mate with abandon in town and country alike, and have as many litters of puppies as a short street-dog life allows (although all the skin-and-bone pregnant females around here does hint that this pleasure is most enjoyed by the town's abundant population of unneutered males).
Anyone who has a heart for animals will start feeding the dogs of Copan sooner or later. For me, it started with a handful of dog food and a few leftovers set out on the front stoop at night, and has grown to the point where we now go through five pounds of dog food every 10 days.
One of the dogs actually scratches at the back door now if I don't get the morning rations out on time. Another, who we've affectionately dubbed Black Stink Dog, has the disconcerting habit of just staring pleadingly through the glass until I notice her.
It's through these daily feedings that I'm getting to know how it is for dogs when they make the rules.
A newcomer to Copan might presume that if somebody is putting food out in a town where virtually every dog is chronically hungry, that would soon attract every dog from miles around. But no. There are dog rules that appear to limit which dogs are allowed to walk unharassed down a specific street, so the Jody Paterson-Paul Willcocks feeding station can be frequented only by those that the Dog Politic allows.
I wouldn't presume to know all the rules of those politics. Certainly the fact that a dog lives on your street appears to be a major factor in whether it can feel free to snack at your door. But I'm noticing that a dog in that position is also able to invite other dogs to participate in the banquet.
The first time I saw this was when the little brown dog we feed all the time brought down the bigger shepherd mix that lives in the same household about half a block away from our house.
One day the little dog had already been by to eat, but ducked through the gate a second time in order to scratch at the back door as notification that her buddy was patiently waiting on the front step. I would have dismissed this event as coincidence had it not started to happen every time Big Black Dog (oh, we're clever with the naming conventions in this household) showed up hungry.
More recently, we started feeding Black Stink Dog, who was ridiculously thin and appeared to be nursing puppies when she first showed up. She was so skittery that at first I could barely touch her ear through the gate without making her jump back, but she's quickly turned into an affectionate and cheerful dog able to make herself impossibly compact for the purposes of squeezing between the lattice of the gate to enjoy a meal in the safety of the enclosed patio.
She put on weight quickly with a regular daily meal. After three weeks of consistent morning meals and a little affection, she brought around a pathetic looking bag-of-bones dog the other day and let him have first crack at the bowl of food. When he was halfway through the bowl, she gave a growl and he skulked off, leaving her to eat the rest. She brought him around again today, but this time let him have as much as he wanted.
A couple of days later, Big Black Dog did the same thing. He showed up with a sorry-looking dog covered in sores and stepped back to let the sick dog eat first.
Just like humans, things go better for the free-range dogs of Copan that understand social interaction. The tourists who feed street dogs in the town park are naturally going to be drawn to the ones wagging their tails and fixing their big, hopeful eyes on the kebab the gringo just purchased at the food kiosk. The dogs too wary to interact comfortably with people - badly abused as puppies, perhaps? - are always the skinniest and most disease-ridden, which no doubt just makes it even less likely that people share food with them.
I could see that a person could get very angry with how it is for the dogs of Copan. The more I see of them, the more I'm convinced that the dream life for most dogs is to have a human who both feeds and loves them.
When it rains, I see the longing in the face of the little brown dog that is our most frequent visitor, who likes nothing better than to take shelter in our house during a downpour and stretch out for a sleep under the kitchen table. Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.
But then the sun comes out, and off she goes to chase down whatever interesting smell has caught her attention out there in the streets. For better or worse, she's free to go wherever her nose leads.
It's a dog's life. But I'm not so sure she'd want to give it up now.