Canines at the Gate

At the mere clang of the ranch’s gate opening, they leap over the neighbor’s stone wall, crawl out from under this or that bush or whoosh from down the road in a cloud of dust. On a banner day, there might nine or ten barking and yapping customers. On weekend mornings, though, only three or four might show up.

Hmm, do these campo dogs, as locals call these roaming countryside mutts, sleep in on weekends?

Those who show up mob Stew, who lugs a bucket of dry dog food, as if were a savior which indeed he is, because without his handouts many of these dogs would starve or get run over on the busy nearby road. Just as important as food, Stew doles out affectionate pats on their heads and a bit of conversation that is much appreciated though neither side understands a word.

Benji: Howl are yoo?

No one except perhaps Benji—that’s what we’ve named him—a long-haired, black-and-white number that we think actually understands Stew’s gooey gibberish. Benji might even know English. Sometime ago, amid the noisy clamoring for food, Stew impatiently yelled out “Sit!”. Naturally, no one paid attention except for Benji who not only obliged but put out his paw too.

Did some gringo lose—or cut loose—this beautiful, gentle dog to fend for himself? If you met Benji and shook his furry paw, the cruelty of someone abandoning him, if that’s what happened, would gnaw at you.
Brief bouts of barking and snarling erupt occasionally over who gets which pile of food. But so far not one in this scruffy gang has tried to bite either one of us, though their individual friendliness quotients vary.

We can pick up and hold Malcolm, a fidgety fifteen-pounder, with short, orange fur and a tail perfectly curled like a doughnut, and he’ll return the affection with frantic licking. Others, like Whitey, an elegant, long-haired fellow so perfectly white that at first we mistook it for albino, is friendly but not ready for a close-up.

Food call, and Stew forgot to comb his hair.

The biggest curiosity and, increasingly, concern for Stew and me is, where do these dogs come from? And how many more are going to show up at the gate?

In addition to about $50 dollars a month for food; spaying and neutering of anyone we get a hold of; plus occasional emergency trips to the vet when one dog shows up sick or injured, the costs are mounting. Our fifty-pound bags of food come from an animal feed store, with one of the most festive facades in town, called “La Vaca” or “The Cow.” Appropriately, its business motto is “Muuu,” or “Mooo,” for those of you who don’t speak Spanish

A storefront you won’t soon forget.

The latest arrival are two nearly identical female puppies—Lula and Lola—with short beige fur, long tails and pleading brown eyes, who parachuted into the scene about three months ago. For now, they are at the bottom of the pack hierarchy; not only are they the youngest but also the most timid and clueless, unable to guard their piles of food. As a result, they are the boniest. If he’s not in a hurry, Stew will sit on a rock with them until they finish eating. We also call them the Doofus Sisters.

Brenda, one of the old timers.

The two pack elders are Brenda and Osita. Brenda is the quintessential mutt, black with orange spots, and possibly related to Chucha and Negro, who were the original members of the pack but have since died and are buried in our pet cemetery on one corner of the ranch.

All told, twelve animals reside at the cemetery, including our late cat Ziggy that came with us from Chicago, one of Félix’s dogs, and a litter of seven days-old puppies he found in a plastic grocery bag by the side of the main road, about a kilometer away. Of the puppies, four were alive but even those had to be euthanized after the vet said they couldn’t live without their mother.

After each arrival at the cemetery (or departure, if you will), Félix paints the decedent’s name on a rectangular tile we buy from a building materials yard. The puppies’ grave he simply marked “Los Hermanos.”

Malcolm: Mighty mini mutt

Indeed, one of Félix’ most admirable qualities is that he really loves animals. When we found his dog Chupitos, dead and mauled outside the ranch shortly after we moved in, Félix came as close to crying as a Mexican man dares to. In his house he keeps a picture I took of Chupitos alongside shots of his family.

Osita is a another survivor. Her black-and-white, longish, wiry fur earned her the name, which means “Little Bear” in Spanish.  She’s been around almost since we moved into the ranch, about six years ago. She showed up pregnant one time and Félix heard she’d later given birth to a litter of eight. Shortly after that she showed up pregnant again and between malnourishment and the burden of caring for her second litter, Osita almost didn’t make it.

We asked her nominal owner, a neighbor, if we could have her spayed but he dithered. We suspect he was selling the puppies at the Tuesday flea market in town. So when Osita seemed to have recovered, we quietly loaded her in the truck and took her to be spayed. She’s transformed from scrawny and scared to chubby and somewhat affectionate. She’ll sit for a rub on the head or a quick backrub but otherwise keeps to herself.

Stew ready to offer some counseling to the Doofus Sisters
Osita: Dowager and veteran mother.

When one of the canine beggars doesn’t show up we worry it might have been killed in a fight or other mishap. But we also worry that as more dogs show up out of nowhere, owners might be dumping them at our gate as some act of cheap and quick kindness. Or maybe that the word’s spread among the stray dogs—arf, there’s is free food at Rancho Santa Clara!—even though newcomers seem to go through a strict hazing and snarling trial before being accepted into the pack.

Stew has reasoned that a daily ration of dog food, and a relatively safe place to hang out away from the busy highway traffic a kilometer away is not a bad deal for “our” campo dogs. We certainly don’t want any additions to our private reserve of five dogs and two cats, plus Félix’s dogs, Palomita and Luiso, who come to work with him and also get fed.

And we surely don’t want an encore of one of our stupidest stunts in animal welfare when we first moved to the ranch. As the winter months ground on, and the green pasture turned to brown stubble, the flocks of sheep and goats wandering outside the fence looked ever

Whitey would be more so if he had a bath

hungrier, or so we thought. We went to the feed store and bought a couple of bales of either alfalfa or hay and dumped them over the fence.

Bad idea, kiddo. Shortly afterward, seemingly every cow, goat and sheep in the county was munching on the stuff—and mooing, bleating and harrumphing for more. Sorry guys, we told them, but there’s only so much we can do.


5 thoughts on “Canines at the Gate

  1. I remember all the stray dogs growing up in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Every few months the sanidad department would drive through neibourhoods at night tossing poisoned meat, then they would come the next day and pick up the cadavers…


  2. Anonymous

    The plight of dogs in Mexico is rather sad. I have found that many are afraid of people, something almost unheard-of NOB. To me that suggests that they are often beaten, something that makes me unhappy. Even dogs which ostensibly seem to belong to someone often look pretty unkempt, in need of baths, and scrawny, or if female, looking pretty run-down. It's lovely what you do for this pack. Let's all hope that it remains a manageable task. Otherwise you face some very tough choices. Saludos,Kim GDF, MéxicoWhere, for the time being, we remain pet-free.


  3. I graduated from Santa Clara University,1968,have spent over forty four years in MEXICO off and on,last ten years has been on in Zihuatanejo,six months a year then back al norte.Thats the way mi esposa likes it.I do read your blogs,but this about the dogs,really touched me. I CAN'T show it to my wife,We have 2 beach dogs adopted off La Ropa beach,Pete Garcia, Friday,12 and 3years old.Best dogs ever! Then there's Stella,97 lb German Shepherd,pastor aleman,fun travels with them.Will check in now and then. Go Broncos!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s