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It’s a dog’s life in Havana

It’s a dog’s life in Havana

Dogs are to Havana and Cuba as cats are to Naples and the Greek Isles — a ubiquitous and lovable presence whose adaptability and resilience is as charmingly a defining element of contemporary Cuba as are the island’s classic American cars.

Contemporary Cuba may ostensibly be a classless society, but on Fidel Castro’s communist isle some dogs are more equal than others. There are the rangy strays – skinny, ugly, with a missing piece of ear, as rich in qualities as the most aristocratic of purebreds – with their hybrid vigor, perfectly suited to a life in the sun. And then there are the more privileged pedigree hounds with a secure roof over their heads, well-fed, pampered, and groomed as much as their owners meager resources allow.

By some estimates there are over a million dogs in Cuba, of which half may be strays – many of them mangy mutts, scars all over their faces attesting, thought Adolf Hungry Wolf, “to hard-fought meals scavenged from the few edible tidbits that a poor hungry nation accidently [sic] drops.” Asleep in the road, ambling along the cobbled streets, and rummaging through garbage are an assortment of disparate hounds from Chihuahuas to Cocker Spaniels. Most are former house pets let loose and are thus friendly.

Cubans hold animals in high esteem, often saving up precious scraps for stray cats and dogs, of which there is no shortage – at least not of dogs, the cat population having disappeared into the cooking pot during the terrible years of the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when malnutrition stalked the land. Cubans love their dogs too much to have actually eaten them, no matter how hungry. Nevertheless, during the ‘Special Period’ of a decade ago, many people could no longer afford to feed their beloved hounds and with great sorrow turned them out onto the streets.

Not that these dogs are abused. Quite the opposite. Cuban society is steeped in Yoruba tradition, which holds that dogs are sacred animals and should not be mistreated. That belief has been passed down and absorbed into contemporary social custom. Whether purebred or mongrel, Cuba’s amiable perritos (Cuban dogs have a remarkably tame disposition) are no less adored and cared for than their cousins 90 miles north of the Florida Straits.

Cuba’s national passion for dogs extends back beyond Columbus’ arrival. When the Spanish first arrived in the Americas in the sixteenth century, they found at least twenty distinct breeds of dog, including the Mexican hairless, one of the most popular pedigrees still found in Cuba today. A majority of the more than two hundred distinct breeds of dog in the world are found on the isle. The Boxer is particularly popular, as are Dachshunds, Dalmatians, Bassets, sleek Afghans, the tenacious terriers, and especially the Havana Bichón (aka Havanese silk dog), Cuba’s very own homespun hound.

Splendidly suited to the hot, sparse conditions of Cuba, the bichón – the national dog of Cuba – is the island’s only canine of Cuban origin (it was recognized as a distinct breed by the American Kennel Club in 1995).

This tiny bundle of silky fluff comes in any color from gold to silvery-blue. Its soft, silk-like coat provides perfect insulation against the sun that in summer beats down hard as a nail. Formerly the favorite lapdog of Cuba’s colonial-era high society, by the pre-revolutionary era the breed had established itself as the preferred pet of all Cuban families.

Following the Revolution, however, the bichón almost died out within Cuba. Today, it is regaining its stature in tandem with the bichón’s rocketing popularity in North America. (Cuba’s Bichón Habanero Club, which was founded in 1991 and admitted to the Federación Cinólogica de Cuba the following year, is just one of numerous pure-bred dog clubs under the umbrella of the Cuba Dog-breeders Federation. Working from a founding stock of only 15 dogs, the club’s closely supervised breeding program has helped reestablish the bichón population.)

Intrigued? Contact the Club Habanesa Bichón:
Calle Milagros #264 e/ Lawton y Armas, Lawton;
tel. +503-7/698-2247

Cuba even has its own bi-annual dog show, ExpoCanina, hosted by the Federación Cinológica de Cuba (FCC); c/o Roberto Rivas Hernández, President
(tel +503-7/641-9006).

  Christopher P. Baker is a professional travel writer and photographer, and leads tours of Cuba for MotoDiscovery and National Geographic Expeditions. His six books about Cuba include MI MOTO FIDEL: MOTORCYCLING THROUGH CASTRO?S CUBA (National Geographic Adventure Press), winner of two national book awards.
? Christopher P Baker
travel writer ? photographer ? moto-journalist ? cuba expert
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Lowell Thomas Award 2008 Travel Journalist of the Year  

  In 1996 Christopher shipped his BMW R100GS motorcycle to Cuba and rode 7,000 miles during a three-month journey to research the Moon handbook to Cuba. His award-winning literary travel book – Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling through Castro’s Cuba – describing the journey was published by National Geographic Adventure Press.

Travel Book of the Year
Lowell Thomas Awards
“This is a wonderful adventure book… a meditation on philoso-phy, politics, and the possibilities of physical love. It has the depth of a novel and the feeling of a great love story.”
Judges, Lowell Thomas Award
also NATJA Grand Priz  

Rave reviews…
“Mi Moto Fidel is a satisfying and complete portrait of Cuba It’s all here: money, sex, politics, geography, history, cigars, marlin, and, of course, Fidel. Serious travel writing is often intricate and complex. Bikers, it seems, do it better.”
Tim Cahill — Pass the Butterworms and Road Fever

“Baker’s kiss-and-tell account of his romps across Fidel’s island offers a bittersweet glimpse of life inside the last Marxist utopia.”
Jon Lee Anderson — Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life

“Chris Baker’s chaotic pilgrimage–by turns sharp-eyed, lustful, poetic, feverish and joyful–brings a tropical nation of 10 million to vivid, pulsating life. The motorcycle proves itself, once again, a brilliant, ice-breaking instrument of true travel.”
Ted Simon — Jupiter’s Travels: Four Years Around the World on a Triumph           Octuber 2011

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