Tequila, pulque and bats

Around the city of Zacatlán in the north of the state of Puebla, the landscape is strangely attractive to our eyes. It is dominated by the exuberant fleshy leaves of the agave plants or magueys, as they are called in Mexico. As we walk through the long orderly rows of plants on the Hacienda Amoltepec, we talk to Martín Pichardo, the managing director of the company Desarrollos Agropecuarios del Altiplano, who talks with passion about the cultural, economic and historical aspects of this plant and its roots in both Mexican soil and society.

The people of this region have been cultivating magueys for over 10,000 years to produce drinks, food and fibres and for a number of other uses. Around Zacatlán the magueys are basically used to produce pulque, a fermented low-alcohol drink that is well known for its high nutritional value. Other drinks distilled from maguey include mezcal and the better known tequila.

We find it hard not to look at the magueys without a certain sense of respect when Martín tells us that they produce seeds just once, when they flower at the end of their 14-year lifespans that are devoted to accumulating reserves aimed at perpetuating the species. Martín reveals that if there were no bats there would be no magueys. He adds that Mexican culture without magueys would be very different for without bats, which are responsible for pollinating the majority of the plant’s flowers, very few fertile seeds would be produced.

To the east of Zacatlán we head for the Valle de Mezquital, which harbours good populations of pollinating bats. Here Martín Pichardo and his team work to maintain the genetic diversity of the magueys by allowing natural cross-pollinating and preventing the genetic impoverishment of the maguei pulquero, the commonest form of this plant. In the other plantations that Martín Pichardo manages in more humanized areas, bats are scarce and most of the seeds are infertile. Martín explains with satisfaction that, in this case, increasing awareness amongst the rural population of the people of the Valle de Mezquital has been a key element in the protection of the bats as a means to save their agaves. Ramses Alejandro Cuatle, the vet from the Comité de Fomento y Salud Animal del Estado de Puebla who is in charge of the control of rabies in the area, confirms this: when outbreaks of rabies occur in the Valle de Mezquital, the ranchers don’t want to let on where the caves with vampires are located. They are worried that the vampire controls could harm the ‘good bats’ and they are well aware of the consequences this would have for their magueys.

 

Maguey plantation in Zacatlán
Maguey plantation in Zacatlán

 

Martín Pichardo shows us his fields
Martín Pichardo shows us his fields
 The farm at Amoltepec
The farm at Amoltepec
A plant with a long history
A plant with a long history
Andrés getting ready to extract nectar from the magueys
Andrés getting ready to extract nectar from the magueys
Andrés and the team at rest
Andrés and the team at rest
Back from collecting the 'aguamiel'
Back from collecting the ‘aguamiel’
Martín Pichardo shows us the pulque
Martín Pichardo shows us the pulque
Other products derived from the pulque
Other products derived from the pulque
Filming bats pollinating the magueys
Filming bats pollinating the magueys
The smoking volcano of Popocatépetl as we leave Mexico
The smoking volcano of Popocatépetl as we leave Mexico

 

Living to save lives

Tiredness overcomes us after the over seven hours of car journey to the final ranch that the vets from the Comité de Fomento y Salud Animal del Estado de Puebla want to show us. We’ve been in Mexico for five days and once again we are spending many hours on the road and sleeping very little. Very little indeed. The rhythm of the trip makes us feel as if we could collapse at any moment but it doesn’t seem to affect Dolores Manzano, Arturo Córdova or Ramses Alejandro Cuautle. These three vets are just part of a team of 21 vets that throw life and soul into rabies control in cattle in the state of Puebla. Theirs is a job that obliges them travel to wherever a new rabies outbreak is reported and to work long nights with very little sleep.

The timetable when confronting a new rabies outbreak is full-time. By day, vaccinations, by night captures and vampire controls, and at all times, awareness raising amongst the people who live in the affected areas. The work calendar is equally full: holidays only exist if the outbreak has been brought under control and no others are reported. Halfway to our destination we head for the city of Puebla to meet Roberto Ramírez, the director of the Comité. This organization has an enormous responsibility: to protect the health of cattle throughout the whole of the State of Puebla and to foment stock rearing. Confidence and respect for its workers are the keys that enable this organization to keep up with the demands that this onerous job puts on them.

