Wednesday 27 November 2013

The Pocket Podenco from the Perrera - Leo's Story (updated 15.05.14 tocelebrate his first birthday)

Leo - only six months old and already he has captured so very many hearts

It's mid May in southern Spain. The first summer tourists are enjoying the beaches, the bars and restaurants, the perfect blue sky and the warm sun on their skin. This, is paradise. 

A few kilometres inland, an emaciated and neglected podenca lies under the very same blue sky, the very same warm sun. She's on a chain, a short chain. She needs to drink but the bowl is empty, not that she can reach it. She's hungry. It's been a while since the master came out and threw them some dry bread. She's uncomfortable. She has pain inside. Is it from where the master kicked her yesterday, or is it something else? The pain increases. She tries to shift position, to lie on her side. This chain, if only it were a little longer. She lays panting, unable to move more than a few inches. The pain comes again, swelling like a wave. It's too warm, no shade, no water, no food, no help. She's too tired, too hungry, too thirsty, too weak but she knows she must survive. Soon she will bring life into the world. Soon. Very soon. She summons her strength, the little she has left, and on that sunny afternoon in May, her babies are born.

A few kilometres away, on the beaches, in the bars and in the restaurants, the fun, continues.

It's now mid August. There are thousands of tourists basking in the scorching summer sun in the paradise that is southern Spain. It's beautiful, nothing bad could ever happen here, right?

On a street, a short distance away, there is a building. Within the grounds, four podenco puppies lie in the sun. Thankfully, they are all too young to even sense that this small pen with the concrete floor where they spend their days behind bars, might very well be the last place they will ever see. This is the local perrera, the killing station. Their days in the sun, are numbered. Their days in this world, are numbered. This is death row and they are all, on the kill list. They are oblivious to their fate. Thankfully.

It is estimated that upward of 50,000, yes fifty thousand, podencos will be abandoned, killed or turned in to a perrera each year. That's 137 podencos a day. One hundred and thirty seven unwanted podencos, disposed of like rubbish. Every. Single. Day. Against the backdrop of that statistic, what chance do these puppies on death row have? How likely is it that they will be saved? Sadly, it's not very likely at all.

The Fab Four in the Perrera

But wait, they have been spotted. Someone has seen these beautiful babies. Someone wants to save them. Dare we hope for a miracle? A call goes out on Facebook, it's urgent, they have a kill date and it's just around the corner. Can they be saved, please Lord let them be saved! Another appeal, another posting, hundreds of people sharing these baby examples of podenco perfection. They are given a stay of execution and interest surges, money is raised. They are safe.

In another kennel, just feet away, sits another little pup. Waiting to be saved. Waiting to be killed. Which will be his fate? Someone spots him but the money that has been raised isn't enough to save him too. There is only enough money to save the other four. What now? Another appeal goes out and an angel of mercy steps up. She will pay the price on his head. She will save his life. 

What no-one knows, is that these beautiful puppies are the precious offspring of that fated podenca who lay chained and panting in the mid May sun. What became of that poor podenco mother we can only guess. 

All five pups go into temporary foster care. They are safe.

Leo on his way to safety. Scared, but free.

A few days later they are on their way to Alicante. To Beverley Farmer Podencos. What irony. Transported from the perrera and certain death, to a genuine podenco paradise in a matter of days. 

And that, dear reader, is where I became a part of this story. I had been busy for a while, spending less time on Facebook, concentrating instead, on writing my book. One afternoon, taking a break, I logged on to see what was new. Almost immediately, a new post popped up. And there he was. Sky, as he was called back then. One look at his dark eyes and I was lost. This 4kg, 30cm high, pocket podenco puppy stole my heart in a millisecond. Resistance was futile. 

The Pocket Podenco - who wouldn't fall in love with this face, these eyes?

I had not, even remotely, been considering a third dog. Nala, Rico and I had a very peaceful life. We had moved into the big apartment in the same house, I was writing furiously, lost in my own world. On paper, adopting this little guy was crazy. My peace would be shattered, my writing would be disturbed, my life would be turned upside down. I messaged Beverley Farmer. For two days I went back and forth in my head. It might well be madness but in truth it was only ever about how, not if. I had made the decision the instant those dark eyes stole my heart. It was the only decision possible. He would be mine.

