The Pets Left Behind from the Cuban Exodus

Photo: El Toque

By Ernesto Eimil (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – Teresa is a 31-year-old woman who lives in Spain. She emigrated from Cuba to Italy in 2018, and from Italy to Spain in 2022.

Teresa’s real name isn’t Teresa; she chose this name to protect her identity.

She lived in Cuba with Sofia, her four-year-old Siamese cat. She left her family behind in 2018, but she promised Sofia she’d come back for her. She’s about to do this.

Even though this promise might not make a lot of sense to lots of people, it’s the most important thing in the world to Teresa: Sofia is her family. They met when the cat was just a few months old, or maybe a year old, and she was one of a group of cats that used to live in a house nearby. One day, they met and Teresa felt there was a connection.

Sofia went missing once, was stolen twice and Teresa always found her.

Teresa used to enjoy spending her time lying down on the bed with her cat. She’d prefer Sofia’s company instead of going out and partying or going out for a drink. One time, she celebrated Sofia’s birthday with a fish as a cake. This is why it isn’t strange that Teresa went back to Cuba to “rescue her”, as she herself says. In early 2023, she traveled to the island to start sorting out the paperwork.

First of all, she needed to give Sofia a rabies vaccine. There are still a few rabies outbreaks in the country. European Union regulations require a certified lab report, to rule out the presence of rabies and a quarantine period, in order for pets to enter. Pets are also required to have a microchip inserted under their skin.

“The cat was calm throughout the entire process,” she said.

A month after the first vaccine was administered, a sample of blood had to be drawn from Sofia and sent to the Valencian Institute of Microbiology. The test cost approximately 100 euros; a friend did her the favor of carrying the blood sample on the plane. The result was negative. Then, Sofia had to stay in quarantine. Both of them had to wait three months (from March to June), the minimum time period stipulated for an animal to be able to enter Europe.

Teresa now has her own place where she can bring Sofia for the first time since she emigrated in 2018. She has a small house in a town located in rural Spain. Before that, she used to live on a mountain in Italy. She worked in the fields there, survived discrimination and was in a vulnerable situation that she doesn’t want to talk about.

She’s been through a lot; but she’s always felt guilty about not being able to give Sofia a better life, up until now.

Guilt is particularly painful for someone who others might call “the crazy animal lady.” A person who is capable of rescuing and giving shelter to any gravely injured being they find. Somebody who might be tired of being told that human beings are more important than those “creatures”, as if she were a little girl.

The formalities have been going well, the paperwork has been relatively fast and she hasn’t spent so much money.

Transporting animals to the U.S

Since October 2020, over 400,000 Cubans have entered the USA across its southern border. How many of these migrants had animals in their care? How many of them are now living with these pets? How many were left along the way? We still don’t have exact numbers of Cuban emigres in the rest of the world.

A source who asked to remain anonymous told elTOQUE that she spent 3000 USD in total to take her pets to the US., 1500 USD for each of them. She did this via a private agency that took care of everything: vaccines, documents and the journey. The pets first flew to Mexico, where they were given a passport from this country, and then they’d fly to the US.

She said that the agency now charges 2500 USD per animal. Prices of the procedure have shot up with the mass exodus of Cubans to this country.

“We all think it’s a lot of money, but there is no price on a pet’s love,” she said.

It’s a long road that involves a lot of risk. Facebook user Isabella Sierra’s experience exemplifies this. She entrusted the transport of her canine “daughter” Fabia to the House of the Travel World. The agency asked her to pay 2880 USD initially, which was 80% of the total cost according to them.

After many months of “arguing”, delays and requests for more money, Isabella complained about the agency on her social media platforms. Many users reported the same problem as she did: they paid the money and their animal family didn’t make it.

House of the Travel World regularly posts successful cases of pets transported from Cuba, although complaints about their work continue to pour in. elTOQUE got in touch with the agency to hear their side of the story, but there was no response.

A few days after Isabella’s post, she finally received all of her money back.

Animals, the other family we leave behind

Unlike Teresa, 27-year-old Sergio hasn’t been able to bring his feline companion. He left Cuba in 2021 with a student visa, and Spain was also his destination.

He’s always liked animals. When he was 10 years old, he found a little kitten near a dumpster. The animal, who wasn’t used to the child’s brusque movements, scratched him a lot. In order to stop his family from kicking it out of the house, Sergio would treat his own injuries with glue. It wasn’t enough and the kitten was finally thrown out.

As an adult, Sergio found Rubio in his partner’s backyard. He was only a few months old. When he came into the living room, the little kitten clung to his chest – according to Sergio’s partner – to stop them from putting him back in the backyard.

