By Jasmine Cabanaw
Among the colonial buildings, cobblestone streets, and grandiose museums in Old Havana, there is a curious site to behold: street dogs and cats wearing name tags around their necks like collars. These are reminiscent of the awkward “Hello My Name Is…” tags that most of us have worn at some point in our lives. Some of the dogs also wear raggedy old t-shirts that have been sewn into dog-sized outfits, but most simply have name tags and welcoming expressions on their faces.
There’s a saying in Cuba: “We’re all in this together.” As it turns out, in Old Havana this applies not just to people, but to animals, as well. A seasoned traveler of Latin American countries, I had encountered my fair share of street dogs. I even adopted a sweet little Shepherd/Ridgeback stray during a visit to Costa Rica. But I had never seen street dogs like the ones in Old Havana.
First off, the dogs were well-fed and yet I never witnessed them begging, despite the many opportunities to do so at the open-air restaurant patios. Instead, the dogs were either trotting happily along, or flopped up against a wall or stretched out on some stairs, dozing in the sun. Nobody shooed them away, even if the dogs had curled up under a table.
Secondly, the dogs seemed to be something other than your typical street dog.
As it turned out, these canines were museum dogs. While admiring antique items and fantastic works of art in the colonial-mansions-turned-museums, I happened upon several dogs snoozing under exhibition cases or sitting obediently in the narrow hallways. I couldn’t imagine dogs romping around the national museums in the United States or Canada, and yet in Old Havana canines made themselves at home in even the most prestigious of places.
Cats, too, were all about. The frisky felines, however, were not above begging, even if they were well-fed. Small packs of adorable kitties came running up to me if I crouched down with a bit of food. Still, the cats had a sweetness about them, and expressions that said, “You’re in my home, after all, why not give me a bite?”
My curiosity peaked immediately. Why were there dogs and cats in the restaurants and museums? Did they belong to someone? Why did they all look so cheerful?
With the basic Spanish I knew, I began investigating. Slowly, I learned that while some of the dogs and cats had owners and were simply having a good time wandering the streets, most belonged to the museums themselves.
In the evenings, a police officer would round up the dogs and deposit them at their respective museums. This, too, was an interesting site; the dogs would respond to the officer’s whistle, and gradually a pack would form, following the officer around the historic squares until they were home.
Digging a little deeper, I discovered that this was all an ingenious, cooperative plan coordinated by the Cuban Association for the Protection of Plants and Animals (ANIPLANT) and the The Heritage, Community and Environment Society of the Havana City Historian’s Office (OHC) as a way to rectify the problem of homeless dogs and cats. Rather than have the animals face a horrible fate at a kill facility, museums and gardens have adopted strays. ANIPLANT also has a facility for the dogs. Care for the animals includes providing vaccination, sterilization, medication, and food. Funding and training come from a variety of sources, including some as far away as Bergin University (a school in the United States where you can earn a Masters in canine studies).
Despite learning all of this, there was still something left unanswered for me. Not all of the animals in Old Havana had identification, and some looked quite ill and not well-fed enough to have owners. Why was there a gap between the dogs who had name tags and the ones who didn’t?
The last piece of the puzzle came into play when I was sitting in a patio garden one evening, enjoying a caramel flan. There were two sickly-looking dogs that were being fed by the staff. I asked why these dogs didn’t have name tags like the others, and the staff explained that there are not enough funds for the museums to take in all the street dogs, so the restaurants had begun taking care of the less fortunate ones.
I asked if this bothered the customers and they simply shrugged their shoulders. “We think they like the animals,” a staff member remarked. “Besides, these dogs feel like our restaurant is their home now. We don’t want to deny them a home.”
All of the information I learned blew me away. In dog- and cat-obsessed nations like Canada and the US, where some people spend more money on clothes for their pets than they do for their kids, there is still a view that our animal companions are second-class citizens. I can’t even let my dog run off-leash in my town’s parks, let alone see dogs and cats living in museums and restaurants. This is not to say that Cuba does not have problems with stray animals, but it does shed some light on possible solutions to homeless pets.
As one Cuban man explained to me, “Animals have emotions, just like people. If I am hungry and need food, why should I not also give food to the animals that are hungry and need food? We are all in this together.”
For more information on animal advocacy in Havana, please visit the ANIPLANT website.