Thursday, April 19, 2018

Time finally came to bid goodbye to Paco

When he carefully laid Paco on the stainless steel examination table, Dr. Vázquez, almost in a whisper, said, "This is very difficult."

I don't know if he meant for himself, us, or the emaciated cat we had brought in to be euthanized. In the end it was awfully hard for everyone.

No one can accuse this gentle vet, or us, of rushing Paco's demise, who was more than sixteen years old.


This would have been the third reprieve—when we had asked Félix to dig yet another grave in our pet cemetery but then changed our mind at the behest of Vázquez, who seemed loath to put Paco to sleep.

The last time was just three days before, when he examined and palpated Paco so gently and carefully you'd think he was handling a precious vase. He injected Paco with something to reduce the inflammation in his intestines. Paco responded, resumed eating and the diarrhea ebbed but not for long.

By the time we brought him in Tuesday he was practically unresponsive. His emaciated body felt like a fragile bundle of twigs under his long black fur. At that moment I felt that perhaps we may have done this old cat no favors by postponing the inevitable. But putting a pet to sleep is always an agonizing choice.
Always a squeamish sort, I had avoided watching previous euthanasias of our pets and, unfairly, had left Stew to handle this most awful task. But this time I had decided to stand behind Stew and at least offer the comfort of my presence.

Vázquez, in his soft, accented English, kept whispering all the verities used to rationalize putting an animal to sleep: we were doing Paco a favor by putting him out of his misery; there was nothing left to be done; it was the kindest thing we could do, and so on. I don't know if he was talking to us or trying to convince himself.

Stew, trying to remain calm—a fake at which he ultimately failed—just kept reciting Paco's history, how we had found him at the animal pound in Chicago and so on, talking to no one in particular.

I wasn't much support to Stew after all, standing behind him crying and sniffling. Vazquez' wife, who doubles as his receptionist and grief counselor of sorts, reached from the other side of the wall and matter-of-factly handed me a box of Kleenex.

Indeed no words can soften the task of deliberately ending the life of a creature, no matter how one tries to rationalize it. You secretly hope they will spare you that final ordeal by dying quietly on their own, but they seldom cooperate.

Compounding our discomfort was the memory of a botched euthanasia, performed by an incompetent San Miguel vet, of our dog Pooch shortly after we'd arrived from Chicago some twelve years ago.

It was a grisly affair that took over a half hour, as this idiot kept inject more and more of whatever is used to end an animal's life directly into Pooch's heart, and the half-conscious dog just kept convulsing and refusing to die.

Paco's death was not entirely painless. He let out a loud, split-second shriek when Vázquez injected a sedative, but almost immediately went limp. Oddly, Paco kept purring ever louder. Vázquez said that purring is not necessarily a sign of pain or contentment in cats, just a respiratory function.

When Paco was completely quiet and calm, Vázquez went into the next room to fetch the medication that would snuff out whatever life was left in Paco. He injected the liquid somewhere near his chest and Paco let a loud snort, I assume the feline equivalent of the "death rattle" I had heard humans let out when they die.


We slid Paco into a blue pillowcase Stew had brought and in which we would bury him. The actual euthanasia took no more than ten minutes, if that. But it was long enough for everyone to get teary, including Vázquez.

At home, Félix had dug an oversize hole to bury Paco, just behind Ziggy, another cat we'd brought from Chicago.

Our dogs had gathered at the burial site, as if trying to pay their last respects, while Stew gently laid Paco at the bottom of the hole in his blue pillowcase. 

Félix stood by with a shovel, while Stew, crying, knelt down and tried to bury Paco with handfuls of dirt.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Bees buzz while vegetables snore

Late last year Stew and Félix checked our beehives and were alarmed. One hive was doing great, a second not so well and the third was totally kaput. A few weeks ago they checked again and found two hives buzzing with bees making honey, but the third was still empty.

So last week we took off for Aguascalientes, a state about three hours away from the ranch, to buy a "nucleus" of bees (several hundred, or perhaps thousands of bees) plus one queen bee to repopulate the inactive hive. 

