Grave Difficulties

Back in the summer, I wrote about the dog Oliver, whom I’ve cared for since I returned to Mexico just over a year ago. Ollie was always very thin, but a few weeks before Christmas, he seemed thinner than usual. His ribs stuck out, his waist was smaller, and there was little muscle on him. I tried changing his food, and giving him some anti-parasite meds, but his condition didn’t improve. This past Tuesday, since he was terrified of being taken to strange places like veterinarians’ offices, we called the vet in to look at him. The verdict, derived from blood and urine tests, plus a physical exam, was that he had no infections, but his kidneys seemed to be under stress, and probably there were other things wrong with him that needed further examinations. My neighbour Gabriel, who has bred show dogs, was a source of informed opinions, but he’s also an anxious man, and I was careful about accepting all his views.

Oliver was about thirteen years of age, which is very old for a large dog, especially one who’d been very sickly as a young animal. I’d realised he probably wouldn’t last the year, and began making an extra fuss of him at mealtimes, usually the only point in the day when he was okay about receiving attention.

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Olive in his corral, pictured last week.

Friday, I was in town till the afternoon, and didn’t look for Ollie in the corral until dinnertime, around six. When I called him four or five times and he didn’t come, I looked more carefully, and I soon saw him.

My guess is that he’d died around midday, since rigor mortis had now set in. It might have been a stroke or a heart attack, or … we don’t really know. His body had been lying in the sun for some hours, and was beginning to swell. We could have called the vet to take his body and “dispose” of it, but that wasn’t what was going to happen. His former kennel-mate Kato is buried under the trees above the house, and Ollie deserved to lie there near him. So, Gabriel and I wrapped him in a couple of scotch-taped garbage bags to keep off the insects overnight, and put him into our large dog-bath with a further cloth covering. The sun was just going down, so we resolved to dig a grave in the morning.

It’s hard to describe the terrain here, because we’re on a steep slope. You climb stairs to get to the main back door, and the back wall of the property is thirty feet or more above the level of the back patio. Long ago, this was a cow pasture, but the municipality asked us to build a wall, and without grazing animals it’s become overgrown. After breakfast, I looked to find an appropriate flat area, and, using a rather small shovel the house’s owners keep here, dig out a place for Oliver. My feeling was he’d have appreciated a site with a view overlooking the corral where he lived, so I selected a flat patch and began shifting dirt.

Yes, well.

The soil here, known as tepetate, is a mix of clays and reddish volcanic dust. It’s very fertile, and for building, it has the merit that it doesn’t loosen much with earth tremors. It can absorb the energy of quite major quakes. However, it’s extremely hard, and has a lot of large stones and rocks. Before I began, I figured it would take me at least two hours to dig out a hole big enough for large dog, and since it was going to get really hot by midday, I set to it just before nine.

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Nearly three inches down into the hard tepetate. Yes, exactly.

I did well. After forty-five dehydrating minutes, I’d gotten down nearly three inches through the hard earth. With Gabriel’s help, I figured, and knowing our energy would sag the longer we worked, we might get a grave dug by sunset. That is, provided the small injuries I’d sustained hacking into the earth didn’t accumulate to become major ones.

Gabriel took his turn, and soon declared we needed a pickaxe to break up the hard-packed earth. I suggested we buy one from the large new hardware store on the edge of town, but before we got very far from the house, it occurred to him to ask the guy building a house in our laneway if we had one we could borrow. The man, Valentin, did, and was happy to get his teenage son to fetch it and lend it to us for an hour or so. We tried working with it, and concluded we might even finish by mid-afternoon. Ollie, in the heat of the central Mexican day, would by then be … deteriorating, shall we say.

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Gabriel trying his hand and breaking the earth. The tinaco, the water-tank, is visible above-right.

“Let’s just ask those guys if they want to earn some cash,” Gabriel suggested, an idea I’d already contemplated, though I wasn’t sure how to approach them. So we went back, and Gabriel negotiated a decent offer, and the two of them took us up on it. Valentin’s son is only fourteen, but he’s built like a football player, with bulging muscles and a strong back.  I was impressed by both of them as they attacked the tepetate. Mexicans’ ability to take the physical punishment of hard labout always astonishes me.

