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A stray dog doesn't have much chance of surviving in Havana.
Credit: IPS/Dalia Acosta
Stray Dogs Swarm Cuban Streets
By Dalia Acosta

Most of the dogs running loose on Cuba's streets have owners who aren't looking after their canine friends. Organized dog fights or even strychnine injections are just some of the threats the dogs face.

HAVANA, Apr 2 (Tierramérica).- More than 20,000 stray dogs can be found on the streets of Cuban cities, their lives threatened by traffic and violence -- human and canine.

According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, there are 480 million dogs in the same situation around the globe.

In Cuba most canines have a stable home, but because of their owners' lack of responsibility they spend most of the day out on the streets, says Nora García, president of the non-governmental Cuban Association for the Protection of Animals and Plants (Aniplant).

"Truly stray dogs, there aren't that many. The circumstances don't offer real possibilities of survival and reproduction. Hunger and thirst mean a rapid decline in health. They get by on a bone here, some dirty water there. The unrelenting sun shows little mercy, and in their constant wandering they deteriorate quickly," García told Tierramérica.

The lack of public education campaigns and of control measures makes a solution an elusive goal, despite the efforts of organizations, cultural personalities, veterinary clinics allied with Aniplant and government institutions.

A massive dog deworming effort was conducted on Mar. 8 by specialists from the aquarium in the Old Havana historic center. Anyone who brought in a stray dog received an extra dose of the deworming product donated by the local representatives of the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer.

Deivis Garzón went with his six dogs -- two of which he had rescued from the streets. "There are a lot of dogs that spread fleas and mange," he told Tierramérica. He and his wife have taken in many stray puppies, which they find homes for amongst their friends.

"At the Historian's Office we strongly defend (environmental) education" through schools, museums and the communications media, said José Vázquez.

Created in 1938 for cultural purposes, the City of Havana Historian's Office was given extraordinary powers in 1993 over the Old Havana district's economic management, self-financing of historic conservation efforts, and promotion of social programs to benefit the neighborhood's more than 70,000 residents.

"Environment is not just grass and birds. It is Old Havana -- it is people's surroundings," Vázquez said.

Environmental education in this country "can't be more concerned about a forest or a river than about a dog without an owner: they deserve the same attention, humanely and ecologically, and the same awareness about their importance and place in the framework of life on Earth," says Cuban author Leonardo Padura.

Padura has denounced the impunity of animal mistreatment and has presented the image of the stray dog as "a cry of alarm that, apparently, very few are hearing."

In the recent years of Cuba's economic crisis, a more violent facet of this problem has re-emerged: dog fights. The bets can surpass 120,000 pesos (5,400 U.S. dollars), and people will put a house, a motorcycle or car on the line.

Also associated with the dog fights are sideline businesses of "drugs, food, movies, entertainment, bookies, fight space rentals, trainers... they even come from other countries to make money here. And something so terrible -- the participation of children and teenagers, the dogs' main promoters and supporters," said Aniplant's García.

Her organization alerted the authorities, but the situation is unchanged. "A dog trained to fight and its owner are more dangerous than a loaded machine gun," she said.

Violence between dogs is also a daily occurrence at the state-run shelters, where the dogs captured on the streets are taken. They are kept at least 72 hours, and if nobody comes to claim them they are euthanized with a strychnine injection.

In Cuba, there are no legal protections for these animals.

Years ago, in the 1980s, Aniplant presented a legislative bill on animal protection and welfare, but nothing has come of it.

Since 1991, the group has conducted dog neutering campaigns. In order to be effective, more than 80 percent of all dogs in a given area must be spayed or neutered, but this goal is unattainable with Aniplant's meager resources.

Meanwhile, the Historian's Office is seeking financing to set up a shelter that would provide care for 100 dogs, keeping them temporarily until homes with "responsible people" are found, said Vázquez.

* Dalia Acosta is an IPS correspondent.

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