From the sunny stoop of a corner building on Old Havana’s Plaza Vieja, a white mutt with a tan head naps in the sun, while another chubbier mutt stands guard, ready to protect, but mostly eager for some petting from passersby.
The mere smell of one local prompts both dogs to jump up, tails wagging, tongues panting, and mouths grinning. The man, who is mute, is grinning too.
“She’s not pregnant, she just eats a lot,” the man signs as he points to the chubby dog. Around her neck is a photo ID card listing a phone number and the local business address for a nearby video museum.
“My name is Niña. I’m sterilized. I live at the Cámara Oscura. Don’t mistreat me,” it reads.
Caridad Valdés, a security guard who works in the lobby of the building says Niña and the other dog, P-9, have really improved the neighborly atmosphere.
“Even the building’s director says they’re like our mascots,” she said, as the two dogs poked their heads under her hands.
In many low-income countries it’s common to find underfed, mange-plagued dogs scampering around garbage dumps, often hobbling on three legs. It’s a painful sight, not to mention a real turnoff for tourists. But many of Havana’s street dogs are healthier, friendlier, and more embraced by locals and tourists alike.
That’s largely thanks to the efforts of pioneering Cuban animal rights activist Nora Garcia. Three decades ago, she began to help stray or neglected animals by developing what she calls a “monitoring protection corps.”
The program recruited local veterinarians to volunteer to sterilize and vaccinate animals so they are less likely to be picked up by exterminators. It also helped facilitate adoptions inside Cuba. Today that movement is a non-governmental organization called Aniplant, and its work has gained support in recent years thanks to the country’s boom in tourism and small businesses. Entrepreneurs benefitting from an increase in tourism say they want their neighborhoods to feel more inviting, and having a clean, healthy dog population certainly helps.
“There’s a lot more good will. Perhaps there’s a lot more to be done with educating about care, but the good will is there,” Garcia told Cuba Trade. “They are undeniably happier and less aggressive,” she said, noting Aniplant’s outreach cuts down the prevalence of illnesses such as rabies, which often come from dog bites.
These trends come as little surprise to Andrew Rowan, president and CEO of the Humane Society International in Gaithersburg, Md.
“What we’ve observed is, where we do dog sterilization people appear to start behaving differently to the dogs. People start taking the dogs into more formal settings. Instead of just putting a bowl of rice in street, they’ll start taking the dog in, getting it vaccinated,” Rowan said.
These services can stimulate the private veterinarian business, although many humane societies prefer to take the Cuban approach of free or reduced-rate vaccinations and sterilizations. Either way, Rowan says, veterinary services that resemble Aniplant’s can reduce the cost of public health expenditures by reducing emergency room visits for dog bites and rabies.
“Worldwide, the cost of rabies is about $8 billion, and 75 percent of that is associated with loss of income from death or having to rest up,” Rowan said. The World Health Organization estimates that vaccinating just 40 percent of dogs in a community (at about $1 per dog) is enough to protect all of its inhabitants against the spread of rabies.
Programs like Aniplant, combined with economic growth spurts, are very likely to spur greater pet ownership and spending on animal care, says Bob L. Vetere, president and CEO of the American Pet Product Association.
At a basic level, he says putting collars and ID cards on stray animals lets humans know they are approachable, thus generating a curiosity in animal care that can quickly go viral, especially with social media.
This makes people consider taking in house pets, especially in urban areas where people often work long hours in isolation. From there the next step is creating a local pet food industry.
This trend started about ten years ago in China, just as that nation’s middle and upper classes began to boom.
“It wasn’t all that long ago that dogs were dinner, and then the government said that having a pet is a good thing. Since then, pet ownership has skyrocketed,” Vetere said, noting that China is now one of the largest consumers of pet products in the world. A growing number of U.S. manufacturers have responded to China’s interest in pets by establishing facilities to make pet products in country.
“Could that same thing happen to Cuba? Absolutely,” he said. “There’s still a lot of people struggling to make a living, so I’m not sure designer gourmet pet food is going to catch on. But people have to feed their pets, and your traditional, standard pet foods will, I think, be the way you get this strong foothold.”
Garcia says she would welcome more specialized pet food. Currently, most of the dogs she encounters eat leftovers such as rice, sweet potato, fish, and pork entrails, especially from the growing number of restaurants. “Today that type of food is a challenge, but it would be great if we had an economy that would allow for that,” she said.
Dog food sales are legal under current U.S. law, as they fall under the embargo’s exemptions for the sale of food and agricultural products.
“It’s food, so it’s legal,” said attorney Pedro Freyre, the international practice chair at Akerman LLP.
Even dogs without collars appear friendlier and less skittish than street dogs in other low-income nations. In fact, they can often be spotted laying on their backs being petted by tourists dining at outdoor tables.
Rowan chuckled at the dogs’ pleas for attention. “Dogs are their own best advocates. They look at you and then you say ‘oh how cute,’ so you support behavior that produces rewards,’” he said.
Interested in helping Cuba’s dogs? Donations and other support can be sent to Aniplant’s U.S.-based team. See how by visiting www.theaniplantproject.org.