Jesus, Seashells, and the Holy Salamanders

Concha on kitchen watch for Chewy.

Another pet-sit, another neighbourhood, another gorgeous home to kick back in, and another couple of cool pets to hang with for a couple of months. And another opportunity to learn a bunch of stuff. This particular Patzcuaro ‘hood is very near to the Basilica of Our Lady of Health or, en Español, the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Salud.

Built by Michoacan’s first bishop, Don Vasco de Quiroga (whose remains are said to be entombed here), in the 16th century, it continues to attract pilgrims from all over the country who come to pray to the Virgin for the health of their ailing loved ones. You can read more about it here, but briefly, the Basilica is a popular place. Over the summer, dozens of tour buses line our street, idling, churning and belching for hours after they disgorge hundreds of passengers who come to pray to the Lady, pick up a tchotchke and a churro from the vendors staked out on the grounds, then climb back aboard and return whence they came, armed with the key to health, a straw Jesus and testimonial T-shirt.

Lady of Health Basilica, popular with pilgrims.

On Sundays and special occasions, the church bells chime and cohetes (“rockets”) — those booming firecrackers peculiar to Mexico — jolt us (and the pets) out of our skin from dawn to dark.

This house is one of the few on the block featuring a couple of stairs up to the door, so we’ll often return from our dog walks to people — old people, young people, toddlers — resting on the stone stoop. One day we had to literally step over a half-dozen older indigenous ladies who had a full picnic laid out, complete with tortillas, beans and soup, spanning our stairs to the tree across the sidewalk.

Down this bustling street each morning we walk Concha, the gorgeous, 13-year-old thick-furred rescue, named either for a seashell, the popular Mexican sweet bread, or a vagina —that last one a translation more common in other Latin American countries. Imagine the looks we’d get in Puerto Rico, Chile or Argentina if we ran down the street hollering “Come, Concha!”

Anyhoo, our morning walk takes us past the carniceria (butcher), with his loops of chorizo hanging above slabs of beef and chops; around the menudo man’s huge metal vat brimming with the traditional Mexican soup of tripe (not the ‘70s Puerto Rican boy band) in a bright red broth of chili peppers, hominy beans, limes and onion. Every morning he greets Concha by name, since she was a freeloading patron back when she was a free-ranging dog. Now that she’s part of a pack, she barely gives him a backward glance, much to his feigned offense as he shakes his head sadly and mutters, “Ella ya no me conoce” (she doesn’t know me anymore).

Concha taking a turn around the plaza.

Farther along, we exchange buenas dias with the juice lady, whirring up a variety of fruit drinks from a simple table next to the woods man, who sits and carves masks, trays and frames. At the end of the street, we plug our noses as we pass the guy deep-frying pigs’ ears, skirt the pan man who sells all manner of buns and pastries from a large straw platter (including the popular “concha”, a sweet roll topped with a cookie crust shaped like a seashell, backstory here), and head a block down the hill to Plaza Vasco de Quiroga (after the same founding bishop now in the Basilica), more simply called Plaza Grande (to distinguish it from a smaller square, called Plaza Chica or, more formally, Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra, after a local heroine of independence).

Here Concha will snuffle around, make her marks, complete the loop around the square, one of the most beautiful in all of Mexico, before heading back home. On the return, we’ll often take the opposite side of the street, where we pass one of the more unusual operations in all of Mexico: a convent of nuns raising endangered salamanders. Found only in Lake Patzcuaro, these slithery little creatures, known locally as achoques, were so abundant in the 1970s that the local market sold them in stacks (taste like chicken?). But the gradual shrinking and polluting of the lake put them in danger of extinction. Until the solemn sisters decided to resurrect them. Not entirely for altruistic reasons, however: the nuns make a kind of holy cough syrup out of the salamanders which they sell to the sore-throated faithful. Gulp. This odd little operation right across the street from us was interesting enough to land a feature last July in the New York Times.

Fish without fear — before Concha’s tongue.

Back home, Concha will hop up on the fountain, which she regards as her own massive water bowl, freak out the fish with her long pink tongue (which must look the size of a giraffe’s magnified by the water), slurp some water, eat a treat, then find a place in the sun to snooze away the rest of the morning.

For an independent roamer (her owners let her out by herself, a custom we nervously resisted), Concha is the best leashed dog we’ve ever walked — no pulling, dragging or dawdling — just a slight tug and she responds like a finely tuned thoroughbred. A real delight to walk.

Did I hear comida?

Around 11 a.m., she’ll shuffle into our casita, with an awkward look on her face that says, “The cat sent me. He wants to know when lunch is.” To which we’ll respond, “Tell him, as usual, he’s two hours early.” Concha will then skulk out to face the wrath of The Cat.

