Cuban street dog

A Cuban Rescue, Part One

This is Part One of a two-part story about the rescue of a Cuban street dog by Julie, who was Hogan’s foster mom. Click here or the link at the bottom of the article for Part Two of the story.)

Last February, my Mom and I visited a resort south of Varadero. It was only my second trip to Cuba, and I chose the location for its snorkelling, which was fantastic. The resort was small, quiet, no-frills, and all of two stars.  There were stray dogs and cats around that our tour operator sternly warned us not to feed (of course, however, everyone did).

Dogs on the resort property

Dogs on the resort property

Outside of the resorts, skinny, overworked horses, bony cattle, and free-roaming cats and dogs are commonplace.  While Cubans do keep dogs as working animals and pets, there is really no general understanding of routine vaccinations, sterilization, or preventative medicine. Hotels have an interest in ensuring their properties are free from curious, hungry, or diseased strays, which are perceived as a nuisance.

We watched a bonded male and female wander the periphery, the male predictably showing up at the dining hall looking for handouts, although the female wouldn’t approach. We heard that the pair once had puppies under the gardener’s shed. No one knew what happened to them. The staff spoke of tourists who sometimes befriended dogs, lamenting that it’s easier for a dog to leave Cuba than for a person to.

IMG_1756There were multiple sightings of an injured dog. Someone reported seeing puppies on the road leading to the resort. All just chatter among concerned tourists powerless to help. Toward the end of the two weeks, a black dog turned up one evening around the dining hall.  She looked like my dog Buttons who, at 17, was in failing health at home.  Maybe that’s why I took an interest.

The dog approached us the next day, tail and body wiggling.  She so wanted the attention of the tourists, but she was crawling with fleas and had open, infected sores from scratching,  visible through her thin fur. Although people didn’t really want to touch her, her persistence and happy demeanour earned her food scraps and fresh water, which was a good thing since she was producing milk and had obviously nursed puppies recently.  A security guard said some Cuban people had taken her pups, leaving her, and that he had watched her come from the ravine (pictured) between two resorts. We combed the garbage-strewn brush looking for the puppies but didn’t find any. She actually led us to a hole under a bridge at the top of the ravine, which we think may have been her den.

A couple of days remained before we were due to return home.  I thought maybe I could catch, vaccinate, and release the little black dog, not that I had any idea how. Discreet enquiries led me to two sympathetic staff members. One knew what to do, but I would have to meet him off-site since he could lose his job if the hotel management found out. Hotel jobs are among the most competitive and sought-after in the country.  I knew that this was no joke.  Another tourist provided a clothesline for use as a leash. Later that evening, I “caught” the dog (it wasn’t hard) and wrapped her in a towel. The staff member met me after his shift and agreed to take her to his home—in a gymbag on a public bus—for the night. He would  bring her back in the morning and meet me on his day off. He would arrange for a friend who drives a cab to take us to a veterinary clinic in the nearest city, 30 minutes away.

She had such itchy skin.

She had such itchy skin.

Leaving my Mom on the beach the next morning, I tucked all of the pesos I had left into my pocket and met the two men as planned. Both were clear: no pictures and no posting their names or faces on the Internet.

They showed me pictures of St. Francis of Assisi (known as the patron saint of animals) in their wallets. We drove to Matanzas, the nearest town, where the veterinary clinic was located. As we drove through the winding neighbourhoods, it was hard not to notice the many loose dogs, seemingly invisible to people, just existing on the streets. At the clinic, people were lined up outside. The cab driver explained our situation, and the vet took us in right away. He gave the dog a series of shots—rabies and other vaccinations. I later learned that the strength of one of them was 5 times more potent than the product we use here in Canada. He gave me medicine that was to be mixed with water and poured on the dog’s skin later in the evening to kill the fleas and dry up her sores.  Total cost: 15CUC, about $15.

Then, I asked about bringing her home. In rescue-speak, this friendly little dog was “highly adoptable.” I was certain I could find her a good home! Problem was, there are no stores in which to buy a collar, commercial dog food, or a crate, and there was no kennel  to be had at the vet. The veterinarian, though, said he knew a lady who could find us one. The two Cuban guys I was with looked at each other and shrugged. I think they knew they were in for a long day. The clinic phoned her. Yes, she had a kennel; yes, she could meet us, but she lived in another city an hour away. Decision made.

At her first vet appointment

At her first vet appointment

Next stop: we had to visit the Ministry of Agriculture to have the dog inspected and arrange for more paperwork. Luckily, this was also in Matanzas, near the clinic. The veterinarian came with us and spoke with the government workers. There was a fee for them to complete the necessary papers, in triplicate, on a typewriter. They would call the airport, where there would be another veterinarian inspection before boarding.

Duly signed and stamped paperwork in hand, we set off in search of a kennel in the city of Cardenas. It was here that I met Ingrid, the Cuban coordinator of APAC Varadero. APAC, a registered charity in Edmonton and an amazing organization, works with Cuban and Canadian veterinarians to run anti-parasite and spay/neuter campaigns to help Cuba’s street animals and try to make a dent in the animal overpopulation.

Ingrid welcomed us into her home (even the flea-ridden dog) and told us about APAC’s work. I remember feeling annoyed that I could have brought so many medical supplies down for her, had I only known.  The group relies on donations of money and veterinary supplies , primarily brought down by tourists, to carry out its work. It’s hard to believe that in Cuba,  just $5 will spay/neuter and feed a street dog or cat! Imagine if all the Canadian tourists simply donated their leftover convertible pesos!

Back at the resort, I paid the cab driver his fare and gave the other guy all I had left: 10CUC and some makeup for his girlfriend. Then I snuck the dog back onto the resort and into the shower to give her a flea bath and the medicinal dip.

My mom wasn’t entirely surprised at Plan B. We called the dog Coconut, or “Coco” for short.  The tour operator representative (who wasn’t so stern, after all) called Air Transat to make her reservation and confirm I could take Coco home.

Between her first car ride, all of the drugs and her first bath, Coco was completely exhausted! It was probably the first time in her young life that she had a good night’s sleep without scratching (the meal  of chicken and rice stealthfully swiped from the dining hall also probably helped).

The next morning, it was time to head home.  I walked Coco on the clothesline-leash,  receiving mixed responses from hotel guests:  supportive tourists wanting to hear how she did and how she liked the snow gave me their email addresses. Others clearly thought I was nuts! At the Varadero  airport, another veterinarian inspected her and stamped her paperwork. She would fly in the cargo hold.

Click here to find out what happened next for Coco.