The trip was brief but stunning. The capital of Aguascalientes is a beautiful, thriving town, worth far more than the thirty-six hours of our flash visit, plus we got to visit the facilities of a state-of-the-art supplier of apiculture supplies, including live bees. 

"Aguascalientes," by the way, means Hot Springs, though we didn't devote enough time to find out the origin of the name.

Have bees, will travel: Interior of a mobile honey-processing
rig, all in stainless steel and reminiscent of a Airstream trailer.
The unit is self sufficient (except for the truck to tow it): it
has its own electric generator and air-conditioning system. All
of it made in Mexico, one of the sales people proudly pointed out.  
How do you buy a thousand bees, maybe more, a queen bee and bring them all home in a car? Excellent question, one that I pondered on the way to Aguascalientes.

You start by cleaning out the "brood chamber" of your hive. The chamber is a wooden box containing ten removable frames, each with a pressed wax sheet with the familiar hexagonal pattern one associates with bee hives. Plus a lid. (Check out illustration below)

At the bee supplier they replace your empty frames (all beehive components are standard size) with theirs which are teeming with live bees, plus a queen. They replace the lid on the brooding chamber and—presumably—seal it tight so the bees don't escape and begin buzzing around your head while you're driving home.

A beekeeper loading new frames full of bees
into the brooding chamber
we brought to Aguascalientes. 
Presumably, I say, because during the three-hour drive home a couple dozen bees got out, forcing us to make a couple of unscheduled stops to shoo them out of the car. We finally put a piece of fabric over the traveling brooding chamber.

But there were no human fatalities or injuries and the new bees are now residing happily, or so it seems, in our third beehive.

Until the hive gets established Félix and Stew have to feed it a half-and-half solution of sugar water daily, using a special plastic feeder.

Unless something goes seriously awry, we expect a bumper crop of honey—fifteen gallons or so—like the one we had two years ago.

Stew spent quite a few pesos at the bee supplier buying fancy gizmos to make the extraction easier. Such investments are sure to push our honey operation finances further down into a bottomless pit of red ink from which it will surely never recover. Remember that Félix keeps any income from the honey business.

Call it an expensive hobby, or a Félix subsidy.

Our vegetable operation on the other is barely alive. We planted dozens of seeds (lettuce, tomatoes, radishes and other greens) and except for a few veteran heads of lettuce and Swiss chard, and two tomato plants we received a friend, the beds are barren and we don't know exactly what went wrong.

It could be we started too early, when the ground was too cold to support germination. Or the seeds were too old. Or overnight temperatures cooler than the seeds could tolerate. Or the most promising  answer at the moment: Who knows?

We replanted the beds and also ordered a new batch of seeds from Johnny's Seeds. This time I avoided the age-old gardening error of being swept away by all the glossy pictures of ideal vegetables, and ordering more seeds than we could possibly use.

This problem is equivalent to grocery shopping on a full head and an empty stomach, and getting home to find you bought a kilo of radicchio and a chunk of wormy Croatian cheese for an exotic Alice Waters creation you're never going to make.

We've adjusted the timer and rechecked the drip irrigation hoses, and replanted the old seeds plus some new ones we bought locally. If those don't work, Johnny's seeds are on the way.

Now comes what has to be the worst aspect of gardening—waiting. For the seeds to germinate. For rain, because no amount of artificial irrigation can compete with a good rain. And to find out if, for once, the myriad  insects, rabbits and other vegetarian critters lurking nearby will give us a break this year. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Call me by my (weird) name

At San Miguel's spay-and-neuter campaigns
you can find some peculiar monikers

After volunteering for spay-and-neuter campaigns or "blitzes" for dogs and cats in San Miguel for eight or nine years, Stew and I have inherited the weigh-in station as our permanent post. After registration, each animal has to be weighed so that the vets down the line can administer the proper amount of anesthetic. Too much and an animal might have a tough time waking up; too little and it might wake up in the middle of surgery.

Don't know what's going on but I'm scared. 
It's a fun gig—greeting the owners and their critter(s) individually—but when you weigh three hundred or so animals over one weekend, it gets boring. So to keep ourselves entertained, we keep mental notes and observations.