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Sixty pounds of rocks in a bucket? All in a morning’s work for Valentin.

Sure enough, in twenty minutes, they were down six or seven inches. But they’d hit a problem: rock. How much, how big? We couldn’t determine: you can’t when you’re digging downwards. But it was big enough. We could have asked them to dig elsewhere but the problem was, the conditions are the same all over the sloping wilderness that, once, we planned to turn into a hillside garden. Maybe, as happened with Kato’s grave six years ago, we’d hit a patch that was clear of large rocks down far enough. And maybe we’d try five locations and they’d all have boulders a few inches under the surface.

Valentin proposed the solution. Next to the rock platform with the tinaco, the water-tank we fill to have a gravity-feed of running water, there was a space with the property’s wall to one side. Why not bury Ollie just there, under the rocks and earth we’d already dug up?

General construction workers here always have a stash of everything they might need, and he had a little cal, or lime, that would prevent the occupant developing rich aromas and becoming a magnet for rats. We could pile the earth we’d already excavated, then some of the rocks, on top. Architecturally, it wouldn’t win prizes, but it would do the job.

I’m being matter-of-fact, almost flippant here, but all the while we had to deal with the fact we’d lost a friend. Gabriel was more dismayed than me, since he’d assumed Ollie might be cured of his current ailment and enjoy another year or so of life. I was – am – upset, having worked to make that scared animal feel secure and loved, but as I said, I also felt his time was very close. Having pets requires, at a certain point, a readiness to let them go, especially when they hit their dotage. Two others here – Ollie’s half-sister Victoria, and the little poodle-cross Punky, who’s now blind – are similarly in their last years, and I watch them for signs of decline. Ollie left us faster than I expected, but I was half prepared for his departure.

So, around 1.00 pm, with the dog’s remains placed in the grave and the lime, earth and some rocks placed over him, the job was done. Right next to his little tomb is the rock platform with the tinaco on it, and I can imagine his spirit standing on that, looking down over the corral and out into the field where the cows and horses wander to graze.

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Inelegant, perhaps, but secure, and with a nice view from the adjoining rock platform.

Faced with the actuality of anyone’s existence ending, we all conceive of different fates for those we’ve lost, and my idea here is that he’s looking down at Rem, our much younger Labrador-cross who’d try to steal his food, and thinking: “Dude, I’m above you now.”

Gabriel had a different thought.

“Did you leave his collar on him?” he asked me, and I replied that I had.

“That’s good, he has something to pay the boatman on his way to the afterworld.”

It was a mix of Greek and Mexican traditions, but I like the imagery.

The Saturated Dog Catcher

June 15, 2019

A month ago, I wrote about our rescued dog Oliver, who’s the shyest of the four we have here. He’s as close to me as to anyone else, which isn’t saying much. He lets me stroke his head when I give him his food, but remains immobile as I do so. He just does his thing, whatever it is, without playing much with the other dogs.

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Oliver doing his thing, whatever it is.

A couple of nights ago, as my old hometown of Toronto was on tenterhooks for the NBA finals, I’d planned to catch the game online. But somehow, someone had left our main gate open, and Ollie had wandered out of it.

With the other dogs, I’d be concerned about them causing trouble. With Ollie, I was concerned he’d draw trouble on himself. When you’re a timid dog with minimal social skills around other canines, even if you’re quite big, the world around here isn’t much fun. To go down to the street, he’d have to pass three, maybe five other dogs of varying levels of aggressiveness. Down on the street are some notably mean mutts. So, he went into a place behind the houses, among the rocks under the cliffs, and hid. I went to look for him there, but probably didn’t go up far enough, so I spent most of the evening combing this side of the village for him, and asking neighbours if they’d seen him. None had. By night-time, the Raptors had won, and I was still missing our most vulnerable dog.

