Animal Welfare: Through the eye of the needle

“The main obstacle has been a lack of trust. Cuba does not have a culture of spontaneous social movements, and with the history of aggressions that the country has faced for these many years, people do not trust anything that is not related to a government institution.”

Puede leer aquí la versión en español de este artículo

This article is part of the series ‘With civil society and its movements.’

Identifying civil society with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), private enterprises, and the church, would have drawn a smile from the political philosophers of modern times and of the Illustration who coined the concept. To reduce it to the antithesis of the State, like two territories in perpetual conflict, separated by a real frontier, and in a zero-sum game in which what one party wins the other loses, is like seeing it through a brand of dark glasses belonging to the most basic conservative common sense. To identify it with the political groups in opposition to socialist governments, as is the case in Eastern Europe, just makes it an ideological relic of the later part of the Cold War. To characterize it as an instrument of the imperialist enemy intending to undermine Cuban socialism was the principal reaction among the ideologists of the Marxism-Leninism then in power, when the concept appeared in the intellectual debates of the nineties. To legitimize its use as just a synonym of the organizations recognized in our Constitution of 1976 is another reductionism, which obscures its significance and value for the policies of socialism.

Neither their ideologists, nor ours, understood that civil society is not a set of things, and neither is the State. Antonio Gramsci recovered it for Marxism, then by subsequent critical thought and by contemporary sociology, the term civil society refers to a space of interrelation, a level of the social dynamic and a perspective that privileges the interaction between groups and institutions like schools, the media, and social organizations˗˗especially the ones that are relevant to those agencies of the political power that are oriented towards the interchange with social actors.

Therefore, to ask whether in Cuba civil society “exists,” does not make sense; it’s like asking whether “there are raspberries.”  However, other questions do have relevance.

Do social movements exist in Cuba? What characterizes them? What are their origins and antecedents? Are they comprised of diverse groups? What factors had a bearing on their emergence? Centered on what problems? How did they develop before the existence of social networks? What are their main topics, priorities and activities? Are their differences in the agendas? Do they extend over the entire country, or are they concentrated in some regions? Have they evolved during the last few years? Do they work with foreign or international movements or organizations? Do they have specific qualities that relate to the same movements in other countries? What is their capacity to mobilize? What obstacles have they faced? To what point have they been able to make themselves heard? To what extent have they been able to have an influence in obtaining policy changes? What are their problems currently? And how can these be resolved?

In order to respond to these questions, and to appreciate the nature of the trends opposed to racial and gender prejudice, animal abuse and other actions organized to face forms of discrimination and injustice, it is not enough to appeal to feelings about “what is obvious”, opinions, or truths that are accepted and repeated without contrast.

Catalejo here launches a series of interview-essays among researchers and followers, with the aim of exploring the thoughts and social mobilization that characterize Cuba today.

*(Cabaiguán, Sancti Spíritus, 1974). Writer, journalist and advocate. For the last ten years she has been employed at the periodical Pionera. Her articles appear collected in various anthologies of children’s and young people’s literature.

A few years ago I surprised a bunch of boys who were playing, throwing a ball of fur. None were older than ten. The meowing of the terrified cat—being shaken from side to side, tossed around and sometimes being dropped because of the lack of skill in these children’s hands—took me towards the place where these children were…. amusing themselves? I scolded these thoughtless beings and took the victim to my home. It was a kitten of hardly two months old which, as a result of the beating, did not survive the night.

Were these demonic, killer, cruel children? No, of course not. If we look at The World We Live In [El mundo en que vivimos], a text of the third-grade studies program, we will see the following: “Many animals give us food, we use the skin of others to make suitcases, and shoes, and we use some as a means of transportation (…). It is everyone’s duty to protect animals because of the great use they are to us.” [1]

For decades the study plans—especially those of primary schools—have objectified animals, without going beyond the utilitarian view. According to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE in its English acronym)—of which Cuba has been a member since 1972—states that “Animal wellbeing refers to the physical and mental state of an animal as related to the conditions in which it lives and dies.” And to this end, it upholds five fundamental freedoms: “to be free of hunger, thirst and malnutrition; free of fear and anguish; free of physical and temperature-related discomforts; free of pain, injury and sickness; free to manifest its natural behavior.” [2]

In addition, as of 2000 the OIE recognizes the concept of “One Health,” in which it establishes that human health and animal health are interdependent, and linked to the ecosystems in which they coexist. “It is currently estimated that 60% of human infectious diseases are zoonotic, 75% of the pathogens of infectious diseases emerging from human beings (including Ebola, HIV and Influenza), are of animal origin, 80% of the pathogenic agents that can be used for bioterrorist ends are zoonotic, and at least five new sicknesses appear every year, three of which are of animal origin.” [3]

Animal Rights Activists. Activist movement in Cuba. Characteristics.