Eight long weeks I waited for him. He was ready to travel but I couldn't take him straight away. I had commitments, it was impossible. Bev sent me photos, anecdotes, told me how he'd grown. I devoured every detail, every morsel of information and I couldn't stop looking at his pictures. He was special, different, a little dog with the heart of a lion and a character to match. He would be called Leo, I decided, Little Leo the Lionheart.

In contrast, the eight weeks waiting for Leo were much calmer than those I spent waiting for Rico. It's true, I was writing and therefore preoccupied, but there was something else, too. Rico, I had actively sought out and my need to have him with me immediately, was feverish. Leo was different. Leo, had somehow, for some reason, found me. 

One night, about two weeks before Leo was due to come home, something happened. Something you might find strange, but to me, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. It was about 2am and I was in bed. Nala by my feet, and Rico curled round the front of me. I felt something stir, close to the small of my back. Half asleep I whispered, "It's ok, little Leo, go to sleep." The stirring ceased and I fell back to sleep. So you see, there was no need for feverish countdowns this time, little Leo was already with us.

During the final few days, my calmness vanished. I was counting down, of course I was. Suddenly, I couldn't wait to meet my little man, couldn't wait to hold his precious little podenco body in my arms. The day dawned and I was up with the lark, more than ready for the 600km drive to Ludwigshafen, Germany, where I would meet the transport coming up from Spain. It was Friday and because of the early drop off time the next morning, I actually left Austria before Leo left Spain. I would get to Ludwigshafen, have something nice to eat, drink a couple of beers and sleep in my more than big enough car, right there at the drop off point. I was taking no chances. Driving up the motorway in Germany, I got a call from the transporter. Leo wasn't on board and he couldn't wait for him any longer. Nooooooo ! I screamed at him. He laughed, told me to calm down and agreed to wait ten more minutes. I was worried. I know Bev, and I knew there must've been a damn good reason why she wasn't there. There was. An accident blocking a spanish country road with no possibility of getting past. At the same time I was screaming at the transport guy (forgive me, Klaus!), Bev was screaming at the farmer to clear the road. I called Klaus back and sure enough, ten minutes later Leo was on board and ready for the journey that would begin the next chapter of his young life. An emotional moment. Tears of relief in my eyes, in Germany. Tears born of a hundred different emotions, in Bev's eyes, in Spain. He was on his way.

It was a hellish night, as I knew it would be. I tried to sleep, I couldn't sleep. I tried to write, I couldn't write. Eventually I gave up and settled down to watch the lights of the ever increasing volume of cars on the road just outside my window. At 6.30am, I packed away my bed and walked to the petrol station up the road for a wash and some coffee. As I washed my face in the tiny washroom, I glanced up at my reflection. I looked as exhausted as I felt but I didn't care. Leo would be with me in less than an hour. I grinned at myself in the mirror, dried myself off and headed back to my car.

This was my second meeting with Klaus, the transport guy from Germany, and we'd been swapping emails the last few days as I was trying to help a rescue organisation in Spain to find a reliable transporter for their dogs re-homed into Germany. He called a greeting above the heads of the other 'new parents' and in unison they turned to look at me, clearly wondering how many dogs I already had. I smiled at them and in unison they turned back to the van where Klaus was now beginning to unload his precious cargo. When I picked up Rico, I had virtually bowled the others out of the way and Rico was first out of the van. Today, I recognised that same impatience in the others and I hung back. I could wait ten more minutes for my little man.

And then there he was. Beautiful. Tiny. Rather bewildered. I carried him back to my car and climbed in the back. I held him in my arms for what seemed like the longest time and felt his little body relax. He was asleep. I lay him on the sheepskin rug I had brought with me just for him, and began the long drive home.

