Finally, after an interminable wait, Pinar del Río’s alfresco Rumayor cabaret began. Rumbling drums. Trilling trumpets. Whirling spotlights. And a troupe of long-legged showgirls appears. The louche espectáculo had barely begun when a dog sauntered onto the stage. The dancers sashayed around the mutt as it wandered obliquely across the piste, descended the stairs, strolled past the patrons in the front row, and exited stage left.
Had no-one else noticed? Nobody moved to intercept it or shoo it out, although “stage left” meant that the perro had returned to the rear of the stage whence it came.
I shook my head in astonishment. A surreal “only in Cuba” moment! Maybe it was part of the show?
Cortico, the grizzled street mutt that for many years could reliably be found snoozing at the entrance to the Hotel Parque Central had more courtesy. He was always to the left or right of the swing door and the liveried doormen. So long as he wasn’t underfoot, they didn’t mind either. I couldn’t imagine such a thing at Claridge’s, or Brown’s Hotel, London. But in Cuba the attitude is live and let live.
By some estimates, Cuba’s canine population numbers more than a million, of which most are privileged pedigree hounds with a secure roof over their heads.
Cortico’s right ear drooped. His left stood erect, its tip chewed off clean. And his face bore the scars of many a scrap. With a good wash, you could tell he was white. But noone had bathed him in a long time. He was the color of New York snow a week after fresh snowfall has been muckied by grime and soot.
Foreigners seeing Cortico for the first time were unsure whether he was a perro callejero – a street dog – or not. He wore a photo ID card around his neck that in Spanish read: “My name is Cortico. I’m a pet in the Baratillo Flea Market. I’m sterilized and vaccinated. Don’t mistreat me.”
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Once, seeing me exiting the hotel and turning south for Habana Vieja, he rose, and trotting close behind on his short but stout legs, together we wandered the ten blocks down Calle Obispo to Plaza de Armas. Passing the Museo de Orfebrería (Silversmith Museum), five other mongrels rose from sun-shaded slumber to sniff and greet him. Their ID tags – similar to Cortico’s and issued by the Oficina del Historiador de la Habana (City Historian’s Office) – showed that they lived at the museum.
At first view, you might think that in Cuba’s socialist utopia, even stray dogs get ID cards and are provided with state sponsored accommodation and health care. In truth, while contemporary Cuba may theoretically be a classless society, like the population as a whole some dogs are more equal than others.
By some estimates, Cuba’s canine population numbers more than a million, of which most are privileged pedigree hounds with a secure roof over their heads. Well-fed and pampered, they range from Chihuahuas and Cocker Spaniels to the Havana Bichón, aka Havanese silk dog, Cuba’s very own homespun hound. Outnumbering all other breeds by a wide margin are salchichas – “sausage dogs” – peering into the streets through barred windows, or given free rein by their owners to negotiate them with insouciance. Many habaneros let their dogs roam the streets; perhaps less than one-fifth of the city’s free-ranging dogs are true strays.
Asleep in the road, ambling along the cobbled calles, and rummaging through piles of garbage are an assortment of homeless hounds, mostly mongrels with a hybrid vigor perfectly suited to a life in the sun. No small number are mangy mutts attesting, thought Adolf Hungry Wolf in Letters from Cuba (1997), “to hard-fought meals scavenged from the few edible tidbits that a poor hungry nation accidently drops.”
Many perros callejeros are offspring to once-privileged pooches whose owners turned them out onto the streets during the terrible years of the ‘Special Period’ in the early ‘90s, when few people were able to feed their beloved hounds. While virtually the entire cat population disappeared into the cooking pot (I don’t ever recall seeing a cat in Cuba back then), Cubans loved their dogs too much to have actually eaten them, no matter how hungry.
Moreover, Cuban society is steeped in Santería superstition, which holds that dogs are sacred animals and should not be mistreated. Although not rising to the level of Hindu veneration for the cow as representative of divine and natural beneficence, Cuba’s dogs are regarded with benign respect and affection.