“The Cat”, in this case, is Chewy, a 13-year-old faded orange, bent-tailed tabby who, like all cats, rules the roost. His name, normally spelled the Spanish way of Chuy, a nickname for those called Jesus, accurately reflects his life’s mission: to chew. (Interestingly, the female version of Chuy, spelled Chuey, is Concha!) He’s constantly hungry, despite a four-times-a-day feeding sked. We were instructed to call “comida!” (meaning food) at meal times, which would get them both running. And it worked, but one day Concha got so excited she raced up the walkway so fast she slid on the tiles and slammed broadside into a table. She scrambled to her feet, unhurt except for her dignity, and pretended she’d meant to do that. From that point on, however, the feeding ritual was conducted in a much more calm manner.

Chewy ready to chew.

Chewy is served multiple small meals a day because he’s a big-time barfer. We would high-five if he went more than a week without upchucking his breakkie, which mainly consists of raw chicken balls (insert eye-rolling joke here about chickens having balls), no dry food, which he can’t tolerate. To break up the monotony, we’d feed him bits of green bean and broccoli (which the dog would spit out), rice, salmon, tuna, plain unsweetened yogurt (for probiotics), and the odd blob of Concha’s tinned food. And bread.

I was reminded cats enjoy a nice slice after I’d absent-mindedly left a loaf on the counter overnight. We awoke to chewed-through plastic and bits of bread all over the floor. We kept it under lock and key from that point on, but offered him the occasional bite, which vets say is OK (we thought it might blot up his bile). Apart from a yen for wheat, we were most surprised this rickety old cat could haul himself up onto the counter at all. He would first have to claw himself up onto the kitchen stools (scratching the fine brown leather in the process), heave himself onto the counter, ferret through the bread bowl to nose out the loaf, and proceed to chew through the plastic to get at the gold. But successive mornings we noted skewed place mats, indicating he’d gone on a fruitless midnight bread crawl.

Reclining in the afternoon sun.

And bread wasn’t the only foodstuff he helped himself to. One day, I decided to boil his balls (chicken balls) because he occasionally spewed his raw concoction and I feared for salmonella contamination. As they were cooling in the pot, I went off to do some work. Big mistake. Noontime came and went without Concha being sent in to enquire about the luncheon hour. I discovered the cat sprawled on the carpet, legs in the air, a good grooming fully under way between burps. Frowning, I suddenly remembered the chicken on the stove. Sure enough, the pot contained one less ball. The bugger had decided not to wait for meal time and served himself a chicken ball from the stove! (And, as it turned out, cooked chicken did not solve the puking problem, which is a complex condition with causes ranging from the benign to the serious.)

Are you sure it’s not lunchtime? Check again.

At first aloof as a, well, cat, Chewy gradually became more and more affectionate, first entering the same room as us, then jumping up to the same couch as us, then edging closer, then leaning on our legs, then flat-out snuggling between us. He even snoozed on our bed (and sometimes under the covers) during the day. At night, the four of us cozied up together in front of a fire in the TV room. Our first full summer in Patzcuaro, we discovered the daily clouds and rain make for chilly evenings. Luckily this house has five fireplaces to keep us toasty. Until, that is, 9 p.m. rolls around and Chewy pops his head out from under the covers to check that preparations are under way for his final feeding. Two hours early.

 

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Black Olive in a Paisley Park

Last week we wrote about the downside of pet-sitting, but, thankfully, there’s always an upside to uplift us from the depths of the doldrums. This summer, that boost came in the form of three new pets we cared for in Patzcuaro: Olive, Paisley and Smudge.

Olive competes with Smudge for lap time.

Olive is a miniature rat terrier/Chihuahua cross, but more obviously a tiny, vibrating bundle of nervous energy. Standing about a foot tall and weighing in at roughly eight pounds after supper, Olive was rescued by her parents, Chuck and David, from her early life confined to the insides of a very small purse — a benign form of torture for a breed that, according to the American Kennel Club, “is a smoothly muscled exterminator constructed for the efficient movement required for a long day’s work.” And that work, for which they were named, is ratting. Prized workers on farms, these diminutive rodent-killing machines were kept to guard grain from infestation, ensuring supplies would last through the winters.

Named for the black dot on her back, Olive the ratter keeps her digs pest-free.

Olive, named for the round black dot on her back, is understandably more attached to men, given her history with handbags. So she took to Rick (“velcroed” would be a more apt description) easier than to me, clinging to his lap whenever he sat down, while eyeing me with suspicion, like I would morph into a pocketbook-toting Cruella de Ville at any second. The lap obsession is a trait of the Chihuahua, which traces its roots to the Mexican state and is often described, because of its size and portability, as a “purse dog” (which really shouldn’t be taken literally, at least not for extended periods of confinement). The pedigree is very affectionate and kid-friendly, and loves to cuddle up in a comfy lap.