Autumn can be the best season in Austria and despite it being the end of October, the weather was warm and sunny. When we got back that afternoon it was still 23 Celsius and after the necessary introductions to Nala, Rico and their friend, big Oscar the weimaraner, my friends and I sat in the sun with a beer and watched them get acquainted. You know your own dog and my predictions of how they would each react to the new kid were spot on. Nala loved him on sight, a playmate. She was delighted. They ran round and round, wonderful to see. Oscar is a laid back kinda guy and welcomed the little pipsqueak, who just about came up to his knees, with a sniff and a typical Oscar shimmy. Rico, sensing this was more than just a visitor, wanted nothing to do with him. Nothing whatsoever.  I wasn't worried and I understood why. After almost five years of being deprived of love and attention, he'd had nothing but, for the last six months. He'd found his own slice of paradise and now he had to share it.  Poor Rico. 

We went home and the little guy ran in as if he'd lived here all his life. He spotted a tennis ball and immediately began to play. He picked it up, threw it in the air, pounced on it as it landed, did a lap of the room and threw it in the air again. A wonderful sight. I flopped on the sofa and watched him play. Nala joined in and after ten crazy, fun filled minutes he hopped up onto the sofa beside me and fell asleep with his head on my lap. I stroked his little head and as I looked down at him and thought about how close he'd come to being killed in the perrera, the tears finally fell. I made a pledge there and then that I would do whatever it took to make sure no harm would ever befall this little man and that he would have a lifetime of nothing but love and freedom. 

Little did I know how soon my pledge would be put to the test.

We went to bed that night, just three of us. Nala, Leo and I. Rico, stayed in the living room, alone. I was sad but I know my big man and I knew he'd come round in time. It was up to me to show him that nothing had changed and that I didn't love him any less. He would be fine, I knew it. Leo, fell asleep in my arms.

The next dawned bright and sunny and off we went on one of our favourite walks. Out and about Rico was absolutely fine with Leo, no hostility, no problems. Another sign that it would all come right in time.


We quickly settled into a routine. I love my dogs dearly but managing three of them with no help means being pack leader, unless you want chaos to ensue. I don't. For the first three days, we got up, went outside, ate breakfast, went outside again, slept a while, played a while, went for a walk in the sun and came home. The dogs slept, I worked. When they woke up the cycle began again. Rico was still keeping his distance but Leo was settling in perfectly. On the whole, life was good.

On the fourth day, it rained. We went outside as normal and Leo seemed not to be fazed. But it was cold. A quick glance at the outdoor thermometer told me it was 8 Celsius. A quick glance at Leo tearing around the garden after Nala, told me this was not a problem as far as he was concerned. I smiled and gathered my gang for breakfast. By 11am it was still raining but they were getting restless, they needed their walk. I put Leo his pullover on and an old coat of Nala's, which was much too big but better than nothing, and off we went. He strutted his stuff, seemingly oblivious to the rain. Nala, I had to virtually drag, as always. She's a proper princess and hates rain with a passion, always has. Rico was fine. No coat, marching along. I'm Mister Rico, I'm a man. A coat - pah!

And then, from nowhere, it happened. Within the space of a few seconds Leo lifted his back leg, his little body arched sideways and, unable to walk, he fell over. I rushed to pick him up. His body was stiff and his head was turned upwards. I put him under my arm and ran home as fast as my legs could carry me. We had been out a mere 15 minutes. I took his coat off, wrapped him in a towel, put him on the warm rug and stroked him. His eyes never left mine and although my heart was beating at about twice its normal speed, I soothed him, stroked him, talked to him. I felt him relax and 5 minutes later he got up, shook himself and ran to fetch his ball. I rang my vet. Don't panic, she said. That alone, was enough to calm me down. My vet is also a very good friend and there is no one I would trust more with my dogs. We agreed that if it happened again I would take him straight to see her and that I should try to video it happening so she could establish if it had been some kind of fit. When I woke the next morning, I could already see the sun. It wouldn't happen today, I just knew. And I was right. A thirty minute walk, no problems at all.

Meanwhile, Rico was perfecting his grumpy old man routine. If Leo went within 2 metres of him, he growled. If Leo got on the sofa, he got off. At night he continued to sleep in the living room on his own. I didn't change anything. All three dogs got the same attention. I didn't treat Leo like a baby, I don't believe in that. He is a part of my pack but Nala is the alpha dog and Rico the next in the pecking order. It's tough being the new kid.

