Dependent, smelly, costly and often filthy (all that butt sniffing/rolling around in dead things?!), flea-bitten, tick-ridden, and prone to humping whatever they can get their legs around – can you tell I’m not a dog person? They’re such a burden, nothing like their haughty, independent feline counterparts who you can leave with a bowl of kibble for days while you go off the grid and they’ll ration it, killing birds or rodents once it runs out. So no, I’m not too keen on dogs, but now I’m in deep – over my head deep. More proof that the universe is conspiring against me…
Two days before my 45th birthday, a stray dog wandered into Cuba Libro. Like I needed something breathing-eating-shitting extra to stress about. Within a day, the kids who work with me named him Toby. It was all over, I knew. I’m sure there are parents out there who know exactly what I’m talking about: once the kids you love give the flea-ridden, tick-bitten beast a name, you’re responsible, no backsies. He was awfully cute, it must be said. Adorable, to-die-for, irresistibly cute, but no one who works at Cuba Libro has the living conditions or lifestyle conducive to caring for a dependent – no matter how cute.
I was resigned to letting “Toby” live in the Cuba Libro garden, but two events changed all that. First, a friend walked in one day claiming: ‘I know this dog. He lives in my building.’ This seemed more than a bit far-fetched: Ariel lives in 10 de Octubre – at the other extreme of sprawling Havana – and besides, dogs are to some humans what Yuma are to some Cubans: they all look alike. But when Ariel picked up the phone and said, “señora, your dog is here in Vedado,” and she responded, “Oh! That’s not my dog. It’s my son’s. He’s doing his military service, but I’ll tell him” I knew this wasn’t a simple case of mistaken identity. An hour or two later, young buck Carlos showed up and was plastered with wet kisses by “Jason”. It was obvious the dog had once known and loved this fellow. But with nowhere to place Jason when he went into his military service, Carlos let loose the dog into Havana’s mean streets. As you may imagine, I thought Carlos an ass – not only had he given his dog a dumb dog name (J is pronounced H in Spanish), but he’d abandoned the animal, leaving him to his own devices. I may not be a dog person, but I’m not cruel.
Savvy pup that he is, Jason-now-Toby traveled clear across the city to cross our threshold with fleas, ticks, parasites and a sad look in his amber doll’s eyes. Just like Wilbur was “Some Pig,” I started getting the feeling that Toby was “Some Dog.” But I resisted – threatening to send him to the campo (in my case, this is not a euphemism: I was actively looking to place him with a farm family in those first few weeks). As my father once observed: ‘living with animals went out with Jesus,’ something I agree with wholeheartedly and cite often.
Toby’s second fate-deciding event happened one stormy day after about a week of eating spaghetti and living in Cuba Libro’s makeshift doghouse (a large suitcase donated by a neighbor for this purpose). Our weekly bike polo showdown was cut short when the skies opened up and started drumming a hard, cold rain across Vedado. And I remembered there was a dog I was somehow sort of responsible for. When I went to check up on the perrito, he was huddled in a corner of the garden shivering, ears plastered back as thunder and lightening crashed all around, every hair standing on end, soaked to the roots. I haven’t got much of the maternal/pet gene (if you missed that detail), but even I couldn’t resist his vulnerability (or cuteness). So I stuffed him in my knapsack as best I could, strapped it to my chest, and pedaled home through the rain. That was five months ago and we’ve been making the 6-day a week trek between my apartment and Cuba Libro ever since. And I’ve been forced to speak ‘dog.’
There’s a bark for ‘I have to pee.’
There’s a bark for ‘I have to poop.’
There’s a bark for ‘I’m hungry/horny’ (more on that later).
There’s a bark for ‘I’m scared.’
There’s a bark for ‘someone is at the door.’
As far as I can tell, it’s all the same damn bark. Thankfully I have a professional interpreter in Amaya who is Toby’s co-mother. She’s more than a dog whisperer: she’s a dog witch who anticipates his needs and directs his energies in a way I admire and hope to learn. Some things I’ve come to understand, like the one, two, three turns alternated with sniffs that I’ve dubbed the ‘doody dance.’ Meanwhile, standing on two hind legs and hugging me with the front two while he mews means ‘I missed you!’ But the other conversational pieces? They’re lost on me.