A skeleton when she was rescued, Paisley is healthy, happy and safe in her new home.

Both breeds, however, can display a hair-trigger excitability, and the combo was especially on display when suiting up Olive for a walk. She would whip and weave in and around our feet like the scurrying rodents she was bred to hunt as we tried to leash her, keeping us constantly (and literally) on our toes so as not to step on her. She could become so wired, in fact, that Chuck and Dave left us some tranquilizers to give her if she got out of hand. We didn’t have to use them, luckily, relying instead on the naturally calming, energy-draining effects of a good, brisk walk.

Remembering life on the street?

Paisley, an all-beige Mexican mutt whose ironic name reflects not her bland coat but perhaps her multi-patterned personality, is another rescue, this one in the extreme. When Chuck and Dave found her on the street, she was a skeleton draped with mangy fur, teats hanging to the ground. They never knew what became of her pups, but if they had not taken her in when they did, we would not be writing about her today. She’s one of those rescues who is acutely aware of her good luck, regularly displaying her gratitude through slobbery kisses and snuggles.

Then there’s Smudge, the fluffy black-and-white cat, named for the black smear on her chops. She’s fearless around the dogs (in fact, they often fear her), possibly because she very well may think she is one. Independent, but affectionate on her own terms, Smudge also spent much of her life on the street before wandering through the gate and deciding to stay. She would often compete with Olive for laps, and surprised herself to learn she liked to play, particularly with string, which she’d leap and dash after like it was a snake.

Smudge discovers she loves to play!

We spent a month with this entertaining menagerie, taking daily walks through a quiet, leafy neighbourhood to a patch of grass that could reasonably be considered a small urban park, where Olive, responding to her primal instincts, would attempt to scramble down a brambly embankment to rout out rats, always coming up empty.

Meanwhile, Paisley would prance along the sidewalks, ignoring the frenzied barks from behind tall gates, secure in the safety of her pack.

And that’s how they all ended their days, these lovable discarded misfits: alive and secure in a safe haven provided by, once again, humans with big hearts.

 

Au Revoir, Pierre

Click on the photo above (turn up the volume) to see a slideshow of the beautiful boy.

One of the reasons we got into pet-sitting was because we love animals. We looked forward to caring for them, playing with them, learning about them, bonding with them, loving them. What we couldn’t foresee was that that love would come with a hefty price tag: the deep sorrow we would feel when those animals died.

As painful as it is for the parents of these pets, it is a profound hurt for us as well. To date, more than 12 cats and dogs we have known and loved have passed away, each one leaving us heartbroken. The latest is a beautiful boy named Pierre, with whom we’ve spent the last five Christmases. A big bruiser of a cat, Monsieur Pierre seemed invincible, just like his housemate Bill, who passed away in December 2014. Both solid, strong, seemingly healthy felines we thought we’d be caring for forever. But, of course, there is no such thing as forever. Pierre succumbed to organ failure yesterday, and, once again, we struggle with the sorrow of loss. But without love, there would be no sorrow. So we’ll continue to care for pets, to play with them, bond with them, love them — and pay that cruel price tag. But we will hold tight to the memories we made, beautiful boy, even if, without you to snuggle by the fireside, this noel will be a lot less joyeux.

Au revoir, Pierre.

About Us

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We are a semi-retired married couple based in the Greater Vancouver area. We’re self-employed in the publishing industry and, with access to wi-fi, can work from anywhere. We fell into house- and pet-sitting by accident, when, in 2009, we helped out neighbours who were uncomfortable leaving their home alone. These neighbours wintered in Mexico each year, which got us to thinking, there must be others out there just like them. Turns out, there are. We discovered pet-sitting sites such as Housecarers, Trusted Housesitters, and HouseSitMexico, signed on and, dozens of sits later, we’ve been pet-sitting ever since. Read the References section to see what homeowners have said about us — every single one has asked us back, a testimonial in itself.

During our 35 years of marriage, we’ve traveled to roughly 60 countries on six continents, so we’re comfortable in just about any cultural setting. We’re all the things you’d expect (and demand) in people to whom you entrust your home and pets: reliable, dependable, honest, trustworthy, resourceful, conscientious, non-smoking, clean and tidy. We also love animals, and understand the special relationship you share with your pets. We tend to click immediately with dogs and cats and have bonded with many, even after short pet-sits. They are our top priority when they are in our care; you can rest assured they will be very well looked after in your absence.

