For Havana's dogs, it's not the best of times, but it's not the worst either. Some improvement is due to the efforts of the non-governmental Cuban Association for the Protection of Animals and Plants (ANIPLANT), an organization focused on improving the lives of dogs and other animals in Havana. Founded in 1988 by Cuban entertainer Maria Alveres Riso, and Cuba's first prima ballerina, Alisia Alonso, ANIPLANT eliminates animal suffering through massive spay and neuter campaigns, public education, animal health promotion, and hands-on intervention in cases of animal suffering. The founder's daughter, Nora Garcia, who is now president of the organization, talked with me during a visit to the re-purposed house located within walking distance of the heart of Old Havana. The neighborhood, like many in Havana is a contradiction—tidy and clean in spite of decades of neglect.
Prior to my November 2012 arrival in Cuba, without too much difficulty I'd arranged to meet Nora. When my friend, Florence, and I arrived, we received a warm wet-nose welcome from 11 rambunctious happy dogs. Like most, they weigh between 15 and 30 pounds. All are rescues, but unlike their street counterparts, they are on the portly side, mange and parasite free, confident and playful.
The 2000 square foot building, originally a 1920s home, was officially turned over to ANIPLANT in 2007, in very bad shape. Donors, usually dog-loving tourists, helped to rebuild the interior, donating office equipment, lights, chairs, time and money. But money goes only so far in Cuba, because there is very little to buy. The reception area was welcoming, squeaky clean, and decorated with photos of dogs before they were rescued accompanied by after photos as well. Staffed by a few dedicated volunteers, the clinic is open two days a week. Veterinarians volunteer their time as well, but are sometimes paid a small fee when possible.
In urban Havana, people who own dogs often give them free range. I saw a few dogs wearing hand-made ID tags, indicating that someone takes care of them. However, taxes and tags are expensive, so most people own dogs unofficially. I estimate that less than 15% of the city's free-ranging dogs are true strays. The others are sustained by some type of care, from scraps and water, to real meals, to indoor privileges.
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ANIPLANT rescues dogs in jeopardy. But they also respond to phone calls from concerned citizens. Many are tourists, who often make donations for the rescue and care of specific dogs, usually ones that frequent the hotels. Some tourists want to take the dogs home, but this is especially tough in a country like Cuba. Most rescued dogs suffer from mange, anemia, distemper, gastroenteritis issues, tape worm, ear mites and renal infections. Due to lack of space, money, homes and people who can't afford to care for a pet, dogs are medically rehabilitated, sterilized, then placed back on the street where they receive minimal care from neighborhood dog lovers. Special case dogs stay at the clinic as permanent residents.
We took a tour of the ANIPLANT facility. The kennels are more like rooms and corridors that can be closed off when necessary with ancient wrought iron gates. Except for the upstairs office, the facility seems to be open for free-run. In Havana homes, interior rooms open to a patio courtyard and this one is no different. I'd be stretching it to say this is an outdoor exercise area. It's more like a lounging area where dogs siesta and soak up sunshine. For easy clean up, they are trained to pee and poop in potted plants. Building materials are neatly stacked outside, waiting for money and an opportunity to be turned into something more useful than just shade. But in Havana, shade is good, too.
In 2007 it was estimated that 20 thousand dogs roamed Havana streets. You can help. To find out more about ANIPLANT and see more photos of my visit, go to http://doctorbarkman.blogspot.com/2013/06/street-dogs-in-havana-cuba.html