When I came to work in Cuba in 2012, my son was six years old and spoke no Spanish whatsoever. Despite everyone telling me that “children are sponges, much more flexible than adults” and that it was the ideal moment to make such a move, it was still something I worried about obsessively. With practically everything else in his life uprooted, the one stable thing I could offer besides myself was his beloved cat, so despite a fairly costly and lengthy bureaucratic process (in the US, not Cuba) we brought him along. When I told a friend, she exclaimed, “I can’t believe you’re doing that! Everyone will see that he’s a pampered American cat!”
She was partly right. At least one of the Cubans who met us at the airport barely bothered to conceal her disdain. (It was an omen for the beginning of a relationship that would only continue to deteriorate.) For the most part, everyone else was quite a bit more accommodating. True, as far as pets are concerned, Cubans prefer dogs to cats. It’s not true though that they are hunted for food. Well maybe in the Special Period. I wasn’t here for that. Anyone who suggests nowadays though, that a scarcity of cats in Cuba is some kind of morose indicator, ought to pay more attention at night. The dimly lit street where we live is a virtual glittering cat fiesta after dark.
There’s even an annual cat show in Havana. Like many events here, your chances of finding out about it in advance are fairly low and random but this year I happened to switch on the idiot box just in time to hear it mentioned, and we headed off to Habana Vieja to see for ourselves.
The photo below is of an exclusively Cuban breed, a lovely little gray shorthair called the Cuban Blue or Havana Blue or something like that. It resembles the Russian Blues, but slimmer. I’m a firm believer in animal adoption but even so, I’ve always longed for one.
Vets are available and affordable here, even on Cuban salaries, though the remedies offered are not always effective, and the biggest problem is the hassle of getting there during working hours with pet in tow. The state also has a few clinics charging in hard currency (CUC), offering x-rays and a greater range of supplies. One day my son brought home a very sick abandoned kitten and I’ve never been convinced that our cat didn’t catch Feline Respiratory Virus from it. It was the one vaccination I failed to purchase before we left the US and when I asked the CUC vet about obtaining it, she said that vaccinations like that hadn’t entered the country “for years.” Think about that for a second. Another foreigner I know who was a vet before she moved to Cuba told me that practically all the street cats here have FRV.
Nevertheless, at least one vet is adamant that it is not a virus, but an allergy, and so our “pampered American cat” continues to sneeze, while we try – not very effectively – to control his environment.
The allergies seem only to expand. About a year ago he developed an intolerance for fish. This is a real problem here because there’s no such thing as processed food for pets at any price. You have to make it yourself and fish is the easiest and cheapest. Even so, easy is relative. Not often, but sometimes, there’s no fish at the fishmonger’s. Remember the circle of scarcity, and how the more you need something the less likely you are to find it.
Sometimes there are only gigantic frozen claria – the invasive species that resemble catfish and are now commercially harvested. I dislike claria intensely because it has slippery skin like an eel, and an ammoniac odor. Cats love it though. A friend insists that it’s not that bad to eat. “I know some people don’t like it because they’re freaked out by the fact that it lives on land as well as water and eats rats,” she told me. “What do you mean it lives on land?” I said, stunned. “Does it have legs?” No, she admitted, but there was no convincing her that the lack of limbs would be any hindrance when it came to maneuvering on soil. And catching rats, supposedly.
Cat litter? No such thing. The best we’ve come up with so far is wood shavings. Sand would be better but it’s illegal to remove it from the beach. I also understand now my Cuban friend’s reasoning when we adopted the cat in the first place and he told me that cats were the household pet he liked least. When I asked why, he said, “Well, you know…the box.” I didn’t, but now I do.
The latest challenge: fleas. I’m surprised it took this long. Our cat is an indoor cat mostly but very sociable and he loves to be outside, with other animals. So maybe it was only a matter of time. Many things in Cuba are diminutive in size – consider the “bee hummingbird” and if you think about it, many Cubans themselves. The flea is no exception. It took quite awhile and a number of failed vet visits, with a continual insistence on new allergies previously unknown, before I finally discovered a flea, so tiny, and so quick to leap and vanish into thin air that I wasn’t sure I hadn’t imagined it. When the telltale bites started showing up on my own ankles though, I knew.
Back to the vet – this time the hard currency one. He whipped out his electric razor and swiftly eliminated the fur where the cat was suffering most; around the head and neck, while the fleas began to run and jump for their miniature lives. Basically, that’s how we started calling him Yoda.