Perhaps it’s the beginning of the rainy season. It has been unseasonably hot here in Oaxaca’s Tlacolula Valley. The temperatures are upward of 91 degrees Fahrenheit. Blessings for rain these last two days to cool us down. The afternoons are now unreliably hot for walking far, if at all. Thermal heat builds up then and the skies open with a downpour, if we are lucky. I am want to sit under the covered part of my patio, Butch and Tia nearby, looking skyward. It’s a week since Mamacita died.
My habits are changing. Today, I woke up and got out early (for me), by 7:15 a.m. to walk into the campo while it was still cool, a mild 61 degrees. The sun was barely rising over the mountain range, diffused by cloud cover. It will heat up again today. The fresh air was good for me and the remaining two dogs. Mamacita’s absence is palpable. It was as if her spirit was following us along the trail.
One step at a time, I remind myself. No stumbling over loose rocks. No looking out into the distance at the next marker. No pretending that there are three dogs here along with me instead of two. Be in this moment and savor all that is good. Mourn the loss. Take one step at a time. Remember. Don’t blame. Keep your footing.
We covered the boundary trail that marks the nearby villages San Mateo Macuilxochitl and Santiago Ixtaltepec, walking to the third stone marker that designates the territorial divide. Back and forth, about three miles. I took a 10-minute meditation rest at the entrance to a box canyon where the trail crosses a dry creek. The land is porous, rocky, cactus-strewn, high desert. Sometimes the dogs stop to pick cactus spines from their paws with bared teeth.
By 9:15 a.m. the sun is well up over the mountain and heat begins to penetrate. I continue along a wide farm path that borders yet to be plowed corn fields. Butch and Tia run ahead, chase field mice, birds, stray dogs. They go the distance at full running speed, heads down, legs outstretched as if ready to fly. This is good for them. Me, too.
At home it’s quieter now. Two hands for petting two dogs. No one vying for more attention than the other. Serene, actually. Even at night there is less barking. I am noting the changes. Accepting what this land has to offer. Taking one step at a time. Understanding the loss.
From time-to-time, it happens here in the Oaxaca village I also call home. A good dog dies. Not from natural causes but most usually from poison-laced meat. It is the fastest and easiest way. Others are hit by vehicles or cut loose from tethered ropes when feed becomes too costly, to fend for themselves. Most dogs here are disposable. I do not know how Mamacita was killed or by whom or for what reason. I can only surmise.
I was in transit between Durham, NC and Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, when the news came to me via text: Mamacita died and was buried the day before. I needed time to process this. To absorb the shock and sadness. To reflect on the culture I come from that considers animals as pets and trusted friends, who are cared for as well as humans in many cases. How can I make sense of this?
You may remember Mamacita as the dog I rescued and adopted in June 2017 after she dropped two pups in the tall grasses behind my house. She was skin and bones, incapable of providing sustenance. I am reminded that without my intervention, she would have likely died. Caregiver friends came to housesit and feed Mamacita in intervening times when I was gone. They took her to get spayed, along with Tia and Butch, who also came along and formed an extended family. I am eternally grateful to them. I’ve written to each and they know what happened.
Could it be that Mamacita was killed because she was unjustly targeted as one of many marauding dogs, starving, homeless and roaming the fields in search of a domesticated chicken or turkey? Campesinos can live a hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth life. Poultry is food and an important source of income. There are a multitude of campo dogs; they reproduce because they haven’t been spayed or neutered, and are out of control.
Was it a random act? Two other dogs were found dead that day on the same country road, I was told later. Was she just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Is this inevitable? Are all dogs here disposable? What about my two dogs? Some here, though not enough, are sympathetic to the life of dogs. Maltreatment is not universal.
Mamacita was first and foremost a campo dog, bred in the wild. I adopted her but could not contain her in a gated patio. She lived a life of freedom, sleeping during the day, running with the pack at night. Sylvia reminds me that while she was nursing, Mamacita would disappear for hours. She came home for meals and belly rubs. Sometimes she wouldn’t show up. I worried, but I was confident she would return.
We are heaving deep sighs, me and the two dogs. They now sleep on the patio, closer to me. They sense the loss. Their bond was primal.
