Progress Made by Cuba’s Animal Protection Activists

a year after the Animal Protection Act was passed

Photo: Ernesto Verdecia

By Laura Seco Pacheco (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – On February 19, 2021, twenty-something animal lovers protested in front of the Ministry of Agriculture, in Havana. They wore all black and signs demanding the approval of the Animal Protection Act, once and for all, which had been postponed in the legislative timeline since November 2020.

After initial tension – when “revolutionary” slogans were shouted from the building and the police and State Security were called to the site – representatives from the institution invited the protestors to sit down and talk. It was a dialogue full of promises. The Decree-Law would come before the end of that month.

On February 26th, Decree-Law 31/2021 of “Animal Protection” was passed with much funfare. But its content still hadn’t been published, almost two months later. Activists, volunteers and animal defenders were left greatly disappointed after reading the text for the first time.

Empty words

Amarilla is being looked after by the Refugio Angeles Callejeros group. The puppy was rescued from the trash by animal rights advocates in Nuevitas, Camaguey, a few weeks ago. One of her paws was completely destroyed. She had to have an emergency operation and a pin put in.

Amarilla had a home. When she was in heat, the neighbor’s dog “mounted” her, which normally happens if you don’t take proper precautions with an unsterilized pet. Her owner was not happy. He killed the male dog with a pipe in front of the entire neighborhood. As for Amarilla, he threw her from the fourth floor of a building.

“We reported it, just like the owner of the male dog did, and we took witnesses of what had happened. Nothing was done. Not even a fine. The culprit went unpunished. According to the authorities, the chief of the Sector went to see him and told him he couldn’t do that again. But that was it,” Ismaray Rosio Marrero Badia, the refuge’s owner, said.

One of the greatest expectations from the Animal Protection Act were its sanctions for violent acts. Unprincipled people have been abusing and torturing animals without any punishment, for years. The law should have put an end to this, or at least started the long process to end this.

“It really only works in cases with great media coverage that go viral on social media,” explains lawyer and activist Javier Larrea, a founding member of Bienestar Animal en Cuba (BAC). “In our specific case, we’ve managed to process five cases of abuse, the first cases of this kind in Cuba.”

But places or situations with less visibility hardly ever receive a legal response, even though phone numbers to report cases of abuse have been communicated since September 2021. 

The law doesn’t conceive abuse as a crime, but as a “violation”, unlike what the animal rights community was hoping for. 

“Sanctions are very light compared to the danger and importance these acts may have. There are types of abuse that we thought were going to be classified as a crime, but that wasn’t the case. Right now, the draft bill for the Penal Code is being discussed and there’s nothing in it about animal abuse. It’s quite a poor law, in terms of both sanctions and what it regulates. It’s just empty words,” Larrea adds.     

Independent activist Freddie del Sol, who participated in the protest outside the Ministry of Agriculture, doesn’t hide his disappointment as the the draft Penal Code only establishes sanctions, with fines, only for those who put animals to fight against one another and there being money involved. “It has nothing to do with protecting animals’ lives, but with illegal games,” he adds.

Even in the language used in the document, animals aren’t treated like subjects with rights, but as another piece of man’s property. Property that owners have the legal right to protect, but very little or nothing else.

“The changes are very light, we needed something a bit more drastic, everything is very general and diluted,” Gabriela, a member of the Colonia Aldama group, laments.

A government strategy to contribute towards animal protection has never existed, or has never been visible at least. Promises made on February 19th were left hanging in the air. The law wasn’t modern and didn’t satisfy activists’ demands over the years. Not to mention the different points it leaves open-ended in the government’s eyes when it comes to cockfighting, the seizure of animals or the breeding trade.      

“The Law was nothing about nothing. It’s only purpose was to appease many people’s complaints, but animals haven’t benefitted from it,” believes Santa Clara activist Leidy Laura Hernandez, the owner of one of the city’s animal shelters.

