By Carol Fletcher, photographer and The Aniplant Project board member
If you are a dog lover and have ever been to Cuba–or to any third world country for that matter–you know the helpless heartache of seeing painfully thin and sick animals on the streets. And while Cuba is a highly educated, healthy and empathetic population, their lack of resources is a tremendous problem.
Often, people simply do not have the means to properly care for animals. That means that many dogs/cats go without spaying/neutering. Unwanted animals are turned out to roam the streets in search of food and shelter–often sick, dirty, mangy and flea-covered. The Cuban government collects strays from city streets nightly, and immediately kills these dogs/cats by poisoning food with strychnine.
Without animal protection laws, there are stories of cruelty–dog fighting and animals used in Santeria rituals. With the influx of money and disposable income, there is also a disturbing new trend–“backyard” breeders selling puppies on the streets.
There is much work to do to protect and care for the animals of Cuba. And there is only one animal welfare organization permitted to function in Cuba: Aniplant, or Asociación Cubana para la Protección de Animales y Plantas.
Nora Garcia Pérez is the founder of Aniplant and has dedicated nearly 30 years to the care of the animals of Cuba. She tackles big ventures like founding Aniplant and promoting animal welfare on Cuban radio and TV, as well as daily duties like traveling around Havana checking on animals. She is both figurehead and worker bee, and works tirelessly for the animals. Even her little yellow Fiat has the passenger seat removed to make room for two street dogs who sleep in the car every night.
Aniplant is located in Centro Havana, not far from the Hotel Nácional, the University and only steps from the beautiful Malecón. Aniplant’s main mission is to reduce the number of strays by providing as many spay/neuters as possible. They have performed nearly 5,000 sterilizations each year since 2012 and are currently trying to expand operations throughout Havana and all of Cuba. Like everything related to Cuba, it is complicated. While it is the only animal protection organization permitted in Cuba, Aniplant is not supported by the government. There are ministries and permissions to deal with and there are the obstacles of getting needed medical supplies despite the U.S. embargo.
In addition to trying to reduce the number of strays, Aniplant seeks to eliminate the suffering of Cuban animals through public education promoting good veterinary care and animal health. They also facilitate adoptions and provide hands-on intervention in cases of animal abuse.
Nora is often called on by tourists to help with strays. Some tourists find a dog and want to adopt it back to their country. Other tourists are willing to pay for care and treatments of strays, but are unable to take the dogs/cats home. For the animals lucky enough to find homes overseas, Nora helps coordinate the necessary paperwork and vaccinations, finds crates for their air travel and even houses the animal until time to immigrate. She also works with tourists who seek help for a dog/cat that will remain in Cuba–from searching for the animal based on email descriptions or visiting the hastily found Cuban homes where tourists leave the dogs/cats before getting on their flights home. There is much work.
The Aniplant location at 128 Principe is home to 19 dogs: 16 who live there as adoptable or “mascots” and 3 waiting to be on their way to homes in the UK and the USA. The dogs have the run of the back areas of Aniplant–the kitchen, a play area outside and a little room just off the courtyard. There are employees at Aniplant who work to train and socialize the dogs, and to prepare their meals of rice and meat. A veterinarian and vet tech are also on staff for routine procedures and emergency care. And every Friday, hundreds of pounds of meat for dog food are delivered to Aniplant to be sold to the community for fundraising. The place is immaculate, colorful, lively and upbeat–the receptionist sings on occasion and offers tiny cups of strong coffee to those waiting patiently for services. Dog and cat owners chat with each other and hold their pets close in the tiled lobby. Potential adopters check in at reception and discuss the adoption application process. And every now and then, the dogs break into barks or whines as a visitor makes his way back through the courtyard.
If you are moved by this story, please consider a small donation to The Aniplant Project. The Aniplant Project is a U.S. based non-profit with the sole mission of supporting Aniplant in Cuba. Considering that veterinarians in Cuba make only about $250 a year, any amount of money donated will go a long way to helping the animals. If you plan to travel to Cuba, please contact The Aniplant Project for a wish list of donations needed at Aniplant.
Animal welfare in Cuba is a daunting challenge; Aniplant and the dogs/cats of Cuba need all the help they can get. Muchas gracias!