Animal Abuse in Cuba, a Round Table Discussion

Irina Echarry

Hawk in a back yard cage at 23rd and F Streets in Vedado.
Hawk in a back yard cage at 23rd and F Streets in Vedado.

HAVANA TIMES — Every so often, Cuba’s Mesa Redonda (“Round Table”) program tries to address a social issue in a segment entitled Sobre la Mesa (“On the Table”). It invites experts on the subject and, telling people they can be panelists as a kind of hook, encourages viewers to share their opinions on the subject over the phone or through emails.

Though the superficiality with which issues are tackled is always rather vexing, the segment is a barometer which tells us how the government conceives a specific topic.

Recently, the issue of animal abuse was addressed on Sobre la Mesa.

The guests were Maria Gloria Vidal Ribalta, chair of the National Animal Wellbeing Commission, Ciro Bianchi, a journalist, and Ana Maria Dominguez, another journalist who has addressed the issue several times in Cuba’s Juventud Rebelde newspaper.

With such guests, it was to be expected that they would place only some cards on the table, and that others which require a more in-depth analysis, would have been kept up their sleeves.

Not one veterinarian, of the kind that works day in and day out in Cuba’s impoverished State clinics, or those that participate in official or unofficial programs concerned with the health of pets, was invited to join the panel. It would have been a good opportunity to explain to the public why services and medications at veterinary clinics have gone up in price.

Crocodile chops for sale.
Crocodile chops for sale.

No charitable person who, despite economic difficulties and the high price of food, takes up or cares for stray animals, were invited to the program either. Their testimony would have been key to demonstrating that animals can be helped and that seeing them react to this help is a thoroughly rewarding experience.

Independent, non-State organizations, such as Aniplant, which devotes great efforts to rid animals of parasites, sterilize them, rescue them from the streets or report on mistreatment (among other things), were also absent. Ciro Bianchi did mention the organization and thanked them for its work, but it would have been interesting to have one of its members on the panel to speak of their experiences, ideas and the limitations of their project. Aniplant has been collecting signatures for years and has presented animal protection bills for approval, but has received no answer.

Showing the cock.
Showing the cock.

The mistreatment of the more popular pets and domesticated animals (dogs, cats and horses), and other acts of cruelty that are less visible but fairly common (such as children dissecting live lizards or hunting bats and forcing them to smoke) were put on the table. The last practice was addressed from the point of view of the human health risks it entails.

The panelists also spoke of the practice, now very much in vogue, of capturing birds and placing them in cages in order to sell them, or for the simple pleasure of keeping these (many a time without providing them with the food or water they need). They also referred to how birds are handled incorrectly when they are transported from one place to another. Pigeons, for instance, are wrapped in newspaper, unable to move. Other birds are placed inside empty plastic soft-drink bottles with holes poked into them, cylindrical containers in which the animal has no space to stretch out its legs.

Aniplant de-parasite campaign
Aniplant de-parasite campaign

An interesting detail was the complete debunking of the popular myth about Zoonosis, Havana’s “dog pound.” According to Vidal, the myth is already evident in the popular name itself, as the institution is actually called the National Observation Center, and it is the place where stray animals were taken to and subjected to clinical observation for 10 days.

According to the expert, this is no longer the case today. It is the place where dogs are taken as part of the city’s canine health program. The animals are kept there for 72 hours, in which time they can either be claimed or adopted. Vidal acknowledged that the way the dogs are captured is rather brutal, but chalked this up to poor handling practices by catchers and the lack of modern equipment. She and the Juventud Rebelde journalist refuted the rumor that these animals are used to feed zoo animals, pointing out that they are usually sick and cannot be fed to any animal.

For the panelists, the future promises to be marvelous. Once awareness about animal treatment begins to be raised at home, within the family, and the press joins in the effort, the population will become more sensitive to these issues – which is why they will continue to hold workshops and debates and to educate people in responsible practices, as, if individuals became responsible animal owners, there would be no stray animals, and so on and so forth.

