HAVANA TIMES, July 17 — The first time I saw my mother cry was over a cat that some boys on the block had thrown against a wall. There it was, in a box, where not the old towel it was wrapped in, nor lukewarm milk nor our caresses could save its life.
I didn’t know what it was that tore inside of me, and I had no idea how much that incident would complicate my life.
Even today, for example, eating a piece of pastry at a kiosk in my neighborhood of Alamar before the anguished look of one, two, or up to three starving dogs is an exercise in indifference that I can never achieve.
“Oh, such trivia compassion, how unpractical, what a waste!” some might say.
This summer I tried to save a dog that my son brought home covered with injuries as well as bugs that fed on its pus. In addition, he brought two sparrows that had fallen from their nest, a hummingbird chick and a kitten that was crying up on the garage roof, terrified and caked with excrement… I realize how some neighbors look at us: “They’re crazy people, dirty people,” they say with their looks.
Is a person dirty for assuming responsibility for others? Others allow their dogs to go out in heat, or they abandon a litter of newly born puppies yelping from inside a plastic bag, as a woman told me as she was desperately try to find people to take them.
My sister, who already has five dogs and four cats, saw a puppy a few days ago with its eyes still shut and agonizing in the grass. With that same lingering pain in her chest, all she could do was place it in the shade.
I remember a neighbor who found a dog in the street bleeding from the vagina. The veterinarian that operated on it assured him that it had been raped. Since that time I’ve wondered: Why isn’t the rape of an animal considered a crime? Because it’s unusual? (It would be necessary to do away with all the anecdotes that some men enjoy telling about their experiences with pigs or sheep).
First World Delirium
Excitedly, my son told me about the programs of Animal Planet, where they rescue animals that have been abused.
“Gimme a break. This way of thinking about animals as being sensitive beings? And in Cuba? What nonsense, what First World delirium!”
In the 1990s the economic crisis almost legitimated the hunting of cats. I tried never to imagine what methods were used to kill them before eating their meat, which is “almost like chicken,” say the experts. Similarly, back in those years I found out that a neighbor used to go out into the streets to pick up dogs —undernourished and despondent— and give them to his pit bull, so that it could destroy them. Other youths would get together to “enjoy” the show.
How long does it take for cruelty to become a habit? How much silence, how much of this constant exercise of turning you head away?
Years later, somebody told me that after many letters of protest had appeared in the press, Nora Garcia Gonzalez, the director of ANIPLANT (the only official Cuban organization for the protection of animals), succeeded in getting a law approved that prohibited the use of that breed of dogs for fighting; it’s now legal only have them as pets. Still, none of the pit bull owners I know seem to be aware of that legislation. I even have doubts about the effectiveness of that law. Where do I go if I see two dogs tearing each other into pieces while their owners bet on the winner?
It is obvious that we’re not a First World city. This can be noted in the tragedy, in the outrageous spectacle of abandoned cats and dogs. They strew the garbage in the street searching for food, and they crisscross the streets in groups when another dog is in heat. They’re sometimes even run over by cars, after which time their cadavers lie in the middle of the thoroughfare or in the curb until they decompose completely.
Yet we do have clubs for pureblooded dogs, competitions that stimulate a hobby that demands a great deal of resources: all types of vaccinations and even air conditioning for some (such as the Chow Chow) to enable them to support our torrid climate.
My father once told me that compassion is an exclusive quality of the human species… But how can I believe that? I saw a documentary where a panther killed a female monkey and then seemingly felt sorrow for her young, which were crying, looking for food… What do we expect from this generation of youth who eat ham sandwiches at any kiosk and don’t even think to look into those anguished eyes that follow their every movement? A better world?
I’ve read articles that raise powerful social questions; for example, ones in the magazine Palabra Nueva, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Havana. These are writings that surprised and moved me, yet I’ve never seen or been witness to an animal defense campaign by the church (be it Catholic or Protestant).
I noted an anecdotal statistic: I asked some older women who I’ve seen distributing food to street dogs and cats: none of them are Christians. And when I read the Holy Bible, I don’t find a single passage concerning compassion towards animals.
Nonetheless, in the Gospel of the Twelve, one of the oldest Christian documents (and which is conserved in a Buddhist monastery in Tibet), there is an expression concerning Jesus Christ that reads: “It happened, because he was born amid animals, because he also came to free them from their suffering.”
Further on, the author quotes Jesus Christ himself as saying, “For that reason you are considered kind and compassionate, not only with your fellow men but also with all the creatures in your care; because to them you are like gods to those who look up to see their needs.”
So many I lose count
I know a woman who lives in a nice house along the coast in Alamar, on the eastern edge of Havana. Whenever my husband and I ring the bell, we see several dogs running toward the fence. In the room, lying on the sober and elegant furniture (perhaps imported from Europe), I can easily count one, two, three, or ten cats… So many that I lose count!
“I ended up having fifteen dogs and sixteen cats,” the woman told me, adding, “I don’t receive people here at home.”
“But your friends?” I asked.
“My friends are in Europe, where I live half the year. I left Cuba in the 1980s, when people were better off; it was different. So yes, I had friends. When I returned in the 90s, planning to stay here, I realized that people had changed a lot… I no longer know the Cuban people!
She showed me her hens, also pets, as well as an amusing yellow duckling, which one of the hens cares for as if it were its very own.
“The duckling follows it around all the time, and they even sleep together,” she said with fondness. I looked at her calm face. It was the golden hour of the evening, with the breeze from the north sweeping in the intense aroma of salt. I looked around me at the cats, dogs, hens and a duck, and was reminded of a man that who lives near the iron bridge in Miramar in west Havana: He has two dogs and more than 30 cats!
“Every time somebody kills one of those little animals, it’s as if it they’re taking a piece of my life,” she said.
I think back to my cat Shining, of its look when my son brought it home in his arms after it had fallen five floors. It was having trouble breathing because one of its ribs had perforated a lung. How can I forget that look! How can I forget that just hours earlier it caressed my face only to be (like me) so unsatisfied with its limitations!
I understand this woman who doesn’t receive visits from people, but who welcomes the dogs and cats that people abandon in the street, and who even allows people to drop them off in her yard to make themselves feel like they’ve done something for the animal (without offering a peso for their care).
One can also say to themselves, caressing them: “Afraid of everything… I take refuge in you,” as Jose Marti said in his dedication of “Ismaelillo,” a collection of poems dedicated to his son.