I will miss her circle dance on the patio in anticipation of her meal bowl. I will miss her nuzzle and her companionship on evening trail walks. I trained her to sit and wait for treats. She wore a collar. She looked well-fed and cared for. She took to everyone who gave her a pat. She was spayed. All signs that she belonged to someone. Why did this happen? Answers escape me.
This is yet another reminder that to live here requires me to suspend judgment. To understand. To puzzle out how something like this can happen to a sweet dog that was an integral part of my life. Suspending judgment is a practice. I cannot overlay my own values on an 8,000 year old culture. They have survived this long for a reason. Sometimes cruelty and heartlessness figure into that. This is human nature everywhere, no?
This is, I am coming to understand, another perfect lesson in cultural competency. Es la vida, it’s life, is a common saying here. Things just happen. There isn’t always a reason. It is not for me to ascribe fault or blame, only to accept what is. I have learned that it is not my role to change anything, to make it better in terms of my own acculturation and values.
It is so quiet here. The absence of ONE is noticeable. The other two are sleeping on the patio. We all move with a heaviness, the two dogs Tia and Butch, and this human. Today it will be 91 degrees Fahrenheit.
Two days after I returned to Teotitlan del Valle and my home here, I wrote about the skin and bones campo dog that Janie started feeding and named Beezween, which is Zapotec for deer. Beezie leaps like one with his long legs, so it was fitting. I posted Facebook pictures of a dog who looked close to death. I thought, OMG, what am I going to do with FOUR dogs, and I put out the call for a rescue. Beezie needs a home.
Beezie taking a snoozle.
What I got were several generous donations from friends in the US, Canada and Germany to help sustain him until we could figure out a resolution. Thank you to Linda Mansour, Kate Rayner, Judith Grossmann, Barbara Szombatfalvy, Susie Robison, Donna Davis and Karen Nein.
Bottom to top: Beezie, Tia, Butch. Mamacita is missing.
Janie wanted to bring him back with her to North Carolina when she leaves next week. She fell in love! Beezie responded to her by sitting, laying and rolling over. It was a heartfelt bonding.
Janie teaching Beezie to lay down
Meanwhile, I started making buckets of chicken soup and got big bones from the local butcher. Meals were supplemented with chicken livers and gizzards. My three loved the extra treatment and Beezie started to gain weight.
Healthier Beezie after three weeks of care and feeding
After a ton of research and many phone calls, Janie found that the least cost to transport Beezie to the US via private courier (the airlines are no longer taking responsibility for transporting animals) was out of reach — over $1,500 to start.
Beezie in distress, June 29, 2018
Way back in the beginning of my return and in a panic, I found Rebecca Durden Raab who started a not-for-profit dog rescue organization years ago in San Pablo Etla called Friends of Megan. I contacted her and got the name of the vet, Luciano, who has worked with her for over twelve years. They offer a shelter and dog placement service, including spay/neuter and healthcare. Janie followed up.
Dr. Luciano, the vet from Friends of Megan, with an outstretched hand
Yesterday, Beezie happily (and miraculously) submitted to collar and leash without a fuss. Janie led him down the drive to Omar’s waiting car and they set out for San Pablo Etla and new beginnings. We both cried but knew he would be in good hands.
Beezie sat in Janie’s lap for the entire road trip to Etla
Janie applied for and won a textile residency at Meredith College in Raleigh that starts in September, based much on the volunteer work she did with Galeria Fe y Lola here in the village during the time she house sat and cared for the dogs. She would have had her hands full with a campo dog trying to adjust to city life!
Merry’s website is defunct, so if you want to donate, you can send PayPal funds to me using Friends and Family at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll make sure it gets to her.
The donations to Friends of Megan are tax-deductible in the USA.
My prayer is that no other starving dogs show up at my front gate! Three is enough and it’s too hard turning a distressed animal away. There are so many here!
Thanks to everyone for following the journey.
This is not tourist life in Oaxaca. It’s the underbelly of what happens day-to-day, much the same as in other “civilized” countries where animals are mistreated, cut loose to fend for themselves. The overpopulation of dogs here is rampant. I wish I didn’t have to write this story. I’m certain not all stories, those we don’t hear about, end up like this one.