Rick also loves to photograph the pets, and will send as many pictures as you like to reassure you they are happy and healthy while you enjoy your well-deserved time away. We are also very fit and active, so you know your dog will get all the activity s/he needs, and your kitty the playtime s/he deems appropriate (after all, dogs have owners, cats have staff!).

A Bit of Background…

The genesis of this site was unleashed in 2010 during our dog days in Mexico, when we cared for a menagerie of ex-pats’ pets in four different pueblos. Anyone who has ever met a dog or cat knows how inadvertently entertaining they can be. So I started chronicling their antics in a blog, which later bred into a book, Adventures in Pet-Sitting (available on Amazon and Smashwords). After our stint as critter sitters down south, we returned home to continue caring for cats and dogs in our native British Columbia. Like restless dogs, we don’t sit still for long, though. We hope to range far and wide and snuffle out animal houses in need of our services.

Pet-sitting is not all fun and games, however. Well, it mostly is, but occasionally a serious situation will arise. Like the time one of the dogs we cared for, a ferocious-looking beast who normally was very mild-mannered, suddenly snapped his leash and, fangs bared, charged after a smaller dog (disaster was averted; the only injuries incurred were paws and pride). Or the time a boa constrictor stalked a kitten in our care (again, disaster averted — narrowly). Or, when a dog or cat is so old that they come with a host of health issues, from feline AIDS to allergies that manifest in stinky scratch-athons to full-blown heart failure or cancer.

Since we care for the pets, we care for the conditions. Thus, we’ve learned a lot about AIDS, allergies, skin ailments, collapsing trachea, dysplasia, heart issues and cancer, and have experience caring for such pets in collaboration with a variety of veterinarians, both in BC and Mexico.

Thanks for stopping by. Perhaps we’ll care for your own four-legged baby!

Fur-ever yours,

Robin and Rick,

RobinandRick@yahoo.ca

Click here to find out how it all started with our first blogs – MexicoMomentos

Hoppin’ Along

Kahlua back at her happiest place, testing out her three legs on the sand.

“Obstacles don’t block the path, they are the path”, as the saying goes. And Kahlua has blazed a path for herself with three doggedly determined legs. Wobbly sometimes, weak often, but undeniably determined. We could all take a lesson about overcoming adversity from dogs. They don’t brood or mope, they carry on. Sometimes with less than before, but onward all the same.

“How did you know? Thank you so much, Uncle Rick!”

 

Kahlua would often forget she’s now a tripawd and barreled out the door, only to be surprised she couldn’t get where she wanted to go fast enough. And where she wanted to go, her happiest place on earth, is the beach. We promised her once she got some strength in her three remaining legs that we’d let her feel the sand between her 12 toes. Before we left her and San Pancho this summer, we made good on that promise many times. One look at her face, golden from the setting sun, and the joy was obvious.

Promise kept: sand between her 12 toes. Click on the photo above for a slideshow of more photos of Kahlua’s days at the beach.

 

 

Her footprints in the sand aren’t the same, but the imprint is indelible. Kahlua was here.

 

Surviving to Thriving: An Update

After Kimberly took the tiny Sobreviviente (Vivi) under her wing last month, I missed that little furball every day. So did Kahlua. Every time we walked out the front door, she nosed through the ferns, looking for her. Every time we walked past the garbage bin, my eyes rested on the spot we first noticed what we thought was a rat. But it was a scruffy little kitten, scratching and biting through the trash bags for rotting food to fill a baby belly that should only have contained mama’s milk. I still shudder to think what would have become of her had Kimberly not opened her heart and home to the little ragamuffin.

 

I wanted so badly to see her again, but I wanted enough time to pass for her to get used to her new home and, frankly, for me to let go emotionally. So I waited. And then, finally, after about a month, I saw her again. Turns out, not only has this wee warrior survived, she’s thrived. And not only has she gotten used to her new home, she’s taken it over. Kimberly says Vivi rules the roost. The rest of the home’s menagerie — two big dogs, an aloof older cat and a benevolent bunny — not only welcomed her unconditionally, they’ve fallen in love with her. We watched as one of the dogs trotted over and licked her, his tongue wiping her entire face and nearly knocking her over. She’s even infused the senior cat with new life and the two actually play together.

I was so excited to see her again, to see her happy, healthy and fitting in so well, that I got on my knees and called her to me. But she ran away. This once frightened, helpless creature who had tentatively made her way to me, nuzzling my legs and somersaulting over my feet, gratefully devouring the food I brought to her, now ran from me like I was an ogre. I choked up. I eventually held her, but she didn’t know me. I set her down among her new mismatched pack, and left her. I’ve never been so sad or so happy to not be needed.