Circle of Life:
Life and death in Panama

Living in Panama affords a person a chance to see many forms of natural life. A walk through a forest means you can see and hear a multitude of birds, butterflies and scurrying creatures. Spend a night alone on a beach and watch the millions of hermit crabs industriously scavenge the sand for a tiny particle of food.

In the past two years I have helped local conservationists Marcial Rojas and Sue Waligora,  release thousands of Olive Ridley Turtle hatchlings back into the Pacific Ocean. The hope was that some of these tiny, 3 inch turtles would survive their dangerous ocean crossing and one day return to renew the cycle of life on these same beaches.

On a clear, sunny Saturday morning in August our 15-year old Schnauzer Spencer was finally succumbing to a myriad of diseases. He was diagnosed a year earlier with maligant skin cancer and kidney disease, the vet, at best, gave him six months to live. He confounded all odds by surviving more than a year. Even recovering from a stroke.

Spencer was one tough old Canadian dog. His first master was singer, songwriter and performer Dino Gerussi. One time member of the Terry Jacks Poppy family, and reputedly a performer on the classic song, “Seasons in the sun.” When Dino unexpectedly died of a heart attack in 1998, Spencer came into our house and after that forever in our hearts.

A writing job came up in Nicaragua and we moved there in 2000. Nicaragua was a trial for both us and Spencer, the constant midair explosions that racked each and every city had him terrified – his fear even had him wetting himself on me. We left Nicaragua for the peace of Panama in 2005 and moved to the land of eternal spring in the mountains of Chiriqui.

Spencer’s last three and a half years of life were undoubtedly his happiest. He loved to go to work with me, he loved running on the long windswept beaches. We loved having him with us each moment of the day and loved having him sleep so soundly between us each night. On the times we had to leave him for business trips his anguish and suffering were obvious.

Our pact with him was simple: we would do every thing we could to ensure his prolonged and happy life, but if he was in pain, we would end the suffering as quickly as possible. That moment came on Saturday, August the 16th 2008. After a painful night for all of us we called the vet to come to the house. In the end we drove to David and ended his suffering at 10:15 in the morning.


I find the separation after the death of my animals almost unbearable. In the months before Spencer’s departure I tried to think of a way to help both my wife and I through this awful period. My solution was that I would lay my friend inside a large 2 foot wide flowerpot.  After a year I would remove him and place his bones in a small wooden box. Then, regardless of where our travels took us – he would always be with us. I promised my furry friend; I would never leave him again.

The day after we lost Spencer we decided to go to the beach to distance ourselves from our loss. It was there on a Monday afternoon that I spied an object crawling from the ocean. It was an 80+ pound Ridley turtle making her way up the beach. As “Rhonda the Ridley” made her way up to the high watermark, she attracted the attention of some young men. They rushed up carrying a large plastic bottle, I had a good idea what their intentions were. Local restaurants will sell the turtle eggs although the law clearly forbids this. I became incensed and was ready to beat these individuals with a piece of driftwood to defend her. In my best spanglish I angrily told them, “Don’t even bloody think of it.”

La Barqueta beach has a champion for the turtles his name is Marcial Rojas. I sent my wife to bring him while I stood guard. Into her neatly excavated 12 inch hole Rhonda  delivered her clutch of  110 small white, golf ball sized eggs. After completing her mission she covered her brood, used her considerable weight to compact the sand over them and then slowly, painstakingly, trundled back to the ocean.

Marcial’s brother came and unearthed the eggs and took them to a nearby safe hatchery. About thirty onlookers from six different countries watched this event and soon the setting sun and rising tide washed away all traces of Rhonda’s visit.

In someway this helped me to come to terms with what had happened the day before. A wonderful life had ended and a hundred and ten small wonderful lives were just beginning. In some ways heartbreaking and in other ways hopeful, I saw that the circle of life was continuing.

In 2012, on a hot coastal day, I took my beloved Spencer from the flower pot, cleaned and washed his bones and placed him inside a small "pirates chest" box. That's where he resides today, just a few feet from where I write this story.

David Dell