Elizabeth, a 24-Year-Old Havana Cat Lady

HAVANA, June 13th   Elizabeth takes in/welcomes cats. It’s rare for her to go home from work or school without bringing one back with her.

She puts the cats she finds in her backpack or carries them in her arms, and they are baptized within minutes. Mikan, Aoi, Haku…: she gives them these names because she is an otaku (fan of anime and manga culture) “ever since she was a little girl.”

“Luckily, exhaustion doesn’t figure in your article,” Elizabeth Meade Esperon tells me before we begin the interview. While Japanese anime fills her life, she barely has time nowadays to watch new ones; she carries on following “the classics”. Sometimes, she wishes the day had 48 hours, but even then, she thinks she wouldn’t have enough time to do everything she’d like.

As a child, her love for animals made people think she would grow up to be a vet or biologist. However, nobody ever thought she would fully dedicate herself to improving animals’ lives, especially “those without a home”. She had to take care of the first ones that she rescued outside, but she insisted and insisted and she was gradually able to bring them back home.

She doesn’t like to call it a refuge because no rescued cat stays forever. She admits that she crossed “many limits to be able to do this, but she had to do it because there are only a “handful” of people who open up their homes to our furry friends and spend their day with them.”

With the family home being turned into a temporary stray animal shelter, Elizabeth went from being a volunteer at one of the main animal rights organizations in Havana to managing her own, in just two years! While she doesn’t deny help to dogs, her organization is more focused on felines.

She counts over 400 adopted animals since 2019 up until the present day; and a few hundred others passed away, unfortunately. She called the organization Adopciones por Amor (Adoptions out of Love).

With a slim figure, this young woman is never sitting still and she only sleeps the bare minimum. The fact that she has lost 14 lbs in weight in just two months doesn’t surprise her either. She studied physical rehabilitation at university, before gaining experience in taking care of cats and she then studied a veterinary course for workers.

“My animals needed me to pass that gain knowledge. Medical assistance for animals is really expensive and I don’t have the time to take 40 animals to the vet, and a vet can’t always be coming to my house,” she explains.

She enjoys researching all of the time, with a special focus on matters she feels lacking. In spite of not being able to dedicate a great deal of time to studying in her day-to-day, she’s able to do enough to clear up her doubts.

According to Elizabeth’s collaborators, her tolerance and empathy make her an extraordinary leader. “I think that my powers of conviction also helps, and I’m able to bring out the best of each of my volunteers, depending on their profession, time, and life situation. I’m aware that not everyone can do as much as I do.

Economic aid is what I receive the least of, but I do get lots of volunteers to come with transport, donations, food donations and to look after the kittens,” she says.

Elderly women, or as Elizabeth calls them “my older cat ladies”, make up almost all of her support network. These are women who with great difficulty have their homes are full of animals and they suffer great hardship.

They tell me that I’ll be like them when I’m older, and I tell them they’re right.” Her friends contribute the rest, who adore animals like her, as well as neighbors who come and help out whenever they have some free time, and nobody pays them a single cent.

At just 24 years old, and without ever leaving her job as a physical therapist at a health clinic, she doesn’t miss a good party, which is almost always with electronic music because she’s “half-alternative”. She loves theatrical comedies, Korean soap operas, and crafts fairs. She says that it’s worth going out: “I don’t do it much anymore because of COVID, but I hope to be able to go out again.”

Her hair has seen every color under the sun: from dark black tones to brown, blonde, white, red or pink, and even magentas, yellows, oranges, purples, greens, blues, or greys. She’s rarely gone to a hairdresser though. “I’ve invented tones and fantasy-like combinations for my hair because I like to create. If it wasn’t because dyes and other materials are no longer available, I would continue to dye my hair on my own.”

Elizabeth admits that she is disorganized when it comes to personal affairs, but it’s the complete opposite when it comes to animals: she’s punctual, meticulous, with a good memory for numbers, dates, names and locations.

“I know where every one of my rescue cats is because she gave them up for responsible adoption and we continue to check on them. Some come from owners who don’t have the resources needed to look after them.”

In the beginning, Elizabeth didn’t give much importance to sterilization and only programmed them every once in a while. However, having a self-funded project, she understood that sterilization was essential.

In just the second semester of 2020, Adopciones por Amor carried out 1080 sterilizations. “This was in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, so you can imagine it would have been double beforehand.”

The worst thing that has happened to her as a volunteer was watching many rescued cats die, especially little kittens. “It’s painful to see animals that have no way of being saved, even if you did everything you could for them.” However, she doesn’t cry anymore like she used to. Sometimes, the new people she meets are surprised at how she takes these deaths; she explains that “you get stronger”.

She would get panicked in the beginning when she realized that she didn’t have enough supplies, and she wanted to do more but it was out of her hands. “It was hard, shocking, and frustrating.” Economic shortages or people not having the same level of commitment used to disturb her.

Elizabeth deals with this reality better now, because they don’t disappear no matter how much she wants them to. “When I feel defeated today, I speak to a close friend and force myself to sleep.”

Nevertheless, she hasn’t been able to lighten her conscience from the fact that she can’t help every animal. She has learned that hurting them is fast and easy, but it takes three times the amount of work to make them better. “They become spoilt, comfortable and they enjoy nothing more than being taken in because they take over your home, but they are also the most grateful.”

She thinks she’s lucky to be able to depend upon a small but intense group “of people with different professions, personalities, religions, ideologies, who are very similar to her in their hyper-activeness, bravery, and perseverance when it comes to animal protection. We are very honest and we talk whenever we have a doubt or concern.”

She has never missed a work commitment because she is an animal protector. Ever since COVID-19 reached Cuba, Elizabeth has been researching and working as a volunteer at an isolation center, “although she knew it meant being away from home for a month, exposed to danger and leaving my animals in my family’s care.”

On the other hand, this work has taken its toll on her personal life. She has realized that she can’t impose her way of thinking and habits on her partner, her parents, or the animals themselves. “I have age restrictions for the cats I take in so that they don’t have to depend on me the whole day.”

With the international references that exist, she calculates that the Animal Protection Act, which was passed on February 26th and that will come into effect on July 10th, will take some time to make any real changes in society, but it will at least serve as an ABC: “It will create the bases needed to encourage education and civic responsibility when it comes to animal wellbeing.”

An expert in this field, Elizabeth believes that “this document won’t be enough because a shift in mindset is needed in order to protect animals. Cuban idiosyncrasy is far removed from encouraging caring for animals. An ad campaign hasn’t even been run to inform citizens of responsible ownership of cats and dogs.”

While the government’s steps in matters of animal protection have been weak and slow, NGOs that have the same purpose have perfected their work and encouraged respect for them. “It’s very important that we accept other colleagues’ way of working, and we always help each other out,” Elizabeth says.

Internet access via mobile data has been key to improving animal rights activists’ work. In Elizabeth’s words, “90% of adoptions and 100% of event promotion is done via social media. Without it, we would only be able to reach our local community. It has been the driving force behind the group’s organization and information being widely circulated: temporary shelters, transport, rescues, adoptions, the creative side of events.”

If Elizabeth says that she won’t stop picking up any cat she finds on a street corner, it’s because she finds hope in how these animals recover and how more and more people adopt more than once and defend their cats “with sword and cape against anyone. When an adoptive owner sends me a photo of a michi – as I call them – living their life, I know that this sacrifice has all been worth it.”(El Toque)