Cutting Balls from Dogs

When I get back to La Manzinilla, the weather has turned. It’s raining daily, like it never does in the Dry. The bus drops me off at the turn-off and I hitch a lift into town in the back of a ute; by the time I get back to Jeanne and Brian and Glen’s place, I am soaked through. Warm rain, like a water heater running out of hot. Nobody’s home, so I towel off and wait under cover, and when they do come home, everyone’s very happy to see everyone else.

They hadn’t been there when I arrived, they explain, because they were volunteering at a pop-up dog (and cat) clinic in town. Twice a year the clinic happens, when volunteer vets are brought in to neuter or spay every dog and cat, factory style, owners can be convinced to bring in, and there are a lot of dogs and cats in and around La Manzinilla. I imagine a little vets office, with volunteering gringos sitting with a handful of subdued animals, maybe running flea combs through the animals’ fur until they wake up. When I go to volunteer the next day, however, I find that it’s a much bigger operation than that.

On the first day I volunteer, they chop the genitals out of almost seventy animals. The entire town hall has been commandeered for the operation, a space about the size of a school gym. To the right, there are a line of those carry cages you take pets to the vet in – all sizes, an enforced queue of dogs and cats waiting to go in. When cage and animal reach the front of the line, they are stuck with a needle of general anaesthetic, then carefully caught and spread out on the operating table when they fall fully under. The are laid on their back, four legs bound to each corner of the table, belly and genitals to the air.

The vets do it all for free. The clinic is five days, starting from around 8 in the morning until often more than 12 hours later. There are three of them, and the work is assembly line. They work in a separate room at the end of the hall, but the two spaces are connected by windows, so I can stand and watch if I want as a vet slices into the sac around a dog’s testicle, then presses at the sides until out pop the two white balls, one by one. I feel sick but it’s very, very hard to stop watching.

The next bit is where we come in. The left side of the hall is the recovery area and, still in the grips of the anaesthetic, the dogs are carried in by their legs, tongues lolling, and laid down on towels and mats on the floor. The cats are placed on tables closer to the door. I was right about the flea combs, though with the sheer magnitude of fleas present, they are rendered largely ineffective. And then there’s the mange, the ticks burrowed into ears, the clumps of missing fur, the ribs pushing out at the sides. This is the bit when you realise why this clinic happens. And there aren’t the packs of dogs roaming the streets like there used to be, either, I’m told.

So it’s our job to ease the animals back to consciousness, to catch whatever fleas we can before they get there, to check their ears and between their toes for ticks, and to feed them the bright pink liquid worming medicine when they start to come to. The dogs take half-an-hour or so to rouse, the cats take three. The cats and the smaller dogs, at risk of losing body heat, get those little rice packs you warm up in the microwave. The cats have crosses of tape over their eyes – cartoon for dead – because the anaesthetic makes them especially sensitive to light.

Sometimes the job is cradling a kitten in a towel, or returning a litter of puppies to their comatose mother. Sometimes it’s mopping up extra shit and blood that happens to slip out. Sometimes it’s convincing a confused and frightened dog in a cage to stop, please stop, bloody barking. By the end of the day, it feels very much as though you yourself are irrevocably covered in fleas.

One Mexican farmer drives around to all the farms in his area, picks up his neighbours’ dogs, and brings them all in at once – ten or thirteen of them, all tied up in the back of his ute. A couple of extraordinarily cute kittens, freshly de-sexed, play in a cage beneath a ‘Free to Good Home’ sign. In the back of one ute, a freshly neutered male tries his best to mount a freshly spayed female, as yet unaware of the change that has been inflicted. It rains, it stops raining, it rains again. I fall in love with cute animal after cute animal and, back at the house, finally book my flight to Arizona.


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