Well hidden beneath the table were other issues.

Aniplant de-parasite campaign.
Aniplant de-parasite campaign.

One of these are cock fights, legitimized as part of our “cultural” traditions. For these fights, cocks are trained to become aggressive and, many a time, the fight continues until one of the two animals is dead. The practice was merely mentioned, but no one questioned its legality.

A large part of the segment, however, was devoted to dog fights: we heard the opinions of each of the panelists, people called in with their views, emails were read and scenes from the Cuban film Conducta were shown.

But, is there any difference between these two types of fights? The two are equally violent, reinforce male chauvinist values and encourage bets (which are illegal). Could it be that dog fights are organized by the riff-raff and that cock fights are watched by high-ranking government officials? I can think of no other difference that would justify being concerned over dogs and not cocks.

Rodeos, so vigorously promoted by the Ministry of Agriculture during its farm and livestock fairs, where steers are mistreated and bulls humiliated, were passed over in silence.

There was no talk of the awful conditions animals endure at the zoo. In addition to being undernourished, most of the animals live in a confined space where free movement is a luxury.

There was absolutely no mention of lab animals.

No animal sacrifice was discussed. Animal production for the food industry went unaddressed. No one cared to recall the generalized mistreatment of pigs, both by small farmers and the State industry. Not long ago, two Mesa Redonda programs focused on the porcine industry. It sounded as though they were talking about shoes, not living beings. There was no mention of the sale of tortoise or crocodile meat, which goes on despite the fact these are legally protected species. Chickens and the constant stress they are subjected to in confined spaces did not have a voice in the panel.

Veterinarian from Aniplant with children.
Veterinarian from Aniplant with children.

It is understandable the panel also did not grant the floor to those who mistreat animals, consciously and not. Who would they have chosen? A common citizen or a State institution?

According to Vidal, the commission she presides is working on the third draft Animal Wellbeing Bill. Underscoring the difference between protection and wellbeing, she argued that the former is the “mitigation of damages that undermine the quality of life of animals”, while the latter “ensures a perfect state of physical and mental health, in harmony with the environment.”

I am not an expert and think that it doesn’t matter what word we use. What didn’t seem logical to me is that the panelists and viewers who participated in different ways made so much emphasis on the regulatory law against animal abuse and, when Vidal announced that they would soon be submitting the third draft bill to the Ministry of Agriculture – so that they could enforce it under the law – she did not stop to mention why the previous two bills were rejected and what we can expect this time around.

At any rate, after seeing this Mesa Rendoda program, it is safe to assume these regulations will stay out of thorny issues. They will try and restrict the indiscriminate hunting of birds, the fishing of endangered species and dog fights. They may make it obligatory for people to register their pets somewhere, in order to ensure their needs are met and prevent animals from being exposed to dangers and other threats. This is all very important, but it fails to address other pressing issues.

To conclude, is it conceivable that, during a program about animal abuse, panelists should recommend the screening of Namibia, and not in order to condemn the practices it documents? The film documents the transportation of animals donated by the African country to a Cuban zoo, animals who lived in the wild and were captured, torn from their habitats, in order to be kept in captivity for life? Is this hypocrisy, or am I just imagining things?


The program on the Mesa Redonda (Round Table) in Spanish only:

11 thoughts on “Animal Abuse in Cuba, a Round Table Discussion

  • My husband and I are vegan but some sites have spoken about dairy cattle being treated well and it seemed when we were last there that chickens were free range so we spoke of using dairy and eggs on our next trip. After reading this, that option is off the table. Glad they’re finally addressing the domestic pet abuse.

  • I see that alleged Gandhi quote constantly, but the truth is, he never said any such thing.

    Additionally, this article is garbage. I’ve spent a lot of time in Cuba and animals there are no more abused than they are in other parts of the Caribbean, Mexico, Central/South America, etc. In fact, I’ve never been to a country that abuses its animals worse than Mexico does.