The Royal Academy of the Spanish Language defines animalismo [sic] as “the movement that promotes the defense of the rights of animals,” and an animalista [sic] as a person who “defends the rights of animals”. [English usage: Animal rights and Animal rights activists]

In the article titled “About Animal Rights” [“En torno al animalismo”] by the researcher and writer Zoila Portuondo Guerra and published in the digital journal El refugio, the author establishes that “within the range of animal rights activism there are many and varied nuances. We find the advocate, the protectionist, the welfareist, the biocentrist, the true animal rights activist (the vegan), etc. The advocate, as we often see in Cuba, is an industrious activist who protects (or tries to protect) all animals that s/he finds in a situation of need or abuse. And who at times even valiantly faces the abusers. We see them in the street, feeding homeless animals or providing a home shelter where they offer refuge to the defenseless (at times, with the help of others). And s/he who does not have the resources to provide such services can also be considered an ‘advocate’ when s/he gives donations of time, money, and useful resources for the protection of animals, such as medicine, blankets, crates, etc. The advocates are passionate activists, committed and persistent, because they are moved by great empathy and intense love.

As for the protectionists, these are the people who oppose and fight against the extinction of species. They consider animals as goods that deserve conservation, and see them as resources that humans should exploit ‘sustainably.’

The welfareists are those who oppose animal abuse but still consider animals as resources that humans can exploit ‘humanistically,’ that is, by avoiding unnecessary suffering. The welfareist worries about the suffering of animals when this suffering does not entail a benefit to people. And, therefore, s/he opposes hunting, bull-fighting, fights and competitions between animals and other similar spectacles. But like the advocate and the protectionist, they are usually anthropocentric and specieist; they are not vegan or vegetarian and are not worried about using products made from animal parts or tested on animals, as is the case for cosmetics.

During the last decade a movement has started that has come from welfareism: the neo-welfareists. Their objective is to eliminate suffering in the world. The neo-welfareists therefore do not agree with animal exploitation. Their limitation is based on the fact that they feel that animals do need to be protected, but managed from the human point of view without taking into consideration their integrity and freedom.

Veganism, as an animal rights movement, considers that animals are individuals and that every life counts. It takes the rights of animals as its theoretical foundation and base for action, and rejects any form of exploitation, based on the principle of equality. The organizations that represent this movement are not well-known. Among them there are the so-called Animal Defense and Within veganism there are also many nuances: there are those who don’t value vertebrate and invertebrate animals in the same way—like insects, for example.

Finally, biocentrism, a term that appeared in the 1970’s, is a moral theory which states that all living beings deserve moral respect. Biocentrism values life above everything else. From this point of view, it is not specieist nor anthropocentrist. And although those who identify with this trend can consume animals, they do so with the outlook of the indigenous people: obeying a need, with respect and without exploitation—unlike industrial societies. The biocentrist feels that s/he belongs to nature, s/he does not feel separated from it like the common man, and hence their concordant and respectful attitude towards all forms of life.” [4]

More than thirty years ago our society began to be aware of the state of abandonment in which our animals lived—and still live—especially the itinerant ones, the strays and feral ones. Protective groups emerged, like the Cuban Association for the Protection of Animals and Plants (ANIPLANT) founded on March 4th, 1987 under the legal protection of Law 54 which allowed the creation of associations, and is the only one officially recognized in Cuba.

Afterwards, other groups—NGO’s—were added, like Cubans in Defense of Animals (CEDA), Animal Protection SOS (PASOS]), CAMPA of Artemisa, SALBA in Santiago de Cuba, BAC in Santa Clara—with a national range of activists—and others who have made the topic of the welfare and protection of animals visible through the growth of information technologies and the emergence of social networks.

