Sunday, June 27, 2010

Total Shock

When I started this blog, I promised myself that I would only write positive stories. There is so much negativity in the US news these days about Mexico and Mexicans that I want in my own small way to offset that negativity and tell the world that México is a fascinating country with wonderful people. In addition to being positive, I feel an obligation to report truthfully what I see and experience. So far there has been no conflict between these two commitments to myself.

And then last Monday came along. I don’t know what to do with this event – I don’t understand it and am still trying to make sense of it.

Lynn and Dan W. and I decided to go to Bacachi, a recreational area right outside Banámichi with warm springs. Actually, the springs are pleasantly cool and refreshing on these 107° days. So we tootled over there, driving along the dirt road past green fields and cattle grazing on the stubble of the brown fields. The car strained up the hill and soon the picnic ramadas came into view, and then the lovely blue swimming pools.

The pools are in a tree-shaded canyon, and the ejido (collective land ownership) that owns the springs has added shade cloth over the pools and a little snack bar nearby. It’s very rustic, but all in all very civilized.

We stripped down to our bathing suits, and I was just about to step into the beautiful clear water when someone, Dan W. I think, said: “Look at the toads!”

I glanced into the shallow end and there were two toads mating. The beige female was as big as a cantaloupe, and the darker male was much smaller, riding on her back. The female was alert and looked vaguely irritated, but the male seemed in a trance his eyes half closed. They were fine specimens of toadiness. I tried to take a photo, but as I approached, the female rapidly swam away with remarkable agility, carrying the extra weight of the male along with her. I had no idea these guys were such good swimmers and could stay underwater so long.

These were not just ordinary toads, but were Bufo alvarius (Sonoran Desert Toads) that I described in one of my earliest blog posts. It is close enough to the rainy season that these guys are starting to be out and about. These are the toads where (some) people “milk” the glands, dry the secretions and smoke the result. The smoke is supposed to give you a trip into “outer space.” I don’t know about this first-hand – I find the whole idea beyond revolting. My revulsion has generalized to the toads themselves. My skin crawls to look at them, and the thought of touching them, or getting in the water with them…. Well… never happen!!

Just as we were standing there contemplating the state of affairs, one of the caretakers from the ejido came along with a net. We all pointed and said at once: “Sapos! (Toads!)” Well, he gots the point and began chasing them around the pool with the net -  a home-made affair made with a tree branch, some wire and some of the same shade cloth that is overhead.

The chase went on for quite some time – the toads were faster and more adept in the water than this man was. Finally he managed to corner them and he scooped them up.

I expected him to put them on the ground so they could go on their merry ways. Instead, he raised the pole with the net directly overhead and used the leverage it provided to fling the toads with great force across the pool and onto the ground with a whump!

I stood there in shock. The toads separated in mid-air and landed on their backs. They didn’t move. At the very least they had to be unconscious. Stretched out like that with their white bellies upward in the sky, I was sure they were dead. “Son muertos,” I said accusingly. Defensive, the caretaker says, “¡No!” and gives the big one a poke with his stick. Its legs began flailing uselessly, and it took a minute or so for it to regain the coordination to turn itself back over. Eventually it hopped away, covered with dirt, to nurse its toady concussion. The male soon righted himself as well and hopped back towards the water in the pool. The caretaker used the net and flipped it down the hill.

I was horrified. As much as I am grossed-out by the toads, I do not wish them harm as individuals, or as a species. As soon as the two in question hit the ground I had projected myself into their bodies and was cringing at their pain. My bottom line is that they are conscious creations just as we humans are, and deserve to be treated with respect.

At least this is what my values and my culture tell me. But I have experienced education and other advantages that fate has not awarded the ejido caretaker. I could explain this event by saying that it was the misguided action of one ignorant individual.

However, his culture as a whole is one that publicly sponsors bullfighting, and less publicly, cock fighting and sometimes even dog fighting. Animal cruelty laws are few in México and apparently the ones that exist are not often enforced. It seems to me in general that in México there is not the same awareness that we state-siders have of animal suffering.

So I must question why this is. It is hard for me to accept that this is simply a case of cultural relativism. I will agree, though, that with animal psychics, and holistic veterinarians, and PETA, we in the US may have gone a bit too gaga over our animals. On the flip side, though, the infliction of gratuitous pain in the name of culture seems just plain wrong to me.

I have observed other Mexicans, more educated and privileged than this ejido man, while not volitionally harming animals, being unconscious of their suffering. A young couple we know who are highly educated and part of the top level of society in Banámichi have a desert tortoise and a cat as pets. We watched their young child man-handle the “tortuga,” dropping it and leaving it upside down. Nothing was said to her about this except by another visiting American. Their cat had an injured foot, and was obviously in pain, walking with difficulty. I mentioned it, and the man, a rancher, dismissed my comment – “It’s nothing.” The cat is left to itself to get well or die.

Was this because these are practical ranchers in this part of the country? Perhaps they cannot afford to be sentimental about pet animals or seek veterinary care for them. Only horses and cattle can expect this privilege.

Does this indifference to suffering result from too much suffering as a culture? After all, The Aztecs engaged in ritual human sacrifice of their enemies, and there were the excesses of the Spanish Conquistadors and the Mexican Revolution. Nowadays there are the over-the-top murders of the Narcos.

In the end, I must conclude that I do not understand this aspect of México. I am uncomfortable with it and cannot condone it. Perhaps it is simply that each culture has its positives and negatives. Nothing is black and white. I must take off the rose-colored glasses through which I have been assessing México, and see her as she really is. She is still a fascinating country with wonderful people!


  1. I just read this to John June. We enjoyed being transported to Banamichi. Would love to experience that pool (minus the toads). I know what you mean about animal cruelty and the tolerance of abusing animals in a culture. Good post! I like the pictures too. Have you seen that movie out a few years back situated in Mexico City and about relationships of owners to to their dogs. It was: Amores Perros (2000) I think it is one of the best movies ever made. If you can withstand the violence to look through to the cultural overriding message.

  2. you have to realize that the feelings of the pain and sufferings of these animals and insects are in your own head.
    village people who grew up with seeing a lot of animal killings, and other gruesome reality are already adjusted to it.
    as you're not one of them, you are like a kid who is either to be shielded from these events, or you have to grow up.
    we all are extremely cruel to all species except us and even among us, we are very cruel until the law forbids us to harm each other.
    In my Sonora trip, I saw kids here killing big bugs and spiders by chasing them with office staplers.

    Are they cruel?
    Who are we to "judge" ?
    That's how it is there. Deal with it, and if you cannot handle, either become an activist or gettouttathere!

    -- pidus