Sometimes there are tons of cats, other times not. There might be a lot of bruised and scarred pit bulls and rottweilers, probably veterans of dog fighting. Yet some of the supposedly ferocious breeds can be gentle while a silly-looking Chihuahua might yap and snap mechanically at everyone around it.

Unlike Americans, Mexicans shy away from using human names on their pets, and sometimes don't name them at all. One grizzled woman came to the blitz last weekend with two no-name cats that had to be christened on the spot as "Gato Uno" and "Gato Dos" for purposes of recordkeeping.

You tell me: Do I look like a taco to you?
Some pet names don't seem very affectionate such as "Pulgosa" or "Fleabag". Or inappropriate, like Morris for a big dog, or "Blanco" for a black one. Or a male pit bull named after Frida Kahlo, who was a rather strong-willed gal but not quite that ferocious.

During this last blitz we spotted a trend in pet names, maybe two, though it's quite possible some pet owners didn't even realize what the names meant.

There was the food category: Couscous, Chia, Quinoa, Frijol, Cinnamon (probably for the color of the dog) or Taco. My favorites were Cappuccino, Cake, and the winner, "Lechuga" or "Lettuce," a name I would not burden a pet with.

Tiny pooch for such a big guy.
Hollywood also was fairly well represented: Keanu, Jesse, Maggie, Peggy, Lulu, Sasha, Sofia, Coco and Rocky, but I doubt the owners could tell Maggie Smith from Sylvester Stallone.

The astronomy contingent was relatively small this year. Only one "Rocket" (or was it "Rocky?), one "Venus" and one "Laika" (a dog sent into space, one-way, by the Soviets). Usually we get at least several "Lunas" (Moon) and a couple of Plutos   

But as in the U.S., most names were not particularly inventive: "Manchas" (Spots); Kitty or "Reina" (Queen). Boring.

After all these blitzes, and regardless of the names, one thing we have noticed is noticeably increased attendance. The culture of spaying-and-neutering seems to be gaining ground in San Miguel, and it feels as if we could have a weekly blitz and fully book it.

Also, more purebred dogs are showing up instead of just street or mixed-breed mutts.

Most surprising, though, in the increase in the number of male dogs brought in to be neutered. Not too long ago the mere suggestion to a mucho-macho dog owner that he should sterilize his male dog would only cause him to wince—and reach protectively for his own crotch. Call it machista projection.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A Friday the 13th miracle

One way to dinner late yesterday afternoon, barely three hours after uploading my previous post, Stew and I spotted a grayish dog on the opposite side of the road who was panting, exhausted but determinedly trudging somewhere. 

It was Benji returning home.

We called her name, she answered, and I loaded her into the car. She didn't resist or wiggle to get free; in fact she seemed relieved as she curled up in the back compartment.

We turned around to bring her back home, where we fed her and she joined the other dogs in her pack who seemed to be waiting for her—or for more food.

The more we thought about Benji's feat, the more amazing—almost miraculous—it seemed. She probably had never been more than two hundred meters from our front gate, except once, to a spay-and-neuter clinic held in Sosnabar about a kilometer down the road from us.

And the last few days couldn't have been more stressful for her: A trip to the vet, where she she spent a couple of nights, ten days at a nearby kennel, her trip to her new owner and now her perilous return home.

She'd managed to get away from her new owner, wander back seventeen or eighteen kilometers on her own, over a period of about thirty-six hours, through a strange town, stretches of open highway fraught with all manner of dangers, make the correct right turn onto the Jalpa Road and was on her way home.

Félix had no doubts she would return home; he had heard similar stories. "Los perros son muy listos," he said, in that somber tone of country-boy wisdom he adopts when he feels he's teaching city-slick gringos a thing or two. 

"Dogs are very smart."

But this is way beyond "smart". Do dogs have a GPS planted in their heads, set to "home"? Do they follow familiar smells? Or do they simply remember routes and sights? Or follow some innate instinct or sonar we don't begin to understand?

I need to ask Dr.Vazquez, her vet, who also seemed quite sure she would return.