For decades these groups of animal support, rescue and care have filled the gaps that the Cuban state has left open on this matter—and still does. They have carried out campaigns of anti-rabies vaccination, parasite treatment and massive sterilizations; they have organized adoption festivals and events for the dissemination of the treatment of animals. Links have also been created with foreign associations like the Spanky Project in Canada which, since 2003 coordinates and—together with the Office of the Historian of Havana and the [University of Havana] Veterinary School—participates in parasite treatment and sterilization campaigns.

However, there is scarce documentation on the existence—or non-existence—of a social movement on animal protection and welfare in our country, although many people do recognize it and feel that they  are part of it.

Valia Rodríguez, a neuroscientist, animal rights activist and founder of CEDA sees it that way: “I believe that there does exist a social movement in favor of the protection and welfare of animals—more so than on the rights of animals—that has been growing slowly and spontaneously during the past ten years. It will still take some time for it to grow mature enough to become concerned about animal rights.

The movement is non-homogeneous, horizontal and disjointed. It is non-homogeneous because it is diverse, it assembles people of the entire spectrum that exists in Cuba today, of all ideological colors, all tendencies, and also of other social movements that exist in the country. It is horizontal because although there are activists, some better known than others, there is no single leader. And, finally, it is disjointed because there are different types of groups, with different styles of work, and although they collaborate, they are not connected; and in addition there are also advocates who do not belong to any group.”

Gabriela Díaz, a young psychologist and co-founder of GAMPA, comments that: “I do think that, yes, those of us who work every day from different corners of our country to create an awareness are becoming ever more. There are not only animal rights groups that share a similar way of working, but there are also independent advocates. And I think that all of us are aiming for the same place, we all have the same goal, which is to succeed in sensitizing the population so that animals will be seen as beings with the capacity to establish affective connections, to learn, to create the rudiments of something that we could call culture.”

By the same token, Javier Larrea, a law student and director of BAC considers that: “Yes, I believe that there is a heterogeneous animal rights group with different viewpoints. And although some are vegans, others vegetarians, welfareists or with a more anthropocentric view; although some may be harsher in their claims or may be a bit more conservative, what they all look for in the end is the welfare of the animals.”

Nora García, director of ANIPLANT, states: “I would say that there is a large movement for the protection and welfare of animals, especially of pets. If we go back thirty years, we realize that there has been an obvious change, because there is now a number of active young people, enthusiasts, who grew up hearing and learning about the love and respect towards all forms of life.”

Origins and background of the defense groups in Cuba. Factors that impacted their emergence. Objectives and priorities.

“There have always been advocates. People with high sensitivity who shared the little they have with the animals of the street and who, using their own means, have sterilized the stray dogs and cats, so they will not continue to reproduce.

However, we have a very important forerunner in the North-American philanthropist who was based in Cuba at the beginning of the twentieth century, Mrs. Jeannette Ryder, who founded the Society for the Protection of Children, Animals and Plants, knows as the Edict of Mercy [Bando de Piedad] in 1906. This Edict of Mercy existed until shortly after the triumph of the Revolution in 1959. This institution did much good for animals, especially because of its opposition to allowing bullfights in Cuba, a struggle in which the Rotary Club of Havana also joined.

Then ANIPLANT started, in 1987, with the support of intellectuals and artists. Afterwards, around 2010, we, as a group of advocates began to meet in Havana, convened by Monique Peinchau, a French woman living in Cuba—and at the time a professor at the French Alliance [Alianza Francesa]—to discuss how to help stray animals. And so, PAC was formed, Protection of Street Animals [Protección Animales de la Ciudad]. Sometime after, in 2016, as a group of advocates we separated from PAC and created CEDA, Cubans for the Defense of Animals [Cubanos en Defensa de los Animales], and so other groups began to grow and appear spontaneously in Havana and then in the other provinces.

Undoubtedly it was the street animals that encouraged these groups to proliferate: the existence of dogs and cats roaming around the streets, hungry, ill with mange or ticks and being mistreated by many people.

Something else that had an influence was the bad management of the strays by the Department of Zoonotic and Transmissible Diseases of MINSAP, which gathers them together and sacrifices them through their Human Rabies Prevention Plan— round-ups and sacrifices that are much criticized by the population.

