Loving animals in a foreign land

In a blog last August I talked about Chupitos, a hard-luck mutt that had shown up when we were building the house and which our gardener Félix had adopted, along with her two puppies. His kind gesture saved the three of them from certain death. We had the trio spayed, dewormed and vaccinated, and accordingly they put on weight and grew shiny coats. Félix brought them to work and we fed them morning and afternoon each day.

Occasionally another mutt, Chiquilín, who belonged to Félix’s parents, also came along for a quick bite. Chiquilín was an elderly character, with a mangy coat, no teeth and a tottering gait. Most of the time he looked disoriented and for a good reason: His eyes were clouded with cataracts and he was hard of hearing. Getting his attention required some shouting and maybe waving your hands close to his nose. In the canine food line at our ranch, including our own Lucy and Gladys, Chiquilín was the only one who got servings of straight canned food or dry food soaked in water, so he could gum his way through the meal.

For a while we felt sorry for Chiquilín until we realized what a waste of time and emotions that was. Animals, no matter how bedraggled, don’t feel sorry for themselves–it seems that self-pity is not in their emotional vocabulary. Each day they do what they need to do and carry on with life. Have you ever seen a lame dog complain about her missing leg? They just limp along wagging their tails as if everything were fine. And so it was with Chiquilín and his multiple disabilities. Sometimes he even tried wrestling with the other, much younger dogs.

One morning two months ago Chiquilín didn’t show up here or at his regular home and Félix immediately suspected the worst. The next day he went looking for Chiquilín, following his usual route between our house and his parents’. He found him dead, near to the gate to our ranch, but with no scratches or signs of injuries. It may be that he was headed toward our property to collect his morning ration and just croaked from old age. Félix put him a wheel-barrow, took him to the farthest corner of our property and buried him.

This morning was Chupitos’ turn. She hadn’t shown up at his house last night and first thing today Félix set out to look for her, again following the trail between our place and his. By eleven o’clock he’d found nothing, so Stew went searching for her too. Shortly afterward Stew found Chupitos’ mangled remains. It seems she had gotten into a fight with a pack of dogs who hang around our gate also waiting for us to feed them, and Chupitos had lost.

Félix, visibly shaken, kept sniffling which I guess is the closest thing to crying a 24-year-old Mexican male will allow himself. So Stew and Félix loaded Chupitos on the wheelbarrow to await burial in another far corner of the property. For some reason Félix doesn’t want any animals buried close to our house.

Ever since Stew and I moved here five years ago, there’s been a daily clash between our ideas about animal welfare and those held by common folks in Mexico, particularly those living in the dirt-poor villages around us. Life is very, very tough for most people. Why should it be any different for animals?

One of Felix’s most unusual traits indeed is his affection for animals. The times I’ve been to his one-room house, which he shares with his wife and daughter, I found that he also keeps two cats, one of them blind, two donkeys and–until today–Chupitos and her pups.

Specially among farmers, animals are seldom the objects of love and affection, but rather utilitarian beasts or commodities. Yesterday Stew and I went to a sheep farm to pick up three sacks of manure for our compost pile. Naturally I had to pick up a baby lamb and pat it on the head. Stew joined in. The farmer’s wife giggled nervously at this show of strange gringo behavior: Come on folks, lambs are food, not cute critters to be petted.

Also yesterday, on the way to town, we gave a ride to a young mother, a teenager for sure, with beautiful fine features and green eyes, the latter most unusual among Mexicans. She was carrying a tiny baby bundled in a blanket, whom she said was suffering from “gripa” or a common cold. A few times the baby let out a ghastly, phlegmy cough that rattled my bones. The mother said she was going to the general hospital, about five miles away, a trip which I guess she had planned to undertake by foot in the blazing sun until we showed up.

You can forgive her is she’s unable to worry about the welfare of animals around her–skeletal stray dogs, a daily road kill of cats, dogs and sometimes donkeys or horses, and various other horror stories.

Chupito’s demise also brought something to mind: It may not be a good idea for humans to butt into the secret world of dogs. As we were finishing up the house about a year ago, a scrapper of an old mutt kept hanging around as if she were determined to move in along with the furniture. She was not a thing of beauty, what with blotchy black fur, one lazy eye, a gray snout, no teeth and a nervous twitch on her face. She wags her tail so furiously that her whole body wobbles as she walks. Naturally we began feeding her and nicknamed her “Titties” because of her saggy nipples, the result of several pregnancies.

We soon learned that despite her sorry mien, Titties was an Alpha Bitch, someone not willing to share her space with our Lucy and Gladys. So forget adoption. Then two more dogs joined her at the gate for the daily handout of food by Stew and Al. Then four more for a total of seven.

It turns out they all belonged to Don Vicente, a rancher who lives downhill from us in a ramshackle house that’s probably closer to a hovel. Titties real name turned out to be “Chucha” and evidently Vicente’s plan for feeding all these canines was to let Stew and Al do it. Can’t blame Vicente except that at last count we were going through almost three 50-lbs bags of dog food a month.

We tried to break the routine but the dogs kept showing up at the gate, hungrier, bonier and more pathetic by the day. So we started the feeding drill again. The most recent addition was a black-and-white, Benji look-alike which we found out had a litter of six puppies two weeks ago. How long before they joined the others begging for food?

Most ominously, fights and snarling matches erupted daily among the outside dogs and between them and Chupitos, her two pups and our Lucy and Gladys, on the other side of the fence. Among Vicente’s dog pack there seemed to be a furious debate over who was going to be the head of the pack, as Titties’ supremacy literally came under attack.

It’s likely that Chupitos, who often insisted on walking home by herself at night, got into a fight with the outside dogs which chewed her to pieces. We don’t know much about canine society and groups, but it’s clear that feeding Vicente’s growing pack of dogs is a kind notion gone awry. Stew says we should stop that routine immediately.

In the mean time, we’re waiting for a backhoe to show up to dig holes for four new trees–three evergreens and one mesquite–and a resting place for Chupitos.

One thought on “Loving animals in a foreign land

  1. Anonymous

    Al, your observation that dogs don't spend time feeling sorry for themselves hits the mark. Our black Cocker Spaniel, Mardi Gras, has seizures once a month. I don't know what cues these. I have hypothesized the seizures were brought on by the Florida hot weather, by sudden noises, and by unexpectantly touching her. Her seizures usually bring Edith and me to tears, because her body tenses so greatly that she bites her tongue and her thrashing becomes so extreme. When I was a child, I saw a dacshundt dog named Chloe, owned by a neighbor, hit by a car and thrash about, and then die. Mardi's seizures bring the same horror that she is about to die. After she comes to, we force a phenobarbitol into her using a hamburger meatball to induce her to swallow it. This leads to hours of watching over a thoroughly drunken dog. After the last episode, something changed neurologically. I gave Mardi Gras the phenobarbitol and she went on a strange mandala quest. She walked counter-clockwise in 15 foot diameter circles endlessly for 12 hours. I began to notice that Mardi didn't suffer doing this. Every turn in her circle allowed her to greet the same chair or tuff of grass as if it were the first time she had ever laid eyes on furniture or vegetation. The problem lies with me. I can't stand to see animals suffer. I project suffering into animal behaviors. After all, a good dog fight lasting 10 seconds probably hurts neither of the dogs brawling. They spend so much time fending each other off their property that they probably enjoy keeping up the boundaries and refreshing rivalries.


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