Now that I’m back in my Durham, North Carolina, apartment, people are asking, “What happened to the mama dog and her puppies?”
I guess I need to write an update!
Mamacita. She is a tender, loving puppy mommy and becoming very loyal.
I named the mama dog Mamacita, for lack of any other creative moniker coming to mind. I call her Cita for short. She was a street dog. Cast out. That’s what happens to female dogs. They are unwanted because owners don’t want repeated pregnancies. They also don’t want to neuter their dogs — a financial and cultural issue.
Mamacita has a bad left eye with partial blindness. I presume someone chased her away with a rock and she took a hit.
Sombra (left) and Luz (right) growing up.
Mamacita‘s two babies, just a fistful at birth almost five weeks ago, were white and dark brown. I called them Luz and Sombra, light and shadow.
For the first few days after birth, they lived wild on the land behind my house, nestled in the tall grass shaded by a young guaje tree. Then, I cajoled them into a dog house provided by my friend, Merry Foss, who runs a spay and neuter clinic in the village. By the end of the first week, puppies and mama were living protected in my gated patio.
Dear, wonderful Sylvia, who came to my dog care taking rescue, with Luz.
I fattened up bony Mamacita with twice-a-day doses of chicken soup, beef stock, cooked bones and meat. It was like taking care of a sickly child.
Soon, I had to leave because of work commitments. I sent out the word via Facebook and a blog post. The universe provided.
Dog lover Sylvia Johnson Feldman from Connecticut volunteered to come and house sit, mostly to take care of the dogs. She arrived on July 19. I left on July 20. Sylvia will stay until August 17.
Curious puppies roaming the patio. Sylvia got them colorful collars.
In the next week, the pups will get their first inoculations. Sylvia is making an appointment with the veterinarian who comes from neighboring Tlacolula. Cost for the house call and medications is about 250 pesos.
I’m getting updates from Sylvia along with photos showing how the puppies are weaning, lapping pulverized puppy food and milk. Mamacita seems pleased and domesticated, though Sylvia says she bolts the patio through the iron grill work to run during the early morning hours.
Puppy love, a little nipping, a little biting, dog acculturation.
As soon as puppies are fully weaned, we will spay her. This will likely happen during Kalisa Wells’ watch. She arrives on August 16 to take over for Sylvia.
Both Luz and Sombra have both been spoken for, again via Facebook. Luz will go to a family of alebrijes makers in San Martin Tilcajete. Sombra will go to the sister of a friend who lives in Oaxaca, and will eventually return with her to Washington State. We will send them on their way at about 10 weeks old.
I’ve read it is so important to keep mama and puppies together for at least 10-12 weeks so they have a chance to model behavior. So many are adopted out too early.
An early photo of Luz, under one week old.
I will keep Mamacita if she chooses to stay. With my travel schedule, I’ll have to figure out how to keep her and feed her when I’m not in Oaxaca. All suggestions welcome!
Sombra and Luz are spoken for, will go to good homes. So happy about this.
I’d like to urge you to DONATE to the spay/neuter clinic that Merry Foss operates in Teotitlan del Valle. This is tax-deductible and goes a long way to support dogs and cats, especially the females. With this attention, we can help the animals avoid pregnancy and cut, maybe even end, the proliferation of street dogs, a tragedy throughout all of Mexico.
Spay/neuter costs about $25 USD per animal
Feeding a foster dog costs about $100 USD a bag for 2 months
Flea and parasite treatment costs about $20 USD per animal
Puppy vaccinations cost $20 per animal
No cost for care giving and providing a permanent or foster home!
For me, I took this dog in because of her helplessness, because she is a female, I identified. She has no voice, and there were these two tiny babies depending on her. She could not nurse and hunt for food and water. Not ever having been a dog owner, I learned to give care and compassion to an animal living paw-to-mouth.
Thanks to many of you who have already made a contribution to Merry’s clinic. Thanks in advance to those of you who will.
FYI: Merry has gotten support from Teotitlan del Valle El Presidente Panteleon Ruiz to hold the spay/neuter clinic at his house! This is a major milestone for the village, recognizing the need to control animal reproduction.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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