So, the rescuing of animals in peril or ill, and sterilization, were two of the fundamental objectives in the growth of the protection groups.” [5]

“The animal activist groups happened basically because of the absence of a law that backs, protects and shelters animals. We realized that it is very difficult to take on this mission by ourselves—it is no secret to anyone that it is an exhausting task; there are no holidays, weekends are unknown, and every day it gets more intense. And we have decided to unite, to come together according to criteria of localization, of main objectives, and even including the criteria of affinity.

Along the way we have encountered very many problems—and here I speak from my own experience: the further a town is away from the capital, the less its inhabitants have any awareness, and this not only regarding the subject of animal rights, it also applies to the place of women in society, or the implementation of child-rearing methods that empower the development and the psychological well-being of the child.” [6]

As we get further into this beautiful activity, we can, and must, change towards forms that could be better or more effective. For example, when we founded ANIPLANT we found the word “refuge” to be more like a salvation; but now we know that refuges are not a happy solution for the well-being of the animals, and we are working more towards preventing unplanned births; rather than collecting animals, we try to find a better quality of life for pets through responsible adoptions.” [7]

“Our priorities are to help the strays, reduce the population through sterilization, promote adoption, and educate against mistreatment. Also, working to have a Law of Animal Protection has been a priority for all, to have a legal framework that would allow us to fight cruelty.

The activities that we are developing are many, and they go from the notices of animals at risk or in conditions of abuse to obtaining transitory homes for these animals, management of food and economic support, sterilization and educational activities.” [8]

Development of the movement before and after social networks. Resources and interaction with foreign movements or organizations. Specific characteristics of Cuban animals as compared to other countries.

“In reality the phenomenon of the growth of the movement and the connectivity to the internet arrived together. Before that, many of us became informed of the sterilization campaigns of ANIPLANT through friends, or other advocates, by telephone or word of mouth.

But as of 2010 we began to use e-mail a lot; we had lists of emails of people we met on the street or at events, and in that way we informed them of the campaigns we would carry out. Then Facebook came, and later WhatsApp and Telegram, and that was the boost because it gave much visibility not only to the groups but also to the abuse and the situation of the animals in general in Cuba, which has had much influence on the growth of the movement, but also on the fact that the population as a whole is becoming informed of what is happening, and that it is reaching government institutions.

Thanks to the internet the capacity for mobilization is large, especially because when there is a question of condemning abuse or asking for a law that protects animals, people join. These are sensitive topics which, because they do not form part of any specific political party, unites many people together and that, precisely, has caused the State to pay attention to us. It has not been easy for us to be noticed, and again in this aspect the internet has been a very effective medium for spreading our message.” [9]

“With the propagation of the digital platforms and a greater access to the social networks, many independent advocates joined together, created groups, and—though advocating for a law of animal welfare in Cuba had been going on for years—there is no doubt that the computerization of society opened an infinite horizon to us.

The flow of information, being able to explore what other countries have established for animal welfare, but especially being witness to the offensive events against them has increased resources and touched people’s sympathy.” [10]

“I think that the networks have been a crucial point, because they have helped us communicate, organize, make our work visible, draw in new volunteers and create awareness. This last point is essential for us and is among our main objectives. If, after seeing our publications, even just one person becomes aware about the issues of treating pets responsibly, we have won, we are saving lives.

Someone who has no access to the internet is someone for whom we do not exist, because the media that are most used—radio and television—do not have space to make the work of the groups visible in the interior of the Island. And perhaps these people do feel empathy for animals, perhaps they would want to collaborate; this is a possibility we are losing, and all just because the ways to make us visible have not been created.

And the other fundamental problem is resources. Everything related to working with animals means a lot of money—cages, muzzles, tweezers, gloves, veterinary medicines…. These are very expensive things and do not appear easily. Very often the veterinarians do not have the instruments they need for their work, and that is also a problem for our work.” [11]

“We currently do not have sufficient resources to broaden our fields of rapid auxiliary assistance to old people who live alone and have many animals in their care, and who are prevented—and it bears repeating—prevented from having a better quality of life. We can also not reach all homeless animals either, nor those who are actually exploited and abused by their owners.” [12]

“We don’t have a lot of contact with international organizations or movements. Occasionally organizations from other countries visit us, but only out of curiosity. The group almost all of us have the most stable relationship with is the Spanky Project in Canada—who come to Cuba annually to perform sterilizations and parasite treatments. These activities, which at first were limited to the capital, had been extended to Trinidad even before the pandemic.