I left the front door to the property ajar all night, on the theory that he might come back, and if any of the other dogs got out, they at least knew how to get home. But Ollie lives in a private world of long-entrenched fears; he likely found shelter under a big rock and stayed there. Early the morning after, having slept little and with Toronto no doubt still in a condition of hangover, I went out to look for him again. I’d held off notifying his original rescuer, my friend Lucero, that he was missing, hoping he’d turn up, but I felt I couldn’t postpone letting her know. She was distraught. She was also three hours away, and couldn’t help.

Among other places, I checked the cemetery, where dogs hang out seeking shelter among the tombs. And I found the body of a freshly killed dog, his probable assailants snarling at me from close by.  Seriously – dogs here can be vicious. But at least this poor critter wasn’t Ollie they’d torn into.

Finally, back again behind our house I saw him, to my great relief, and knew … the fun was about to start. The rocks where Ollie was hanging out made it tough for anything on two legs to move fast, and I absolutely didn’t want him to associate recapture with ill-treatment. But he wasn’t going to help much. 

Any of our other dogs come when called. Oliver won’t. Whatever traumas he underwent as a pup are always with him, and he’ll run from me, even if I’m bringing him food. So I began an hours-long process of trying to tempt him home. I went and rattled kibble in his bowl, then decided he was probably more thirsty than hungry, and tried this with his water-bowl. He looked at the familiar green object, came to a few yards away, then turned back into some scrub.

Eventually, I went into town to keep a lunch date with a friend, then started round two. No dice. Then it began to rain. Suddenly, heavily, and … well, wetly. Very wetly indeed. I skidded on mud for the hundred yards back home.

Then, drying out in the living room, I had that “You know what you gotta do, cowboy” moment. Which involved more wetness but not, thankfully, of the kind with which that line of dialogue is associated.

So, I trudged back through the mud to the rocks with Ollie’s water bowl, since even with the rain he had no decent source of water. And a dog gets pretty thirsty after a whole day.

He continued the same process we’d been through a score of times already. I’d call him, he’d come close enough to check things out, then veer off. He was soaking, I was soaking, but he was also tired, and hungry, and cold. At one point he wandered into a kind of shallow trench, paused, and stopped, worn down. I think he tried to jump out and couldn’t. I was finally able to get to him, and slip a leash on his collar.

Relief – I could finally get this daft dog back where he’d be safe! Cue the John Williamson orchestral chords!

Then the real fun began. When he feels trapped, Ollie will go limp. So, he went limp. He sat down, his back legs splayed, and refused to budge. I’m sure in his mind he was trying to resist an anticipated beating or other punishment, perhaps remembering his dreadful puppyhood, but I had to get him down a slippery slope. So: sodden man dragged sodden dog downwards, sliding on the stones of the ciruelos (hog-plums) that grow all around here.

Hog-plum stones are God’s way of saying He enjoys watching people in Mexico fall over. Think of outsized organic ball-bearings, on a hillside also lined with vegetation that grabbed at my ankles, or the dried sticks of which provided roller-bearings to complement the plummy ball-bearings. To this visualisation, add any quantity of mud you like, and the sound of divine laughter coming down amid the rain-supporting thunderclaps.

Add me, determined to do this without swearing at a dog who won’t help me get him to home, food and safety. Now picture me lifting this dead-weight of a wet, muddy dog (22 kilos, or close to 50 lb, plus a little extra from water-content in his saturated fur) and carrying him the last 70 yards back to our front gate. Where I finally had to shove his wet, muddy butt through the doorway.

You could say Ollie was admirably stoic through it all. It was a serious tussle: his single-minded inertia versus my single-minded intention to get him back behind locked gates. I was truly impressed by his ability not to contribute anything useful whatsoever.

Then, once through the door, he flipped. There was his half-sister Victoria, Rem our little pack’s alpha male, and a known environment. He began wagging his tail at full speed.

Hey, what about me, dawg? And look at my clothes! But no appreciation for me was forthcoming. At times of stress, I think he can only anticipate bad things happening. A genius dog he isn’t, but his behaviour made no sense at all in human terms.