Benji was covered with burrs and weeds, stank as if she'd had a run-in with a skunk or something dead, and was ravenous. Other than that she wagged her tail as if to thank us.

We called Jack, the guy who had adopted her, and he was thrilled too. First thing, he said, he's going to the hardware store to get some fencing material to seal the perimeter around his place, and then drive here to deliver the antibiotics Dr. Vazquez prescribed.

But we also agreed that for a couple of days Benji would be better off hanging out at her usual haunts with her usual friends. She's already stressed enough.

Stew, her closest human friend, just went out to feed her and reported that she's fine back home with her friends, but needs a good brushing and some attention to calm her down.

still can't believe, much less understand, how Benji managed this incredible feat.

I'm also left wondering if Benji—and us—would have been better off if we had left her alone in the first place, despite the seemingly terrific person who's coming by in a couple of days to pick her up. 

Now I'm not sure now if she was the beneficiary, or the victim, of human compassion.

Friday, April 13, 2018

A not-so-bad Friday the 13th, after all


This Friday the 13th dawned fully intending, it seemed, to live up to its bad-luck reputation. 

Benji, one of the stray dogs that live outside our gate—and whom we thought had been adopted—ran away from its new owner and disappeared somewhere in San Miguel late Thursday. We woke up worried that some horrible thing would happen to her. 

Meanwhile, our elderly and feeble cat Paco had such a raucously bad time last night we had decided to put him in his carrier for a final trip to the vet this morning, to be euthanized.

As the morning wore on, though, things looked slightly brighter. The vet checked Paco thoroughly and found that while that while terminally frail, he still had a few more kilometers left in him. He gave him some shots and put him back in his carrier for the trip home. Paco now seems to be fine, after letting out a loud “Whew!” and going back sleep on his usual spot in our bedroom closet.  

I'm sure Paco is on its last lap, but we shouldn't pretend to know better than him when the end is at hand. When cats want to check out, I've been told, they'll let you know by curling up in some dark corner and refusing to eat. And not before. 
Benji and his new owner Jack, in what we thought her
farewell close up before moving into a new home. 

With Benji, we were really really upset upon hearing the news from his new owner, Jack, who was really thrilled to have found a dog just like the one he had lost a while back. As Jack and Benji drove away in Jack's 1952 yellow Chevy pick-up, we thought this story had a happy ending. 

Not quite. A few hours later we got an email from Jack telling us Benji had run away by slipping through the bars of his gate. 

The truth is that Benji, though mellow, for the past several years has lived a rather unencumbered existence under a tree across the road —except for the occasional dog fight—now was scared and shaking after riding in cars, spending nights in a vets office, driving off with a stranger and, for him, other harrowing experiences. 

When he ran away he wasn't being ungrateful for all the attention. He likely just wanted to go home, under the tree in the field across the road where he's lived all his life. 

That taught us a lesson on the risks of anthropomorphizing—projecting human feelings and expectations onto animals, in some instances pretending we know better than they do. In this case we figured that a neat haircut and a rabies shot would improve Benji's days but he probably thought things were fine the way they were. 

The experience with Benji may have squelched plans Stew and I had to find homes for the dogs outside our gate. Most of those dogs were born out in the nearby ranches, where they'll live and die and that may be just fine, or if not fine, at least the way it is. 

In the meantime, we just get to feed, pat them on the head and exchange a few encouraging words every morning. 

Indeed, Félix and another friend assure me that Benji is bound to show up back here—his home—in a few days. That has eased my worries somewhat. I just wish he'd hurry up.   

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Let it rain. Let it . . . Hey, it's raining!

I've always believed in the power of the written word but I had no idea. Since posting my yearly epistle a week ago about the lack of rain, we've had an inch of precipitation over two nights.


Late Tuesday afternoon the southeast skies had darkened—auspiciously or ominously depending on one's point of view—and lightning sliced the clouds followed by the deep rumble of distant thunder.

Our rain usually comes from the southeast and so I told Félix, "Finally. It looks like rain." 

But Félix, gloom meister extraordinaire, quickly dismissed the show as just another teaser.