The main difference between the Cuban animal activist movement and the foreign ones is that in Cuba we are just now beginning. Outside of our country they have been organized for years and so there is a better knowledge and culture related to the different aspects of protection, and there is more activism. The Cuban movement is still very young.” [13]

“We did try to collaborate with the Spanky Project and they showed great interest, but they said that for there to be a collaboration we would have to be recognized by our government, so that has limited the possibilities of our cooperation.

I think that if there is a characteristic that distinguishes Cuban animal activists from the rest of the world it would be the capacity to reinvent ourselves, to make a cage from a plastic tube, to carry a 50-lb dog on a bicycle because we can’t afford a car, to cure dermatitis with feverfew, aloe vera and chamomile, or scabies with some kind of banana—I think that our capacity to overcome adversity and scarcity is something that doesn’t only characterize animal activists in Cuba but all Cubans in general.” [14]

Obstacles to face and influence of animal rights groups in favor of the current policies of animal welfare. Organizing a group; problems to solve; solutions.

“The main obstacle has been a lack of trust. Cuba does not have a culture of spontaneous social movements, and with the history of threats that the country has faced for these many years, people do not trust anything that is not related to a government institution.

Another obstacle has been to make people—those who are not much interested in animals, or those who are outside of the movement—understand that this is a problem for everyone to solve—although Cuba does have other life or death problems.” [15]

“Of course, the drawing power that animal rights has is immense; it has succeeded in uniting not only those who preach and fulfill the animal rights requirements, but also all people who love and defend animals, beyond ideologies or conceptual, philosophical, religious and even political differences.

The approval of the decree has been the response of the Cuban state to this demand of the citizenry, of the animal rights movement, of all the groups of animal protection, which have made themselves heard through the various audiovisual and digital formats—the only way we currently have to complain about animal abuse and make the government listen to us, as well as making our common efforts and objectives visible.” [16]

“I think that the continuous pressure that has been applied by the movement has been fundamental. There really was no other option than to listen and act. For example, it was the movement that launched the announcement and campaigned so that people would request the inclusion of a specific section on animal protection during their meetings of analysis of the draft of the Constitution. And people joined this petition, and this also had great influence in the development and approval of the decree-law on animal welfare.” [17]

“The animal rights groups in Cuba have very specific characteristics that make them different from foreign ones in terms of organization, forms of action, freedoms, financing, resources, etc.

The work of GAMPA is organized fundamentally through the networks, many of us even don’t know each other personally, because it is a group that was formed during COVID and mobility has been very limited.

We have a management team that is composed of seven working groups: Volunteer acceptance, Rescue and foster care, Adoption and follow-up, Veterinary activities and medications, Activities, Networks, Donations, funds and collaborations.

After having been accepted and interviewed, the volunteers proceed to the Whatsapp group related to the work they wish to do. This group of volunteers—of which all of us are members, without distinction of the type of help we can offer—organizes the transition and foster care rescue that constitutes the major parts of our work. In addition, we publish important information and the weekly summary of the group’s tasks.

We also have two subgroups: one of networks, and the other of interviews and follow-ups. In the Networks one are the volunteers who work together to create our page content (posters, texts, etc.), and the Interview and follow-up one trains the volunteers who will be in charge of interviewing future adopters and evaluating whether they are appropriate to assume the care of animals. They are also responsible for providing monthly information on the animals that have been adopted.

When we carry out an adoption it is always preceded by an interview with the future adopter; a certificate of responsible adoption is completed in which all the information on the adopter, on the rescuer and on the adopted animal is noted. All our animals are handed over with the commitment of obligatory sterilization.

We are a self-financed group; between us we contribute a modest monthly sum which goes into a joint fund which we have at our disposal when we need veterinary care, transportation and/or food for our rescued animals.