Support for independent animal rights groups has been minimal and limited to allowing them to take action in public spaces, mainly. Even the law stipulates in Article 4 that the State should promote and encourage animal protection, it has taken very little concrete action to do this.

For example, an agreement was reached in Santa Clara with slaughterhouses to facilitate food for animal rights groups. According to Leidy Laura, “what they did was use the entrails and other waste that we used to buy for 2-5 pesos per kilogram to grind it up and sell it for 6 times the price. It is a lot cheaper and healthier for us to buy fish like we do.”

This project slowly faded out and a monthly quota is now sporadic. Furthermore, prices have shot up, an extra problem if you bear in mind that groups keep on running thanks to contributions from volunteers, many of whom are students. 

Some relief came for animal rights activists after the Ministry of Agriculture passed Resolution 430 of 2021, which lifted restrictions on imports by travelers of a series of products for veterinary use. Non-commercial imports of antibiotics, antifungal and antiparasitic medicines, vitamin supplements, veterinary tools and accessories for pets were thereby allowed to enter the country.

On October 2nd, the Young Communist League (UJC) and University Student Federation (FEU) organized an Adoption Fair in Havana’s Parque Metropolitano, with the support of government institutions. The event, that was publicized as the first of its kind in Cuba in the official press, ignoring years of independent activists’ work, opened up the doors to similar activities that have taken place in other provinces.

In late December, 10 months after the decree-law was approved, and over eight months after it went public, the procedure to implement State inspections in regard to animal welfare was finally approved, with the objective of regulating and enforcing the law.

Article 4.1 of the document, published in the Official Gazette stipulates that inspectors from the Ministry of Agriculture’s state inspection systems must immediately apply the law to natural persons and legal owners and holders of animals, once a violation has been reported. It remains unknown whether a sanction has been imposed on the many offenders routinely reported.

In keeping with the Government’s need to encourage animal protection from within its institutions, the Ministry of Education announced in mid-January 2022 that it would implement projects at different levels of education to deal with animal protection-related topics.  This hasn’t been implemented as of yet.

Photo: Ernesto Verdecia

The activists

Clara and Ari were predestined to be in each other’s lives. For weeks, Ari “kept running into” pictures of that abandoned white dog in Parque Vida, Santa Clara, in posts in the Salva un Callejero group. She had just lost her pet and wanted to give a home to an animal in need. She found her one day and she wasn’t white at all. Her fur was yellow and dirty. Her heart broke, but she decided not to pick her up.

A few days later, she found out Clara was pregnant. She had been moved so she could give birth, but she lost the babies because of her poor health condition. That’s when she made the decision: she’d keep the dog if the vet from the group would give her all the medical assistance she needed.

“I had to wait a few days because she had to undergo an emergency operation. She spent a week on the brink of death. When I went to visit her for the first time, she was at death’s door, hung up to an IV. I never stopped visiting her from that day on. We’ve been together ever since.”  

The animal protectors community in Cuba is as varied as it is wide. There are groups or independent people in one corner of the country to the next, who decided to share their time and resources to help animals that need it the most, despite the tough socio-economic landscape right now.

This is the case of Pasos, a project born in February 2021, which not only covers Havana, but also two municipalities in Las Tunas: Puerto Padre and the provincial capital. 

Thanks to donations and other aid, they’ve been able to help hundreds of defenseless and neglected animals this year. “The worse thing is that as the number of groups and protectors grow, so do the number of people abandoning animals, those who let animals become somebody else’s problem, those who think that helping an animal is the job of groups and protectors,” Claudia explains, one of the group’s members.

The group’s expenses during 2021 were 357,920 pesos, used on transport, operations, buying medicines and food and paying for surgeries, X-rays and treatments. They also invested 45,035 pesos in 208 sterilizations. This entire budget was donated by volunteers and activists.  (1 USD = 24 pesos on the official rate and 100 x 1 on the informal market).

