The Feline Assistants of Cuba’s Food Industry Providers

Regina Cano

HAVANA TIMES — There it sat, its full attention on the object of its desire – some filets, pork ribs and a bit of messy leftovers – focused on the smells and the movements of the vendor. Rigid, passively but firmly poised, it looked as though essaying a telepathic connection, a means of appealing to the man’s sense of charity.

That is what the orange cat looked like when I saw it during one of my obligatory journeys across Old Havana, while heading to my anthropology diploma course, caught up in a quasi-strategic morning operation to secure part of its daily food.

These unmoving animals can be seen every morning at similar places around the capital, as Havana’s cats, be these stray or looked after by humans, maintain a close relationship with establishments that dispense food, including the butcher’s, restaurants, coffee shops, kiosks and produce markets, as is probably the case in many other parts of the world (Mexico, Russia or China).

The only difference is that, in Cuba, these small animals are part of an army that prove useful to those who operate or own these businesses, despite the very clear restrictions established by health authorities, which insist on the danger to human health they pose as disease carriers (in the same way mice and cockroaches do).

It is precisely the ineptness that these government institutions demonstrate when they fail to regularly guarantee the control of these two pests (responsible for oversight at State establishments such as grocery stores and produce and livestock markets), and the glaring contradictions between the norms established and the resources made available to meet them, that make the managers of the establishments decide to ignore the rules time and time again and to opt for cat hair over leptospirosis and other nasty diseases.

In this way, they opt to guarantee an ecological balance and risk being fined (a small price to pay, in light of other punishments).

Though some of those responsible for these practices aren’t what we could call cat lovers and often regard these animals as replaceable, one does find some who are more sensitive, become more attached to the creatures and even look after them, treating them for fleas, accidents and injuries resulting from fights, not to mention poisoning and the mutilations caused by enemies. In those establishments where food isn’t prepared, they bring a bit of food for the felines from home or a sympathetic neighbor.

It is worth pointing out that this situation is similar to that of dogs in places where custodians take these in as their assistants – as companions and partners, one could say – to prevent thefts.

In both cases, these animals are part of the working environment. Sometimes, one even sees their litters, which, feeling safe, poke out their heads in search of their mothers.

These cooks, chefs, store owners and butchers can go home feeling certain they’ve left behind a four-legged custodian back at work, making them rest easy in most cases.

Days later, while making the same morning trip to my anthropology course, I saw that a black and white cat had replaced the orange one. It was sitting across the butcher’s counter, while the butcher, conversing with a passerby, seemed indifferent to its poise (waiting to be treated to a leftover), even though, from time to time, it cast a glance back at it.