I think that something that characterizes Cuban animal rights activist groups is their organization, and this goes hand in hand with our capacity to mobilize. Wherever there is a notice, there is someone ready to go and help. This is a job in which feelings come into play, and for us to refuse to respond to a report is like a night without sleeping because our conscience won’t let us, so we move heaven and earth whenever we can, and I think that this is something that characterizes almost all animal rights groups in Cuba.

It is not a secret to anyone that the social pressure that animal rights groups have exercised in Cuba has been continuous and through very peaceful means. Optimistically, I think that changes relating to the population have been achieved, but not that many relating to the politics of animal protection. I think that the most palpable thing we have done over the years is the Decree-Law of Animal Welfare [18]. And though for the people this may be a great step forward, I—a nonconformist by nature—feel that in comparison to what has been achieved in other third-world countries, it is not much. I think that the work that animal rights activists have been undertaking up to now is worth much more than what has been achieved up to now.” [19]

“During these months we are resuming the creation of core agencies, that is, we have included groups of advocates of several provinces into our organization, with the objective of offering them support, detailed guidance for carrying out their work and helping them with the purchase of products, medication, as well as the working relationships with the various directors and functionaries of their municipality or province.

If we could obtain control programs applicable to areas, educational programs to raise the awareness of the population—not only for pets but for all living beings that fly, crawl, breathe and feel—this great movement would be, in the words of the Maestro [José Martí] “with everyone and for the good of everyone.” All united in one single voice, and with the Decree-Law that we have as weapon, we would achieve much more.” [19]

“We still have a lot of work ahead of us, inside and outside the movement. Starting with being accepted by the State as civil society groups, through solving how to do mass sterilizations to strays, and at low cost, succeed in obtaining public shelters within which advocates of rights activists can work, define how to manage the existing shelters, educate the movement and society on all the forms of animal abuse and the respect towards them, up to achieving that the decree-law shall be applied…. Problems? Yes, many. How to solve them? Step by step; we are only just beginning.” [20]

“Many demands will be refined in time; right now everything that we have achieved constitutes a victory, but we cannot stop here. We must go for more respect and love towards animals. I don’t think that the decree will fulfill all the expectations that we have as a movement, as activists, as animal rights people, but it will be a first step. There will be a before and an after the approval of the law.

But educational work must be done with the population. For me, education on animal rights values has a fundamental importance because this is what will make the Decree-Law not just a dead letter. Now, if it does not get social support from a majority that is willing to fulfill what it stipulates, we will have gotten nowhere. Therefore, to get children, adolescents and young people to change this utilitarian perspective—which has for years been taught in student centers in relation to animals—is vital so that people gain a culture of love and respect towards animals from a very young age. If we achieve that step we will have won 90% of the battle.” [21]

The animal rights movement is winning supporters; however, there remain challenges that are difficult to overcome, aggravated by the current economic situation.

To be recognized as a movement within Cuban civil society; to enrich the implementation of new educational parameters in the schools and even in the boroughs, relating to animal welfare and protection; to achieve an effective communication between independent advocates and groups; to negotiate contracts with food suppliers for the shelters; coordinate preventive activities with veterinary clinics; activate a network of transitions, foster care and adoptions to avoid the overpopulation of the refuges…. are some of the urgent actions that lag behind the current needs.

In the meantime, the abandonments, the strays, dog and cock fights, violence, mutilations, breeding without protection all continue, and then…., those kids….


[1] El mundo en que vivimos [The World we Live in]; third grade. Ed. Pueblo y Educación, 10th reprint, 2013, pp. 66-67.

[2] [see ]

[3] Ibid.


[5] Interview with Valia Rodríguez for this article

[6] Interview with Gabriela Díaz for this article

[7] Interview with Nora García for this article

[8] Valia Rodríguez

[9] Ibid.

[10] Interview with Javier Larrea for this article

[11] Gabriela Díaz

[12] Nora García

[13] Valia Rodríguez

[14] Gabriela Díaz

[15] Valia Rodríguez

[16] Javier Larrea

[17] Valia Rodríguez

[18] Consejo de Estado de la República de Cuba. Decreto-Ley de Bienestar Animal. Gaceta Oficial, 0.04.2021

[19] Gabriela Díaz

[20] Nora García

[21] Valia Rodríguez

[22] Javier Larrea



Traducción: Catharina Vallejo

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