The vets have to work in close contact with the ranchers and inhabitants of rural areas, and are generally welcomed by all given that the death of even just a few cattle can completely upset the finances of a small family ranch. They help resolve a problem that emerged in Mexico during the 1990s. Dolores Manzano explains to us that before this decade, the animals that died of rabies were not properly diagnosed and, apparently, a number of vaccination campaigns were necessary to finally convince the ranchers that now and again some of their animals were dying due to this disease.

Vaccination, vampire population control and education are the three pillars on which these vets’ work rests. The vaccination and control campaigns have drastically reduced the number of head of cattle that are affected by rabies, and have also made the local population much more aware of the risks and persuaded them to take preventative action. On our visit to a number of rural communities we witnessed the high levels of awareness that the campaign had managed to achieve.

In Chila de Sal in the far western corner of the state, Alicia Vázquez welcomes us into her modest home and explains how she was bitten by a vampire in broad daylight whilst she was washing clothes in the river. Although attacks on humans are extremely rare, Alicia was able to capture the bat and – thanks to the advice given by the Comité’s anti-rabies campaign – she took it to the local health centre. This simple act and awareness of the potential risks of a bat bite saved her life. A little further north, in the community of El Salado in the municipality of Jolalpan, an agreeable spontaneous meeting with local ranchers one evening once again underlines the positive results of the rabies awareness campaign. The local ranchers all know when they have to apply the anti-rabies treatments, how to diagnose the disease, and how to separate the vampires (the ‘bad bats’) from the others (the ‘good bats’) that play such an important part in the ecosystem by eating mosquitos, pollinating plants and dispersing seeds, as the ranchers themselves explain to us.

The familiarity of the vampires
The familiarity of the vampires
Ramses and Omar, vets from the Comité
Ramses and Omar, vets from the Comité
On the way to a cave where vampires roost
On the way to a cave where vampires roost
Looking for vampires in a cave in Chila de la Sal
Looking for vampires in a cave in Chila de la Sal
A whip scorpion allows itself to be photographed at the entrance to the cave
A whip scorpion allows itself to be photographed at the entrance to the cave
Feeding captured vampires used in educational campaigns
Feeding captured vampires used in educational campaigns
The filming awakes locals interest
The filming awakes locals interest
Alicia Vázquez, a vampire victim
Alicia Vázquez, a vampire victim
A more typical vampire victim
A more typical vampire victim
The vets from the Comité and the film crew
The vets from the Comité and the film crew


The trials and tribulations of vampires and cattle in Mexico

We find a vampire trapped in a net just after dusk. Dolores Manzano from the Comité de Fomento y Salud Animal del Estado de Puebla, an expert in the habits of these bats, explains to us that the vampires always approach along the ground when they come to attack the cattle. That explains why they lay the traps on the ground next to the enclosure where the cattle will spend the night.

This vampire was undoubtedly on its way to suck blood from one of the animals belonging to Jesús Bando, member of the Puebla Rancher’s Association. Jesús tells us that whenever they inspect the cattle they always find a number of cattle with vampire wounds. Although it is dark and it is difficult to spot the wounds by torchlight, Jesus takes us to inspect part of his herd.

Maybe it is the lack of light, or perhaps the vampire ‘problem’ is not as bad as it is sometimes made out to be, but we don’t find any recent wounds on any of the 50 or so nervous cows we inspect. Nevertheless, the captured vampire and the still suppurating wound behind the ear of his horse are proof enough of the problem and a strong enough reason for Jesús to stand firm in his conviction: the populations of blood-sucking bats must be controlled. He insists that the anti-rabies vaccine does not solve all the problems caused by the vampires’ attacks since they repeatedly attack the smallest calves, taking advantage of the wounds they have already inflicted. This can weaken the animal, which may die. The vets of the Comité de Fomento y Salud Animal del Estado de Puebla that accompany us just shrug their shoulders when we ask them if they have come across this particular problem or if they know how serious it is. The little patch of jungle that, with the magical flight of the toucan, seemed so joyous by day, now takes on a much more sinister and mysterious aspect.

Whatever the truth of the matter, before releasing the bat the vets daub its back with a ‘vampiricide’ cream. Although both the ranchers and the vets are used to using it, to the more incredulous of us it resembles the product of the over-active imagination of a comic-book writer. Badly hiding our scepticism, we ask to inspect the label, on which the product’s principal active ingredient is announced as bromadiolone (“broma” meaning “joke” in Spanish), which only serves to increase our cynicism. But, as Arturo Córdova, the Comité’s vet explains, vampires are very sociable and lick each other when they mutually preen. In this way, the poison spreads through the colony and perhaps as many as a dozen bats will succumb to it. In this way, vampire populations are kept down. Bromadiolone is a very effective anticoagulant and causes death by internal bleeding. In the end, the truth dispels our initial almost comic impression of this method of bat control.