An anemic initial drizzle immediately began, followed by the unmistakable plop-plopping of some serious raindrops on the patio umbrella. It started to rain for good and Félix had to concede this might be for real.

"At least it didn't forget how to rain," he said, before it really started to pour. He had to wait a half hour for the rain to ease so he could bike home.


By morning, we'd received a half-inch of rain, followed by another half-inch last night. An impressive show considering the rainy season generally doesn't start until mid-June.

Suddenly, the perpetual dust has vanished and the recently plowed fields around us turned the deep black shade of wet mud. We now need to pay attention when we walk the dogs: That gooey mud sticks to your shoes like setting cement and you gain ten pounds from the added weight of your feet.

Later than night, the intake pipes of our rain cistern, which are embedded in the walls, could be heard gurgling happily from inside the house.

Wednesday morning I went on the terrace earlier than usual and the birds were in a particularly chirpy mood. The saturation of the colors of the landscape increased overnight. The air smelled damp. Their feet hidden by a rolling fog, the mountains seemed to levitate.


Or was this all my imagination? It could be, like pretending that I could squeeze rain from the stingy clouds just by writing a whiny post about my impatience with the dry season. Or maybe Félix is right and this is nothing but a teaser rain.

But just in case my prose indeed has the power to bring rain, I'm going to write another post next year, and this time right after Christmas. 


Sunday, April 8, 2018

This mellow "fellow" urgently needs a safe haven

To a stranger's eyes the six to nine dogs that gather outside the gate of our ranch likely looks like an indistinct, motley gang. But after you've fed them several years, the differences in their appearance and personalities are unmistakable. 

Also, we can readily tell if someone's missing. Negro, a big black dog, disappeared for two or three days and then staggered back very sick: He'd been poisoned. A rush trip to the vet couldn't save him.  Osita ("Little Bear") a midsize mutt too gentle for her own good simply vanished.  Chupitos, our gardener Félix's dog, vanished one night and we found her disemboweled body the next morning, the victim of a dog fight.  

Benji a couple of years ago, before her recent haircut.
The saddest case perhaps was Chucha, at once a lovable but pitiable old wreck, with cataracts but no teeth, plus other handicaps, but grumpy enough to keep any aggressors away. She eventually died too, of old age we suppose, and was buried in our ranch next to Chupitos and Negro. 

Some of these stray dogs may no doubt are feral and attracted by our food handouts. Others, who look too refined to be feral, most likely were dumped by owners who no longer wanted them.  

The star of this post, though, is Benji, so named for "his" vague similarity to the protagonist in the movie by the same name. We've been feeding and petting Benji daily for about three years but only recently discovered that he's a Benjamina rather than a Benji. But the name stuck. 

Three days ago Stew noticed that one of Benji's ears was grossly swollen so we took her to Dr. Vazquez, a terrific vet, who found a deep wound probably caused by a fight. Benji is very timid and mellow, one of those creatures destined to be bullied and to lose every fight she gets into. We're surprised she's survived as long as she has.  

Born-again Benji, after her haircut and visit to the vet this week.
The ear flopped down is the one that got mauled during a fight.
It'll be back to normal when it heals. Standing to her
left is Dr. Vazquez who patched her up. Stes is holding her.
As she recovers from her wounds at a nearby kennel, it's urgent that Benji find a permanent home, away from the ruthless dog-fight-dog world of the campo. 

While at the vet, Benji got bandaged up, was vaccinated for rabies and received a rather rakish haircut. The vet said her fur was all matted and flea-ridden and a fresh start was the best solution. 
We guess Benji must be about four years old, and is medium-sized, weighing about thirty pounds, though she could benefit from some additional meat on her bones, now revealed by the haircut. Her personality if nothing if mellow and tame.
  
We intend to keep her at the kennel for about ten days, but after that we must surrender her to the uncertain life in the campo where she came from: We already have five rescue dogs and two cats and cannot take another one.

So now we're soliciting friends, readers and anyone else you know to consider adopting this gentle, latter-day gal.  

Any interest or leads, please contact me at stewnal@gmail.com 

In just a few days she'll be ready for her close-up and interviewing potential adopters. 

Benji in one of her pensive moods.