In Cuba’s syncretic Santería religion, the lame, leprous miracle-worker orisha (deity) Babalú Ayé is both patron saint of the sick and the savior of animals – especially dogs. His Catholic alter ego is the sick beggar San Lázaro (of the parable in Luke 16:19-31), whose sores were licked by dogs. No doubt Cuba’s rangy and disheveled, yet amiable, street curs lick their lips when December 17, the feast day of San Lázaro, comes around. Then, countless santería adherents join the many Cubans who more regularly save up precious scraps to give to strays. Many are the Cubans who do so on any day of the year. Testament to the island’s magnificent value system.
In three full decades of exploring Cuba, I don’t ever recall seeing a dog being abused in public. No wonder Cuban dogs have a remarkably tame disposition. It’s a surprise to even hear a dog bark! By comparison, during five-months exploring Colombia for National Geographic, I soon learned to carry pepper spray at all times. And pity any hound loose on the roads of Jamaica!
(Nonetheless, Cuba has a significant illegal dog-fighting culture. One reason why in February 2021, the government finally passed an animal welfare law in response to popular pressure forbidding anyone “to provoke a confrontation between animals of any species.” Cockfights remain legal, however, if sponsored by state-supervised clubs. And animal sacrifices are still permitted during Santería ceremonies.)
This being Cuba, the Cubans’ passion for pooch still occasionally gets caught up like a snagged leash in the political dogfight with Uncle Sam.
In February 2001, Amalia Castro, president of Cuba’s National Association of Afghan Hounds, dismissed Vicki Huddlestone, the top U.S. diplomat in Havanaand her dog, named ‘Havana.’ “You should understand that your government’s and your actions [distributing AM/FM radios to Cuban dissidents] are incompatible with the morale of the Afghan Hound Association,” wrote Castro, whose own hound had lost to ‘Havana’ in a local dog show. The incident proved delectable chow to the international media, who sniffed an irresistible story. The negative publicity caused a rethink. “I’m going to give [the] dog a pardon,” Fidel announced, although Huddlestone remained in the doghouse.
Meanwhile, in humble Centro Habana and Habana Vieja, a legion of lesser-groomed but no less lovable hounds roam the streets. Compared to other Caribbean and Latin American countries, however, relatively few are underfed, matted, mange-plagued, or hobbling around on three legs. Not least thanks to the efforts of animal-rights activist Nora García Pérez, the doyen of AniPlant, the Centro Habana-based Cuban Association for the Protection of Plants and Animals.
Meanwhile, in humble Centro Habana and Habana Vieja, a legion of lesser-groomed but no less lovable hounds roam the streets.
AniPlant’s mission is to reduce the number of street dogs by providing vaccinations and sterilizations by volunteer veterinarians, as well as care for needy animals at a shelter, and even facilitating local adoptions. Sad fates often await less lucky strays, who are likely to be picked up by state dog-catchers of Zoonosis, a branch of Salud Pública (public health). They’re euthanized inhumanely with strychnine!
Cortico, his five pals, and several dozen similarly tagged pooches that roam the streets of Habana Vieja, are lucky beneficiaries of a unique program initiated in 2007 by Eusebio Leal (1942-2020), the late and dearly beloved Official Historian of the City. His appreciation that having a healthy dog population could foster a more positive touristic experience led to a partnership with AniPlant to deworm, vaccinate, and sterilize street dogs in the historic tourist zone.
Museums, restaurants and hotels run by Habaguanex (the commercial division of the City Historian’s office), and similar state institutions each adopted a stray dog to care for. All of the quasi-official dogs afforded this special status and issued official ID cards are immune from the attentions of Havana’s dog catchers.
The project spawned more informal adoptions by other institutions and private businesses. Like the formal state entities, they typically feed “their” dogs left-overs put out by restaurants. Others have been adopted by custodios (security guards) to keep them company and alleviate the boredom of protecting buildings in a city with little crime.
It’s hard to conceive of canines snoozing in the lobby of a national museum in Washington, or any of New York’s most prestigious hotels. Yet on any stroll through the streets of Havana, you’ll come across mutts lazing unmolested in the most prestigious and unlikely of places. Or even making a cameo appearance trotting across a cabaret stage.
Alas, Cortico won’t be among them. He died in 2019.