That afternoon, we had a breakthrough. I was hoovering in the living room and Leo was afraid. Instead of darting to the bedroom as he'd done on the last three occasions, he decided to take his chances and climb onto the back of the bed where Nala and Rico were already laying. I held my breath and watched out of the corner of my eye, waiting to see what Rico would do. He raised his head, looked around at the little guy, and relaxed again. Yes! I did a little dance with the hoover. We were winning! That evening, progress continued apace. I teach English and to make life easier, I had invited my students to come to me. I was sitting on the sofa with Rico by my side. Two students were sitting opposite and as I leaned forward to explain something to them, Leo hopped up and crept around the back of me. He was about a foot away from Rico. Rico looked up but didn't move and didn't growl. I carried on talking and I could feel Leo inching his way closer to Rico. Closer. Closer. Closer. I slowly looked around and there he was, my little man resting his head on the big guy's leg. What a sight. What a feeling. Indescribable. I was so proud of Rico, so proud of my boys. I brushed away a tear, stroked them both and carried on teaching the best I could.

He's at the back, but he's on!
And so it began

The next few days remained sunny, and even though the temperature was only around 10 Celsius, there was no further manifestation of the strange cramping attack. I was relieved but somehow I knew it wasn't a one off, it would be back as soon as the weather turned again. The very next day, it rained.
By now Leo's fleece and coat had arrived from Toni Collard in Spain. They were wonderful but I had the feeling that this issue wasn't going to be resolved by dressing him up, no matter how warm the coat, how numerous the layers. But, he needed a walk so I massaged his muscles and got him ready. I decided on a loop which I knew would take no more than 15 minutes. We left Nala at home. She was grateful. We set off, my two boys and I, trotting through the rain into the woods. He ran and sniffed and it was like any other walk. I began to think there might not be a problem today. Maybe it really was just a one off. I put my phone away, no need for the video function today. As I zipped up my pocket, bang, down he went. It was exactly the same as before. His body was twisted and his back legs were stiff. His head was turned, facing skyward. We were a mere 20m from the car. I scooped him up and we went straight to the vet. By the time we arrived, he was jumping around as if nothing had happened. My vet is the caring but unflappable type. We talked it through and, although I'd missed the chance to record it happening, my description indicated to her that this was unlikely to be a seizure of the epileptic kind. It was clearly caused by or triggered by the cold and the damp. When you consider that Leo was born at the beginning of summer, spent his very early life in a state of neglect and then in the perrera, was only used to warm or indeed hot sun, and even now was a mere slip of a thing weighing 7kg, there is no wonder his little body was finding the plummeting temperatures difficult to handle. We agreed to test him for mineral deficiency and monitor him closely. I left feeling concerned but not worried. It's a terrible thing to witness but I trust my friend, the vet. Somehow we would get to the bottom of it.

The blood results came back showing no clear signs of a deficiency which would be likely to cause such attacks. The next time it happened I was able to film it and my vet is now certain that we are dealing with an extreme form of cramp brought on by the cold. Our view is that he will continue to grow, he will continue to gain weight, his fur will become denser and he will, in time, adapt. In the meantime our walks are short but frequent and I do what I can to avoid an attack. If it does happen, we both take it in our stride and I know he'll be back on his feet and running within a few minutes. It's something we live with. It's not a threat to his life or his well being.  

The weather has changed, snow lies all around and the real alpine winter is definitely on its way. Leo is a lively little fun ball who runs and runs and jumps and plays and then runs some more. He runs tirelessly round the garden in the snow and straight back inside when he's had enough. He sleeps in my arms at night, sleeps with Nala when he naps and his charm has gradually worn down Rico's remaining grumpy old man act. They are like two podencos should be, brothers. He loves his walks, trots along with such pride and such delight and as long as I'm careful, we can all but avoid his cramps. 

I'm lucky. I'm a writer, a translator and a teacher and I work from home. I don't miss a second of the development of this wonderful little guy and his absorption into our family. That he has this problem is just one of those things. It only makes me love him more. I pledged to take care of him come what may, and that's what I'm doing. Winter is long here but it doesn't last forever. We will see this through, whatever it is, together.

How time flies. Today is a very special day for my little man. The pocket pod who began his life in such dire conditions, is now a year old. A year ago the odds were stacked against him even surviving, but now his life is full, happy, carefree. He has all he needs. And more.

