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?

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


Irina Echarry

Irina Echarry: I enjoy reading, going to the movies and spending time with my friends. Many of the people I love are dead, or are no longer in Cuba. I will do my best to transmit my thoughts, ideas or worries via these pages so you can get to know me. I will give an idea of my age, since it helps explain certain things. I’m over thirty-five, and I think that’s enough information. I don’t have any children yet, or nieces or nephews. There are days when I transform myself into a child with no age at all in order to see life from another angle. It helps me break the monotony and survive in this strange world.

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.

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