Colonia Aldama is one of the projects with a higher profile on social media. Its 94 members are responsible for feeding over 60 cats every day, as well as taking part in rescues in collaboration with other animal protection organizations.   

They hold an adoption fair located in the capital’s central park that it takes its name from, once a month. They have also provided shelter to over 200 cats in temporary homes.

“Aldama focuses on the colony, but because of its location and awareness about the project, we have to take on cases left to us in the park, which are sometimes very serious,” Gabriela says.

Covering the entire country, BAC is one of the largest and better organized organizations in the country. Already celebrating its second anniversary, the project has rescued 2998 animals and given 1972 animals up for adoption in the past year. Its constant activity on social media, where it reports and gives visibility to sensitive cases, has allowed the organization to grow its number of activists and to broaden its scope of action to new areas.

There are many different animal shelters and groups of volunteers in Santa Clara, including Leidy Laura’s own, and she is one of the most visible faces in the struggle for animal protection. For years, dozens of stray animals have lived in her home, but she now faces the problem of not being able to give shelter to so many animals in need. “The reality is that we are focusing on responsible adoptions and cutting the number of animals here by almost half because everything is a lot more expensive and we have a lot less help,” she explains.

In the same city, volunteers from Salva un Callejero mobilize every day, as soon as they find out about a case. Abused cats and dogs receive assistance, others who have suffered a road accident and are left to their own fate, others whose owners have decided not to keep them any more or those who live in public spaces. 

According to Jennifer, one of the group’s most active participants, adoption has become difficult. “We have to find out everything about the person who wants to adopt, because sometimes they don’t really love the animals. Sometimes, they are 16-year-old kids who go home and their parents tell them “no” and turn the process on its head; or they want the animal to stick them in a garage; or just to hunt mice, when they are cats; or for religion, and we prefer not to give them when this is the case,” she says. 

In Nuevitas, Ismaray Rosio and his husband Reinier Roque Santos have been looking after their home/animal shelter for just over a year, but they have always rescued abandoned and abused animals. They have taken care of approximtely 200 dogs in this time and live with over 20 at the moment. 

“We rescue them, heal them and give them up for adoption. Thank God, all of the recovered ones have managed to find a home up until now. But one leaves and we get two more,” he says.

They have a group of 31 volunteers who help with donations – a minimum of 50 pesos per month -, treatments, baths and cleaning. Three Nuevitas locals now living abroad support them financially with veterinary medicines and other resources. 

But violent cases don’t stop. “I have taken care of animals that have had limbs hacked off with a machete, or even raped by humans. There are also lots of cases of abandonment, births to sell puppies, dog fighting, which is very common here, and beating animals to death or hanging them. It’s also common to throw newborns away, especially kittens, and stray dogs are used to train pitbulls for fights and then these dead or seriously injured animals are thrown in the trash. Horses are beaten to death in the middle of the street. But because it’s just a municipality, nothing happens.”

Three years ago, five Santiago de Cuba locals who were against animal abuse, came together and founded Salba. As Amalia Alcolea, one of its founders, explains, the group’s main work is to erradicate the population of stray animals, which has grown a great deal. “We treat them, bathe them, sterilize them and give them up for adoption when we can. We have a shelter where we take animals in critical condition, for example, advanced scabies, a tumor or a pregnant dog so she can be given medical attention and the puppies can be put up for adoption quickly. Animals run over, abused or injured also go to the shelter.

Furthermore, these young people are working on an education program with children, although this work has dwindled in the past 12 months because schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They have created interest groups to try and raise awareness in the younger generations, and they hold other activities relating to animal protection. They have also scheduled timeslots on local radio and TV shows to share the group’s work and to get new volunteers to join them.

While the law revives or dies for good, these activists, and a thousand more across the island, are the ones building a more just country for animals. It’s in the Government’s hands to join or play down this noble and love-filled cause.

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