The Cats of HAVANA

The Cats of HAVANA

Photo: Rob Oneal

HAVANA, June 21th (By Joann Biondi)  It’s not easy being a cat in Cuba.

There’s no flea medicine, no cat litter and no catnip. Historically, they’ve been relegated to second-class status after dogs. During the “special period” of the early 90s when food was scarce following the breakup of the Soviet Union, they disappeared from the streets. And occasionally, they’ve been used in Santeria ceremonies.

But like many aspects of life in Cuba today, things are changing. And for cats, that change is for the better.

“Cuba’s macho culture always favored dogs,” said Nora Garcia, director of Aniplant, the only animal shelter and animal advocacy group in the country that is sanctioned by the Cuban government. “In the past, cats were mostly used to keep away rats and they weren’t allowed inside the home. They didn’t even have names, they were just called ‘the cat.’ Now you see big, masculine men cuddling kittens.”

A Cuban auto mechanic who adores his cat. Photo credit: Joann Biondi

“Today there’s much more respect for cats in Cuba. More people have them as pets and treat them very well. We can now call the fire department when a cat gets stuck up a tree and they’ll come with a ladder to get it down. There are even breeders who specialize in purebred cats and they’re making money by selling them,” said Garcia.

Feral cats take refuge under abandoned cars near the Malecon in Havana. Photo credit: Joann Biondi

Located in Central Havana, Aniplant has been helping the island’s animals for over 25 years. It performs about 5,000 sterilizations on cats and dogs a year, and has launched many educational television and radio campaigns to raise awareness for animal rights. It also brings veterinarians to neighborhoods where low-cost pet health care is needed, and it works to get abandoned dogs and stray cats adopted into forever homes.

Sterilization being performed at the Aniplant clinic. Photo credit: Joann Biondi

But like most animal rescue groups in Third World countries, Aniplant lacks resources and is dependent on foreign donations. The U.S. embargo has made it especially difficult because it prohibits the sale of much needed drugs and medical supplies to Cuba. And the feral population on the island is out of control.

Crawling around crumbling buildings, scurrying down cobblestone streets, sleeping in potholes, and crouched under old American cars, cats are everywhere. They scavenge for scraps of food and seek shelter from the brutal heat. The Cuban government picks up some stray cats from the tourist areas in Old Havana and Varadero, but most of those cats face a horrible death, euthanasia via electrocution or poisoning.

A Catholic nun cradles a stray cat in Old Havana. Photo credit: Joann Biondi

In many ways, the situation for cats in Cuba is the polar opposite of that in the cat-centric United States where gluten-free cat food, scented cat litter and designer cat beds are the norm. But one thing is the same—cat-lovers in Cuba are just as passionate about their felines as cat-lovers are everywhere else in the world. And it’s not uncommon these days to spot young women sporting cat tattoos and wearing cat-themed clothing.

Feral kitten at a produce market in Vedado. Photo credit: Joann Biondi

Early in the morning people throw open their doors and call out, “misu, misu, misu,” and the cats come running home for breakfast. They come home to lush garden apartments, big old houses with wrap-around verandas, and crowded tenement rooms of Barrio Chino. The cats are stroked and hugged and kissed. They are cherished and they are loved. And they’re beautiful—calicos, tabbies, tigers, gingers, tuxedos, torties.

Art gallery owner in Old Havana and one of her many resident shop cats. Photo credit: Joann Biondi

There’s even a sleek, white Balinese cat named Alfonso that was rescued from the streets and now lives a life of luxury inside the Norwegian ambassador’s home. He greets visitors with a friendly, upright tail and alert pointy ears and is probably one of the luckiest cats on the island—he gets fed fresh fish.

Alfonso, a Balinese cat who lives at the Norwegian Embassy in Havana. Photo credit: Joann Biondi

Instead of commercial cat food, most pet cats are fed either raw meat or cooked food that is prepared for them daily—rice with bits of chicken or pork. Island butchers are often generous with cat-owners and they sell, and sometimes give away, plastic bags filled with raw liver. For cats kept indoors, litter is an improvised concoction of sand, sawdust or paper. And although Cuban medicine favors the use of herbs for holistic treatments for humans, the cultivation of the catnip plant has never caught on.

One of the luckier cats in Havana, owned by a butcher. Photo credit: Joann Biondi

The only commercial cat food made in the country is a poor quality dry food that is available to members of the Cuban Association of Cat Enthusiasts (CACE), an organization that functions similar to the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) in the U.S. Founded in 1991, CACE has about 250 members and each year puts on a national cat show at the Kid Chocolate Arena in Havana.

“That dry food is terrible,” said Roxana Valdes, “I’d rather feed my cats liver.” A breeder of Persians, Valdes is also a veterinarian who worked for government-run livestock facilities for many years. When she went to vet school in Cuba in the early 1980s, she wasn’t allowed to study small animals. “The government considered cats and dogs to be bourgeoisie so we were never taught anything about them,” she said.

Valdes operates a successful cattery at her comfortable house in Casablanca where her fluffy Persians are well cared for and sell for about U.S. $150 apiece. The cats share her home with a menagerie of other critters—tortoises, peacocks, parrots and chickens.

Veterinarian and breeder Roxana Valdes with one of her prized Persians. Photo credit: Joann Biondi

Along with Persians, Siamese and Bengals are the other most popular purebred cats in Cuba. There’s a cat known as the Havana Brown, but it originated in England and has no relation to Cuba.

In recent years, a new breed of cat has appeared in Cuba. Called the Cuban Blue, it’s a sturdy, greyish short-hair that strongly resembles the Russian Blue cat. Cuban breeders claim that the cat is the result of a genetic mutation that happened naturally about 30 years ago when this unique looking feline started appearing all over Havana. Breeders of the Cuban Blue have tried to get it recognized as a breed by the CFA in the U.S., but their efforts have been denied.

Roxana Perez has a less scientific but more logical explanation for the appearance of the Cuban Blue. For decades, a large feral cat colony has lived at the National Aquarium in Havana. A few blocks away is the Russian Embassy and next to that are rows of modern apartment buildings that served as housing for embassy staff and their families.

It’s likely that some of these Russians brought their Russian Blue cats to Cuba with them. After all, they also brought their own furniture and cars to the island. And perhaps a few randy males sauntered over to the Aquarium for a little late-night romance. Voila—a handsome Cuban Blue that looks an awful lot like the handsome Russian Blue.

A young girl in Barrio Chino with one of the five cats that live with her. Photo credit: Joann Biondi

Along with breeders and owners of pedigree cats, Cuba has its share of volunteers, mostly women, who care for the feral population on the island. Many of them work tirelessly and share their own food to lessen the hunger of the strays.

One of these women is Rebecca Bolano. A frail, tanned woman in her 80s, Bolano lives in a dilapidated mansion hidden behind high walls in the upscale Havana neighborhood of Vedado. From her second-floor windows, she can see the waterfront Malecon and smell the salty air.

Stubborn and defiant, Bolano lives alone with about 100 feral cats. Scrawny and coated with fleas, her cats lounge on the cool terrazzo stairs leading to the front door waiting for old tin pans to be filled with food.

Rebecca Bolano with her many cats at her home in Vedado. Photo credit: Joann Biondi

Bolano is known in the neighborhood as la gatera loca, the crazy cat lady, and she owns that title with pride. She manages to survive on her government ration book for food and basic supplies, and is helped by generous neighbors and sympathetic butchers who donate food for her cats.

She has lived in the house since the day she was born and plans on living in it until the day she dies. What will happen to her cats when she is gone, nobody knows.