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Dry season’s final days: As progress topples nature, bits of mountain wilderness come down to visit us in the night

(This is a rerun of a column first published June 10, 1989.)

The swan song of nature’s once-awesome predominance in our lives seems to grow fainter each day. Life drains from Lake Chapala before our eyes as condominiums push up the slopes above our heads, stripping all that’s living from the mountainsides.

Still, hidden among the most inaccessible stiff-sided ridges surrounding the Chapala basin, bits of wilderness obstinately exist, fighting the wave of sentimental indulgences, inventive deal-making and resourceful over-reach that goes under the name of progress. One of these bits of wilderness visited our house in the last days of May, rank, fierce and mysterious.

At around three o’clock in the morning — one estimates by the dryness of the blood at 6:30 a.m. — an animal looking for water stalked into the mountainside garden of our house at the western end of Lake Chapala. The velador, who is also a fisherman, was already up and off to repair an oar. Four dogs, one of which just had pups, greeted the intruder.

“It came down to drink,” Generao (Naro) Salazar, the velador, told me, “and when the pups came out, probably went after them.”

Dos, the blue Great Dane and a vigilant, sometimes snappish mother, had evidently protected her pups well. “Pues, see here where they fought in the malbas” he pointed to a wrecked flower bed. “They fell down this wall here,” he gestured to crushed rose plants. “Here is where I found the huella (paw print) and see the blood on that sabila (aloe plant).” The paw print of any fair sized wild animal, stimulating wariness and wonder, is always awesome, a signature of that other condition of life that few of us now will ever know well. This one was the size of a beer mug, the print of the three digits as long as the fingers of Naro’s hand. “See how long they are,” he said, putting his brown fingers beside the print. “I thought at first it was a chango (monkey).”

Then he pointed to splotches on the lawn. “They fought there, and there was much blood over there and there behind the house by the casita de perros and the lavadero.”

Much of the blood came from the Great Dane, whose muzzle was slashed open by three deep, thin slashes, and who had other, smaller wounds about her face neck and shoulders. The German shepherd was limping badly from a bite clear through her back-left foot. She’s thick-furred so there were no small wounds around her neck or shoulders, though she was missing some hair and was decidedly subdued.

Unfortunately, these dogs have too long a history of being domesticated, emasculated by human pampering. They’ve been coddled so long that it’s in their genes. Of course, that’s not their fault. The human owners of their ancestors long ago made them into “pets”: a cross between a plaything and a substitute child. This has pitifully diminished their animality — any true wilderness was parsed out as they were bred down to tearoom standards. They’re now creatures, like cows, that can no longer take care of themselves in a natural environment. All rough-edged survival instincts have been intentionally eliminated during a carefully supervised breeding process, just as the animals had been purposefully shorn of their original wildness. A normal ownerless Mexican street dog is better able to care for itself than any pet owned by a middle-class family. And though my wife and I let these animals run free on a good portion of the mountainside, we have no illusions that they are cunning or strong or “dogged” enough to stay alive without human doting. The wolf in their soul is long gone. This is a tragic loss that makes dogs, in the end, not carnivores, but pathetic sports, Disneyland cartoon characters, with tongues lolling and tails wagging, trying to euchre up an unearned meal from masters or mistresses who mistake these one-time predators for a missing part of their souls.

Both Naro and the maid, Epifania, half believed the intruder was an osito — a small bear. “Si, people have seen them up there, still,” Naro said, pointing to the high, sharp-sided mountain that rears behind our house. “Ositos and leones (mountain lions or, possibly, wildcats) live up there where the mountain is muy feo (literally, very ugly, but meaning where it’s tough to climb, inaccessible). “There are many such places where nobody can get to, Señor, not even by climbing down on a rope.” Local folklore tells of bandits and murders who’ve hidden out up among those high remote peaks, where one can see large caves tucked back under daunting rocky palisades.

What is up there?,I wonder, staring with Epifania and Genaro at the tawny spine above us. Whatever remnants of the wilderness that may still be surviving among those buttes, I doubted a bear of any kind had invaded our garden and mauled the dogs. A bear would have scraped off a lot of hide with a single swipe of a paw.

Tejon?” I suggested to Naro, who blinked at the ground, then nodded reluctantly.

“It’s possible.”

“But a very big one,” said Epifania, still impressed by all the blood and the size of the paw print. Badgers are savage, determined fighters that tend never to give up, especially if they’re cornered. Weighing up to 30 pounds, they’re a member of the weasel family — their relatives include martens, skunks and otters, all good fighters when at bay — that will take on anything that is bent on giving them trouble, including grizzly bears. But Naro was reluctant to accept such a relatively small, common animal as the intruder.

He had found a tuft of fine dark hair, much softer than a German shepherd’s, near a blot of blood by the well. “Looks like osito,” he told me with an ungiving expression. Both he and Epifania wanted the visiting night creature to have been a significant representative of the wilderness, a sizeable one, an osito, even though Epifania seemed less determined, more ready to acknowledge her doubts. Naro staunchly tried not to show any trace of doubt, though it was apparent he knew a bear of any size probably would have torn open at least one of the dogs.

The sun got hot and Epifania shook her head. “Quien sabe,” she said and went into the shade of the terraza to mop.

“Pues,” said Naro, “tonight I’ll wait outside with the escopeta (shotgun). Maybe whatever it is,” he said exasperatedly, “tejon or osito, will be back for another drink.”

He will have a 12-gage pump loaded with shells packed with double ought shot. I want to tell him to leave it be, to let this part of the wilderness come and drink unmolested. But the dogs — also a remnant, however peculiarly transformed, of the wilderness — won’t let it. And there are the pups, irrepressible, sweet-smelling and yapping. They all will give cry, at once a warning and an enticement. For whatever comes down to quench its thirst will be hungry, too.

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