And as cute and adaptable and sociable as this dog is, he lived in the streets for at least 6 months we figure, and I wonder: what was his life like before? What mental and emotional baggage is he carrying from his previous life/lives? Deconstructing Toby’s personality isn’t helped by his slew of nicknames, different ones invoked depending on whom is addressing him and under what circumstances. At turns he is: Toby, El Tobito, The Tobes, Tobias Maximus, Tobito El Coquito (Toby the Little Coconut), Toby the Tuffy, El Peluche (The Stuffed Animal), El Macho, El Guapo, Ese Perro Toby, and Bipolar. This last arose after we caught him staring at walls, barking at dust and chasing his tail in an over-the-top, manic manner.
Beyond the communication problems, having a dog in Havana (something I never thought I’d be experiencing or writing about) is a challenge. Strays and pets (many trained to guard and attack) can be ferocious and we’ve taken to walking him armed with sticks and rocks after several run ins; dog food is sold, but only at very select stores and boutiques reserved for the super rich, so dog food has to be purchased and cooked almost daily (The Tobes is on a diet of rice and liver, with a little pizza and cake thrown in every so often because he’s too cute to resist 100% of the time); and Cubans are rabidly anti-neutering.
Little did I know that the neutering issue would kick up so much drama and debate – though given the machismo here, I should have expected it. I have to admit it’s kind of novel seeing testicles on a dog (where I come from, “fixing” pets is par for the course), especially Toby since he has the ‘one-eyed salute’ thing going on whereby his tail sticks straight up and you get a full-time, full-on view of his bunghole and junk. What’s more, he’s almost completely white, but his balls are black. When I announced my decision to fix him, citing concerns of rampant reproduction by any bitch he mounted, combined with the desire to tame his macho, aggressive tendencies, I got major pushback from all corners.
‘Why castrate him?! You’ve got the male dog. If he was a she, sure, but…’
‘It will make him fat and lazy.’
‘You can’t take away his manhood!’
When the vet came to examine Toby (yes, in Cuba, pet and people doctors make house calls), even he said it was emasculating to fix him and suggested a vasectomy instead. Doggie vasectomies?! For real? Then I learned that some pet owners up north actually have synthetic balls surgically attached to their neutered dogs. WHAT?! This was all a bit much and if you’ve seen how many neglected street dogs live in Havana, snipping him seemed like a no-brainer to me. But after 13 years here (this month!), I’ve ‘gone native’ in certain respects and I got to thinking: the vet estimates Toby to be between 1-1/2 and 2 years old. Has he ever had sex? Hard to know for sure, but likely not. Can I deny him this? Even if it’s not for pleasure, what about instinct? And do female dogs get knocked up every time they do it? What if it does make him fat and lazy? I don’t know anything about dogs and I was receiving conflicting information (if this happened to you, you’d likely hit the internet and find thousands of sites devoted to dog sex and fixing, but alas, a dial-up connection is not conducive…)
And then Dina, the dog who lives five houses up the way from Cuba Libro, went into heat. And Toby went into hysterics. He wouldn’t even run through the gate to greet Amaya and Douglas as he’d done every single work day. Instead, he’d run straight to Dina’s and pant and pace in front of her fence, planting himself there for hours with a sad, spurned suitor look on his face. ‘Just let them screw,’ you’re thinking. That’s what I was thinking, anyway. Until we learned that Dina is epileptic and El Macho could kill her with all that excitement. Which is why Toby spent many tormented days licking her swollen, red privates through the fence. ‘At least he’s getting something!’ people said. ‘Poor Dina,’ others said. ‘All she gets is oral’ (as if this were an altogether bad thing!). I thought we’d be able to ride out the horny epileptic episode until someone told me bitches stay in heat for three weeks. And Toby was going mad – like off his meds psychotic, following the owner (the owner, not even Dina, who was kept penned in for the duration) for blocks and blocks, across major intersections and trying to go into stores with her while she shopped. And she’d drag him back attached to her leg, whining and dry humping and making a fuss. So I had to leave him home a few days until it blew over.
The day we made our triumphant return to Cuba Libro, he disappeared for a bit (he has the run of the immediate neighborhood all day long) and returned, cool as a cucumber and plopped down. I swear he was smiling and I was sure he’d gotten laid. I wanted to offer him congratulations and a cigarette. Will there be little Tobies running around our little piece of Vedado soon? Maybe. And while I’m determined to get him fixed, I know his puppies would be damn cute.
As an old friend of mine so sagely observed: Darwin was wrong. It’s not survival of the fittest; it’s survival of the cutest. And Cubans know how to survive (and keep things cute). So I’m keeping Toby.