The daily circle of life and death at the ranch

As people who always have had pets, Stew and I have learned, or should have learned, that sharing our space with an animal companion entails many hours of fun, when it’s healthy and giving you its undivided love, but also at that inevitable moment when it dies, or worse still, when you have to “put it to sleep.”

At the ranch we are surrounded by critters large and small, some inside our house, some running around free on the seven-plus acres of land around us. That has brought the cycle of animal life and death closer to us.

Félix feeding a baby rabbit he
found at the ranch. 

A couple of months ago, a huge, long-haired, black and gray cat began showing up on our back terrace, looking for food and, as with so many animals that are abandoned, a comforting pat on the back or other gesture of human affection.

When the cat began visiting, Félix was staying here while we were away, and he—the original animal magnet—befriended the cat, who’d rub against his legs, purr, beg for a belly rub, or jump on his lap.  The cat became Félix’s companion while he played velador, or watchman, sitting on the back porch, by himself, during the starry and eerily quiet nights at the ranch.

This was no stray alley cat, but someone’s house pet, that had been well fed and was used to human attention. Like every one of our five dogs and three indoor cats, we suspect this guy had just been dumped by the side of the road, to fend for itself, by someone who no longer had any use for it.

Later, Stew and I also were seduced by this friendly visitor, which Félix ascertained was a female. We started putting out food and water, which our new furry visitor readily accepted, and who kept coming every night and sometimes during the day. We even put a unused dog house on the porch for her, in case of rain. She moved in.

Stew named it “Sam” and Félix opted for “El Gato Grande,” contradicting what we had determined was the actual gender of the cat.

Three or four days ago, it stopped showing up, the food bowl untouched in the morning.  Yesterday, Félix went looking for it and the foul smell of a dead animal promptly led him to the remains of our cat friend, which had been killed and torn apart. Stew and Félix, shovel and pickaxe in hand, went out to bury the remains.

Stew told me that Félix was really upset, and this morning he said the cat’s tragic end had affected him a lot, because it had become “a friend.” For a guy who was born and raised in the rough-and-tumble Mexican countryside—and who most of the time sports a hardened, “mucho macho” Mexican male façade—Félix is really a softie for animals of all kinds. When a pack of wild dogs several years ago killed his beloved Chupitos, a purebred mutt remarkable for both her smarts and affection toward Félix, it was one of the few times I’ve seen Félix on the verge of tears.

Indeed, no matter how often we have to confront the death of an animal around the ranch, sometimes a creature unknown to us, it always feels like a sucker punch in the gut, no matter how much we try to rationalize it as “one of those things” or “part of life.”

Our vet Ricardo administers the last
rites to a burro hit by a car.

Some such slices of life are particularly hard to take, as the time when a young burro was hit by a car and left to die by the side of the road. Stew, Felix and I went over with a bucket of water to offer the moaning animal, which was literally breathing its last, its eyes begging for an end to its agony. We called a vet to come and inject syringe-fulls of something that finally killed it. Wild dogs dispatched the remains overnight, with amazing speed and efficiency. Hardly anything was left within 24 hours. It was an awful experience.

Stew holding Chucha, the grand dame of mutts.

Another memorable demise was Chucha’s, a venerable old bitch that showed up during the construction of our house, and after a few handfuls of food, decided to hang around—like, forever. We never brought Chucha into the house but fed her by the gate every morning, and took it to vet several times when she seemed to be sick or injured.

One afternoon, Chucha stumbled up to the gate, looking really pathetic. We wrapped her up in a blanket and put her on our back terrace, to wait until we could take her to the vet the next day. She died overnight.

We have, intentionally, contributed to the wild animal population at the ranch, by leaving about four acres untouched, to be naturally filled in with brambles, wild flowers, mesquites, huizaches and other vegetation, to the point that it has become almost impenetrable. When we arrived, all seven acres had been buzz-cut by people collecting firewood, or livestock eating practically every blade of vegetation.

Stew feeding the motley bunch of campo dogs that
show up at our front gate every morning.

And so we’ve noticed an increasing number of rabbits, opossums, snakes, road runners, and birds of all sorts, particularly mockingbirds, nesting on the trees. Félix says animals feel safe in our ranch, though some, like El Gato Grande, apparently are not so lucky.

Félix will try to console us when an animal dies, with some sappy, insincere homily about the birds and bees and how nature works. Something about cats eat birds, and birds eat worms, and someone kills the cats, and someone is always killing someone else.

We all nod in agreement, that that’s how we should feel, until another critter turns up dead.

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