The winter is over and it's now late spring. His peculiar cramping attacks vanished with the last of the snow and he's full of life, full of energy, full of wonder at the things the new season has brought with it. Birds, his favourite thing. Butterflies, beetles and flies, his favourite thing. The sweet new grass, his favourite thing. The lake, his favourite thing. Running free, the way these dogs should, his absolute most favourite thing. Everyone who meets this boy comments on how much he so obviously loves life. It's true. He exudes joy. Whether it's because he's a one year old pup, or because this is a life he senses he came so close to losing, we shall never know. 

He is also the most loving dog I've ever known. (No hang on, that's not right. Rico is also unbelievably loving. It must be a pod thing). He loves to climb up onto my knee and go to sleep or lay along the back of the sofa behind me, his head on my shoulder. Neither of these positions are particularly comfortable when I'm trying to write, but I don't have the heart to move him. We stay like that for an hour or more, me typing away, with either my arms or my neck at a funny angle, him snoring softly, totally contented. I'm just happy he's asleep. When he sleeps, I can write. I take full advantage. While I can. Sleep for this (not so) little (anymore) guy, is like a battery recharge. When he wakes, the fun begins. That's a term I use loosely. He's a typical pup, looking around for mischief. If neither Nala nor Rico are in the mood for a game of bitey face or zoomies, he looks around for things to 're-model'. Time to stop writing and take him out. 

His ultimate walk is the lake loop. Here he can run free with no fear of traffic. We meet very few people and he can charge around to his heart's content. His need to be near me is far greater than his need to explore further afield. I need only change direction and he comes flying back to my side. Off the lead, he's a dream dog. On the lead he is, shall we say, a challenge. He can walk perfectly well next to me but his enthusiasm for the million smells in the air, the creatures in the forest, and the people we meet, overwhelms him, and he finds it hard to relax and just let it all come to him. He goes rushing forward, like some canine pac-man, devouring life's experiences as he goes. In the last two weeks, he has encountered his first sheep, horse, cow and goat. He's absolutely fascinated and I'm sure he'd love to get into their field and run around with them. That, of course, would go down a storm with the local farmers. Sorry, Leo, you can't play with everything you meet.

One of the cutest things is his interest in our neighbours. He sits on my chair on our terrace overlooking the street, and simply watches the world go by. He loves this, and I'm sure he knows more about the comings and goings in our neighbourhood than I do. Occasionally he'll look up at the sky and I swear he's thinking, "Hm, it will rain before the day is out."

His love for Nala and Rico is heartwarming. The three of them often sleep in a heap, all piled up together. If I'm on the sofa, that's where they have to be too, and where there is will, there is always a way.

Six months, you have been in my life, Leo, and already you've taught me so much. With your unquenchable thirst for life you have reminded me that there is beauty in all things, opportunity in all things, fun and laughter in all things. You are full of challenges, full of fun, full of love. Life isn't always easy but I'm so very glad I took the chance to bring you into our family. Happy birthday my little man, I love you very much xxx <3



  2. Thank you for your wonderful words Alex and for opening your heart to Leo and saving him he now has everything to look forward to

  3. Thank you Alex for sharing again, I just love to read your words, so heartfelt and true. Wonderful xx

  4. That little man is blessed and his karma sought you out.They really are the most wonderful of breeds.Love to you and your beautiful

  5. There will be other stories like Leo's..................but far too few in the grand scheme of things.
    There will always be the babies in the perreras, always be babies and mothers out in the scorching sun, with no food nor water.
    And now, in winter, in the pouring rain and howling winds
    But for Leo and Rico, you have truly made a difference, and by the power of the Internet, and your eloquence, you will be saving untold more podencos, as people read your words.
    God bless you xxx

  6. Lovely story - I remember Sky well when I spent a few days with Bev and Warren in September 2014. He was so tiny and so full of fun, playing hide, seek and catch me if you can with Rembrandt, a larger 5-month old Podenco Ibicenco.

  7. lovely story bought a few tears to my eyes..lucky Leo and the others too! and very well written :)


All comments are very welcome. Thank you so much for reading. Alex :)