  • So everyone should go like Griffin to Cuba as a tourist and is required to have the exact same concerns and interests as him. Hahaha. In case you apparently didn’t notice the article is about animals not humans and people’s concerns for stray animals is to my way of thinking a pretty noble cause. And the hypocrisy is saying its OK for Griffin to go to Cuba because he spends some of his money on private businesses but nobody else should have that chance because it helps the Castros.

  • The second time I visited I skipped the tourism resorts and stayed at a Casa Particular. Yes, some of my dollars flowed to the regime, but most of them went to ordinary Cubans.

    The hypocrisy I was referring to is that of tourists who visit Cuba, stay at the regime run hotels, swallow the propaganda they are fed and go home to Canada, the US or the UK, peaching how wonderful life in Cuba is.

    Those are the sort who profess to care about stray dogs but who don’t have any concern for the Cuban people who are often treated worse than dogs.

  • Griffin, you are the last person who should talk about hypocrisy. You visited the island twice spreading your dollars around and said thanks to those trips you changed your feelings about the government. Now you want to keep others from going. hahaha

  • Oh please, don’t play that game. Surely there are other options between vacationing in Cuba at hotels owned by the Cuban army (and hence, the Castro regime) or assassinating Castro?

    I proudly admit my “political prejudice”: I support democracy and human rights in Cuba. Guilty as charged. I also support ending cruelty to animals. That’s a consistent morality.

    However those tourists who fund the Castro dictatorship with their tourist dollars care nothing about the Cuban people, while crying crocodile tears over abused dogs. That’s selfish hypocrisy.

  • Haha and what’s a tourist supposed to do? Assassinate Castro? You are letting your political prejudice get in the way of tackling an issue at present. compare your reaction to the attitude of the (oppressed) cubans who make time to save non-human species.. because despite their needs which will only be resolved in the long term, they go out of their way to stop immediate physical suffering

  • “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way it’s animals are treated”. (Mahatma Gandhi)
    Irina, your article is an excellent piece of work.

  • It’s touching to read how some tourists are
    concerned about the welfare of strays and captured specimens in private zoos.

    Perhaps they could also turn their attention to the 11 million captive specimens of Homo Sapien Cubanos held in horrific conditions, often in cages, by the zoo-keepers Raul & Fidel Castro.

    These pathetic creature are also deserving of our compassion.

  • Hola Irina! Thank you for your article. I am a member of a closed fb page called Resort Strays in Cuba. Tourists are concerned about how homeless animals are treated. We support the initiatives of Aniplant-Varadero y Aniplant-Havana and send them supplies for the welfare of homeless y local pets.
    Just yesterday the Oasis Hotel in Varadero was listed Internationally as a hotel friendly to strays. Ron Faithfull, Oakville, Ontario, Canada

  • Thank you Irina for this informative article, breaking a taboo. In 2006, when I was sipping a mojito in downtown Trinidad I found to my horror a small dog blinded with disease dying under the table. When I was visiting an academic colleague in Cienfuegos on the way back to Havana, he told me about a neighbor’s “private zoo.” This man charged money to let people visit his “zoo” where he kept two dozen wildlife species in horrendous conditions. In Havana, the plight of street dogs was appalling. And in Vinales, pigs were kept in tiny cages and I witnessed on being carried on the back of a motorcycle to slaughter–the pig was screaming out of fear. I fully expect some readers protest that concerns for non-human animals is unwarranted when many Cubans need more and better necessities of life. However, the two concerns are not exclusive. Only when we accept the scientific and ethical fact that the human species is its a Great Ape and that we being to there set of nature, loving and caring from all species becomes the center of all our effort to improve life on Earth. Cuba leads the world in some important dimensions of human development. It is time that she also leads in ecologically-centered ethical concerns.

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