Or maybe it did, mimicking some dafter human obsessive tendencies. He’d been scarcely two dog-minutes from the door of home, where there was water, a dry place to sleep, and a regular supply of food. But he confined himself to the illusory safety of an uncomfortable space, deprived of company, sustenance or security. Only when he surrendered from tiredness did he get home – where he obviously preferred to be.

I might just have waited him out for a few days, but I couldn’t make myself do that. I really wasn’t sure he could reason his way out of the situation he was in, simply come back, and bark at the door like any sensible canine miscreant would.

I was aware I looked ridiculous standing in the rain with a bowl of water, calling a dog who wouldn’t come (and who’d still largely avoid me), then carrying him back here. No-one else round here would do that. But I felt wildly relieved he was back on the property, where deep-rooted fears still run his life, but where at least I can prevent the worst of them from happening.

Oliver’s Journey

Two issues always bother me about Mexico. My previous post, on new garbage cans, touched on the way people carelessly throw things into fields and ditches. Piles of litter disfigure many locations around where I live in the state of Morelos, south of Mexico City, and it saddens and annoys me.

The other issue is the treatment of animals.

Humans almost always have the power of choice: we can understand our own situations, and we can run away. Animals have little concept of “away,” so they suffer where they are. And sometimes, their suffering is horrible.

My friend Lucero simply took Victoria. She was starving, and obviously in a bad way, and one night Lucero went to the corral she lived in with a bunch of other weak, hungry animals and dognapped her. Another night, moved by the sight of Vicki’s brother (subsequently named Oliver), who was too weak to walk and was dragging himself along the ground, she stole him, too.

Not long afterwards, the other dogs in that corral were all gone: the owner who’d been starving them had killed them all, presumably in a drunken fit of rage. We don’t know if he noticed or cared that two of them were already missing. Vicki thrived, but Ollie had multiple health issues, and the vet didn’t think he’d make it.

But he did. He first came here in 2015, after some years living in Mexico City. He’s always been shy of people (obviously), but for two days he just cowered in a corner of his new corral. Even his sister’s presence didn’t help. Finally, he started to eat the food we gave him, though he still looked at me in terror, and wouldn’t let me touch him.

After a few weeks of this, I tried playing a game of tag with him, tapping him when he came close enough. It took five months of tag, but one day he let me stroke him, and stopped being afraid if I approached him slowly enough. But not always.

And then I went back to Canada, and I didn’t see him for more than three years. He was moved back here at the end of April, and once I returned from my vacation trip, we started it all again: food, wariness, hiding, tag.

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Oliver: unwilling to stay still for a photo.

But he’d remembered me. This evening, after only four days, he let me rub his head and neck again. He’s still afraid of me trapping him where he can’t run to safety, and he wouldn’t stay still for a photo, but he’s reached the point of half-trust that’s his limit with people. And he does seem … “doggier” than he used to. He moves differently, and behaves more as a dog should, than he used to.

There are several brutalised mutts in this village. I kept wondering why one small dog hung around our gateway, which is at the end of a long laneway. Occasionally, I’d give it some leftover chicken, or a handful of kibble. Yesterday, I saw its sibling attacked by three large dogs when she ventured down to the main street. One of them grabbed her with its teeth, and tossed her a few feet away. A woman closer to the melée than I was picked up a stone, which is the local signal to a dog that it had better scram, and the little dog ran off, yelping. I’ve no idea how badly hurt she was. But I see why the other small one hangs around up here. If our chronic delinquent Rem gets out, he simply wags his tail at her.

Wealthy people here dote on their canine companions. Many poorer ones just use them as guards for their houses, and don’t let them indoors. One cleaning lady we had thought our bringing our dogs into the kitchen at night to sleep on dog-beds was a nasty habit.

With Mexico, you accept how it is, value the beauty and graciousness you do find, and simply sigh over the bad stuff. But a thought I have five times a week is, “Mexico would be a bad place to be a dog.”

I don’t know what Ollie remembers, if anything, of his earliest year. But he won the lottery the night Lucero grabbed him.