Still in the municipality of Hueytamalco and just a few kilometres away (but quite a long drive enlivened by various skids and getting stuck in the mud), we reach the neat ranch belonging to Gabriel de la Sierra, rancher and another member of the Comité. As he vaccinates some of his zebu cattle, the hardy local breed, he talks about the efforts being made by the government to ensure that the rabies prevention campaigns reach all ranchers. The cost of the vaccine, which is calculated on an annual basis, is around 10 Mexican pesos per animal (about 0.60€), while a kilo of meat is sold at about 100 pesos. Given that up to 2–3% of animals can die in a rabies outbreak, the losses that can accrue if the vaccine is not used are obvious. For Gabriel, there are no good reasons for not vaccinating cattle once the figures are worked out since, furthermore, the treatment is subsidized by the government. Making ranchers more aware and more knowledgeable is the key to the question and the Comité’s work is largely aimed at controlling rabies outbreaks and those of other infectious diseases that affect cattle herds.

Zebu cattle on Gabriel de la Sierra’s ranch
Zebu cattle on Gabriel de la Sierra’s ranch
Gabriel showing us the vaccines
Gabriel showing us the vaccines
Vaccinating the cattle
Vaccinating the cattle
Jesús Bando at the entrance to his ranch
Jesús Bando at the entrance to his ranch
Cow herders in the jungle
Cow herders in the jungle
Fresh wound behind the ear
Fresh wound behind the ear
Tied-up cattle are easy to attack night-after-night
Tied-up cattle are easy to attack night-after-night
‘Vampiricide’ cream
‘Vampiricide’ cream
Car stuck in the mud
Car stuck in the mud

From myth to reality

We land in Mexico City to continue filming the documentary. First up is a main dish whose very name evokes a mixture of fear and fascination; an animal that in many human societies is regarded as half fantasy, half real: the vampire.

Vampires are small bats from the tropics of the Americas that resemble many others of the world’s 1,200 species of bat. Nevertheless, they have a well-known specialization: they are bloodsuckers or hemovores, that is, they feed exclusively on the blood of other animals.

We meet up with the members of the Comité de Fomento y Salud Animal del Estado de Puebla (Puebla State Committee for Improving Animal Health) and they take us to the rural areas where conflicts with vampires occur and where they do most of their work. We are lucky enough to watch how the vampires suck blood – with surprising skill – from animals that are hundreds of times bigger than they are.

The vets from the Comité have carefully set up the show and, once night has fallen and after an interminable wait made worse by our great expectations, we finally get a chance to see the vampires in action. They approach their prey by hopping agilely along the ground like frogs, their infrared vision enabling them to detect the warmest part of their victims, which is where the blood is nearest the surface. From here on, a biochemical war begins that seems like something straight out of a science fiction tale: first they lick the chosen point of attack so that the anaesthetic in their saliva deadens the animal’s skin; then they make a small insertion with their razor-sharp teeth – which the animal doesn’t even notice! – and begin to feed on the blood, which continues to flow thanks to the natural anticoagulants in the bats’ saliva. We watch as the vampires attack the feet of a horse; the bats fly off to avoid any problems every time the horse makes a movement, but then return immediately to their feasts. The whole show lasts half an hour and ends up with a sated bat, with its daily nutritional needs attended to, and a horse with a small, apparently innocuous wound on one foot.

There are three species of vampire, but only one, the common vampire Desmodus rotundus, actually feeds on mammal blood. The seriousness of their attacks are not due to the wounds they inflict on cattle but rather the infections and disease they can transmit from one victim to another. One such disease is rabies, the disease that cattle farmers and local authorities alike fear the most, and which bats can pass on with fatal consequences for their victims.

Mexican folklore
Mexican folklore
A stable in Hueytamalco where vampires come
A stable in Hueytamalco where vampires come
Preparing to film the vampires
Preparing to film the vampires
A vampire biding its time in the stable
A vampire biding its time in the stable
Filming the vampires in action
Filming the vampires in action
Vampire feeding
Vampire feeding