Amidst the growing and constant food crisis, Rubio would eat the chicken the two young people were able to get a hold of on the informal market. Sometimes, he’d eat balony from the bodega store, but if there was any chicken about, that’s what he got.

Sergio spoke like the “parents” of privileged animales in Cuba: “what a spoilt cat!” “he has to learn to eat rice and everything.”

At the end of the day, he’d always give into Rubio’s “whims and fancies” and would give him water from the boiled chicken in every meal “so he’d hydrate.”

Sergio and Rubio only lived ten months together, but it was enough for the human to learn that some cats barely drink water; which can cause them kidney-related diseases. He also learned that many cats would prefer to starve to death than eat something they don’t like. He’d come up with strategies to take toys, keys and LED bulbs out of his mouth and he’d methodically study his litter box as a way to prevent gut-related diseases.

Rubio was castrated, treated for parasites and suffered such painful colic that Sergio thought the cat only had a few hours left to live. In 2021, Sergio abandoned any professional goals he had left in Cuba. Like so many others, he concentrated all his skills and efforts on leaving. He found a masters degree in Spain, sorted out the paperwork, paid a great deal for academic documents that he needed to legalize and sold some family mementos.

COVID-19 restrictions in the summer of 2021 delayed formalities for a little more than normal. “If there were delays with people’s papers, you can imagine the delays with animal ones,” he said when he was asked if he’d take Rubio with him.

He didn’t know vets he could trust and he found out by other means that the clinics issuing microchips and certificates weren’t open. Plus, he didn’t have a lot of money left and the date of his flight was fast approaching.

After asking almost all of his friends and relatives, it was his next-door neighbor, a kind, attentive and poor woman in her 50s, who helped him. She and her children took Rubio in, first by taking him food and then letting him into their home.

Sergio and Rubio weren’t able to say goodbye. The day that Sergio had to fly, lots of people came round his house and Rubio, afraid, hid in the bedroom.

“None of us thought that we wouldn’t see each other for such a long time. That may have been the last time we’d see each other in this life. He ran to a safe space and I swallowed my tears,” Sergio remembered.

In Spain, he has enough money to survive. Sometimes, he sends a little to his family. He hopes to change apartment so that he can have a pet. Maybe one day, he’ll have his own place. It’s been nearly two years since he was in Cuba. It’s been nearly two years since he’s seen Rubio.

Abandoned by those leaving

Not every animal whose caretakers emigrate have the same luck. Animal rights groups in Cuba regularly report abandoned animals on their social media.

For example, on April 7th, the Cubanos en Defensa de los Animales (CEDA) project posted about Loki, a dog from Cienfuegos whose family emigrated. Somehow, Loki ended up “tied up, exposed to the sun and rain.” One of his ears became infected, he was malnourished and he had a fever.

Another malnourished dog had a better transition to her new home. This time, it wasn’t her abuser who had plans to emigrate, but the person who took her in temporarily whilst waiting for her final home. CEDA had 20 days before her temporary caregiver was to leave the country. If they didn’t find anything, the dog would have to go back to the place where she was abused; but they finally found her a home.

CEDA volunteers managed to find her a new home before the 20 days were up.

The Bienestar Animal Cuba group wrote up a protocol to ensure – as much as possible – that people adopting animals are responsible. In order to become a caregiver of an animal you need to answer a questionnaire. “The more simple the answers to the form, the greater the chance the Adoption team will reject your application,” they say.

The questions have to be answered by the person who will take care of the animal. Third parties can’t be represented. Answers and the digital signature are stored in case they are needed in a legal action. Meanwhile, children can’t adopt.

BAC told elTOQUE that “most animals are abandoned because of emigration, whether that’s because people don’t have the money to take them with them or because they aren’t seen as part of the family and it’s easy to cut them loose.” 

Adoption fairs organized by the group regularly have lots of caregivers come who are about to leave the country and want to leave their pets. “They are putting animal protection groups in a very sad situation, because we can’t help all of them either. We don’t have the resources,” they pointed out.

Sergio is afraid that Rubio might end up homeless for whatever reason, at an adoption fair or worse yet: lost, abused or killed. He tries not to think about it. Teresa holds Sofia tight against her chest. She is planning her next steps.

Sergio is taking his time. He needs to for his own mental sanity. He’s trying to figure out the next move: will he send 50 euros next month to his blood family or to the neighbor who is looking after his “kid”?

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times

One thought on “The Pets Left Behind from the Cuban Exodus

  • Cuba has its own “fat cats”. Most of them live in Siboney, are members of the Communist Party of Cuba and gather together at the Poder Popular.

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