Lament of the Dog Catcher

Butch came to me six years ago, joining Mamacita and Tia, to form a tribe of three. At the time, he may have been six years old, sleek, muscular, a commanding presence.  Today, he is an old man, thick in the middle, graying almost beyond recognition, limping from time to time on his back left leg, a sign of arthritis or just plain aging. I have sympathy for him and commiserate with his circumstances. Still, when the front gate is open, he can bring up enough energy to the chase the occasional moto-taxi that plies the dirt road in front of the property where I live out in the campo, in the outskirts of the village.  In that moment, he is fast, running like a two-year-old, and it is a marvel to see that he still has it in him. When he re-enters the property, he’ll stop to take a sip of water, then curl up like a baby and go to sleep for a while.

Once, this was all farmland, planted with crops of corn, squash, and beans that we call The Three Sisters here. Not too long ago, I took pleasure in watching the team of two huge bulls pulling hand hewn wood plows through the fields to turn up the rich brown earth fertilized with dung that would yield a year’s worth of corn, enough to feed a large family and a herd of livestock. Now, many of the fields have become homesites.

What remains has been given over to the cultivation of espadin agave, a cash crop that when mature in seven years can bring in much more income than subsistence farming provides. Row after row, field after field of these sturdy, tall, spiked plants line the paved highways and rocky dirt back roads throughout Oaxaca where mezcal production has skyrocketed in the last several years.

This is where the feral dogs roam. Many are born in the campo, but some are abandoned there when they are no longer cute puppies, when they grow to be larger than desired, when there are limited resources to feed and care for them, when they are born hembra (female) and owners don’t want to be bothered with taking care of generations of litters.  None are spayed or neutered, so the numbers of dogs increase exponentially each year. These dogs are hungry. Chickens, turkeys, and wild rabbits are fair game.  Farmers don’t like their henhouses to be raided, but the dogs elude attempts to be captured. To control the population in the campo, sometimes they are poisoned, the fatal pill wrapped up in a tempting piece of meat.

Mamacita dropped two puppies in the field behind my casita seven years ago. Who knows how long she had been living in the campo. She was starving and could not hunt because she was nursing these two. I took her in, fed her, and found homes for the two cachorros when they were old enough. It was during this time that Tia showed up, at first hanging around on the periphery, then tempted to come inside the patio with a bowl of food. We named her Tia because she was extra attentive to the puppies, nurturing them when Mamacita was disinterested. We assumed she was an offspring from an earlier litter, which is why she was connected to Mamacita.  A couple of years later, we found Mamacita in an adjacent field, lifeless, likely poisoned by a neighbor who would have accused her of being a chicken-killer, though I don’t know this for a fact.

It was last October that a young, sleek, black, long-legged dog showed up in the patio. My neighbor told me then that she had recently birthed a litter of pups, likely her first, but all had died of starvation in the campo. Butch and Tia adopted her as a playmate, and I was ready to take her in, though two dogs seemed like just the perfect number, and three would be a hand full.  The color of raven, I named her Zopilote, and nicknamed her Zopi. To adopt her first meant that I would need to get her spayed, but she was illusive. I made a veterinarian appointment, trapped her in the patio and locked the gate, but she squeezed through the metal bars and escaped. I called the vet to cancel, and shortly thereafter returned to the USA.

Zopi showed up in January, four months later, with nine puppies in tow, all about a few weeks old. She didn’t enter the patio but hovered nearby. As the puppies grew, I reminded myself that this dog has years of breeding ahead of her, and each dog then will beget others.  Zopi was now coming into the patio periodically during the day to sleep with the other two, and I knew it was time again to try to capture her.  I talked to a village friend who operates a spay-neuter clinic about how to get Zopi to the next clinic. The friend recommended tranquilizers to capture her and gave me two, with instructions to put them inside a piece of cheese or meat and feed this to her.  She would then relax sufficiently for me to be able to lift her into the car and transport her to the clinic.

On the morning of the clinic, Zopi showed up. I wrapped the pills in a pocket of beef and held it out to her. She demurred and backed away. The other two dogs were in the patio and came up to sniff the meat, which I then held higher than they could reach. Zopi was now outside the patio beyond the gate. Impulsively, I decided to throw the packet of meat outside the gate and quickly close it before Butch and Tia could escape.  I threw the meat, closed the gate, but not before Butch wiggled through and in one fell swoop, gulped down that packet of tranquilizer laden meat. I grabbed the scruff of his neck, trying to shake it loose, but to no avail.  Zopi ran away. Soon, Butch began to collapse and did not come to his senses for twenty-four hours. His eyes glazed over, then closed completely; his breathing was light and barely perceptible. Zopi was nowhere to be seen. Butch was zonked. I was back to Square One.

In the meantime, I have gotten two more pills and I’m ready for the next attempt. But it’s been days since Zopi has shown up again. It’s as if she knows what I have mind for her. I’ve learned my lesson and think I can succeed with a new plan: first close the patio gate, then lure Butch and Tia into the house with a tidbit of cheese and close all the doors of the house so they can’t get away. The next step, with Zopi trapped in the patio, is to throw her the pill infused meat packet. She is too skittish to allow me to get close enough to her to feed her directly. Hopefully, then, she will relax before she has the strength to break through the river reed gate reinforcement. I would then capture her and transport her to the clinic.

If I am successful, this is only a small start to nab and fix those other nine puppies before they can reproduce. A daunting task.

Do you want to help dogs and cats in the Oaxaca campo? Donate to Teo Tails. They need support to capture feral animals safely and to get them spayed and neutered.

Note: I just published this essay on my creative writing Substack site. We organize a Women’s Creative Writing Workshop/Retreat in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, from January 2-8, 2025. Perfect for all levels of writers, from beginners to experienced. We invite you to participate! Writing takes practice. We aren’t born with these skills, they develop just like practicing a golf swing or tennis stroke or doing yoga!

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