Trilingual in English, Cuban and (Now) Dog

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.

toby cubalibro

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.

El Coquito was born.

El Coquito was born.

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.


Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

45 responses to “Trilingual in English, Cuban and (Now) Dog

  1. Arturo

    Toby is certainly lucky and hopefully his companionship will lead to a more interesting (and different) life.
    Humans have many different chapters I throughout their lifetime. None more contrasting than life before, and then life after dog. It’s a life changing experience and rescuing a dog from the mean streets of Habana is a very compassionate act. Most people could not imagine what these poor animals endure in the street and most of the endings are ugly, not happy. Now you’ve got another set of swinging balls and a lipstick case……life IS good!!!
    Congrats Conner!!!

  2. So many are not dog people until they meet “their” dog. I am glad you met yours. FYI there is no connection between neutering and weight/energy. Humping is more about dominance than sex. And neutered dogs have fewer health problems over the course of their lifetime.

    I hope to meet Toby some day. Until then tell him I said “woof.”

  3. The last half of this left me in tears… I’m laughing so hard. Love these slices of life from la isla bonita, Conner. Thank-you!

  4. I enjoyed this article very much, but you need to castrate this dog. Please don’t let the macho train of thought win. You know what will happen to most of the dogs Toby produces.
    Are you aware of the Spanky Project.
    Canadian charity with spay/neuter programs in Havana.

  5. Mia

    Toby is one lucky dog! I was suprised by all the strays when I visited Havana. On the trip back we got to the airport extremely early for our flight home. So early, that we had to sit outside in the dark for a few hours. There was a little dog scratching around my luggage. I kept playing musical chairs so the fleas wouldn’t jump on….. he was harmless though and didn’t pay me any mind. Enjoy Toby!

  6. 2Loca

    Do I sense you are becoming a “dog person”?

    Wonderful writing. I loved this piece.

  7. 2Loca

    OMG! I had not seen the photos before. Stop! I can’t take it! That Toby is too cute. I feel weak just looking at those photos.

    Enjoy him.

    • So cute, yes. Sigh. Plus, he’s got a hell of a personality. He’s like the perfect man: knows just how to wiggle his way into my heart and stay there. s

  8. Kelly and Rocket

    Conner, Rocket and I are happy to see that Toby is still hanging around. I remember you saying to us in November that he had just shown up! Toby certainly has a past and luckily, a happy future.

    Did Ken drop off the books and condoms I sent with him a couple of weeks ago? Will be there in a few weeks cycling from Trinidad to Cienfuegos.
    Kindest regards
    Kelly y Rocket

    • Kelly! Rocket! Yes, condoms and books were dropped off. And I can hardly believe that Toby the Tuffy (Im writing a children’s book about him) is still around! That route along the coast from Trinidad to Cienfuegos is GORGEOUS – full of little pocket beaches (deserted) and rivers and good folk. Enjoy!

      • Kelly and Rocket

        Can’t wait Conner. Hope your NYC seminar on responsible journalism goes well. Hope to see you in November, we’ll be cycling in the Vinales area with a possible stop in Havana. So happy to see that that the Cuba Libro family are all well.

  9. I loved it too!
    Please check out my new little Cuba book:
    You’re featured prominently 🙂 I’d love it if you wrote something for me.

    • I’ll try to open the page – not easy on 40kbps dial up! Sorry I can’t offer to write something – Im WAY behind on my own writing. But thanks for the invite.

  10. Candysita

    The only reason to get a dog neutered in Cuba is for security reasons.

    Once in my barrio someone broke into a Cubana’s house in the middle of the night. She and her Canadian husband were in Canada. Her brother, who lived next door, left his big dog in the backyard to guard the place at night . Stupid perro didn’t utter one “woof” because the thieves brought along a bitch in heat, and somehow let it loose in the yard while they cleaned the house out of every major appliance, shoes, and even the mattress. had to have had a truck to do so and no one heard a thing because a dog’s a dog, two or four legged.

    • Hilarious (not the theft – that’s terrible) but the mechanism to pull it off. When it comes to sex (doggie or otherwise), Cubans know how to work it to their advantage!

  11. YQue

    I had always thought a mobile “cat house” for dogs would be a good business. Get an everchanging group of in heat females in a truck, and show up to give Fido a go with a willing partner for a reasonable fee.
    This keeps Fido happy and home, not running around all over the neighborhood.
    My old sailing Captain used to masturbate his dog, and explained it to me that it was the only way to keep him on the boat, and not roaming around fighting every shore dog he came across. Besides, he told me, he had caught the Mate doing the job for the dog, and he said he had to take over the chore because the dog was following the Mate around and the Captain was about to lose the affections of his own hound!
    Sounded reasonable to me.

  12. Maria

    Yo he encontrado hoy a tu blog pero todo esta en english, yo entiendo algo pero no se puede ler en espanol? No lo traduces? Gracias…….

    • I love the title of this blog – jackpot indeed! Our corner of Havana is rife w jokes about the dog quien se pego a la yuma como un macao (but its NOT true that Im spoiling him….Amaya is much more implicated in this than me! hahaha. Im glad she doesnt read english!)

  13. Dany

    I think this is the article (written by you) that I have enjoyed the most. Thanks!

  14. Reblogged this on and commented:
    i have never read a better reason for giving human status to dogs and cats. They have emotions, just as we do. Human rights for these animals…

  15. This blog post is yet another piece of evidence about why dogs deserve status as humans. Emotions, smiling, language, … “I swear he was smiling ” Thank you.

  16. Shane

    How awful, the latest developments of an accord with the USA…..poor could do so much better than breathe life into a dormant relAtionsip with America…the folks in Cuba are far more intelligent than those idiots from the USA….cuba deserves better, and most of us from Great Britain, hAte and detest the idea that Cuba will become like South Miami….a fuckin’ hell hole of crime and immoral demagogia…..poor Cuba…I just wish they would stick two fingers up to the USA bully….and say…go swivel on it, bud!


    • Hi Shane. I think you may be underestimating the Cubans – opening embassies doesnt mean they’re NOT still going to wield those 2 fingers you so eloquently refer to. I think Cuba is quite clear on what they do and do not want from the US and will set their agenda to maintain their sovereignty and dignity moving forward. they’ve done it for the past 6 decades almost – no reason to believe they’re going to abandon the strategy now. Thanks for commenting.

  17. Shane

    Phew….thanks for your insightful comment;-)….made my day….btw, always a pleasure reading your prose….please keep it up…love it!

  18. Natasha

    Hi Connor!

    I’ve just binge read Here is Havana from to start to finish. It took me about a week. I just returned from my second trip to Cuba and was looking to learn more and boy only boy have you ever delivered! I love your blog and the perspective you offer on life in Havana. I, like many tourists before me, fell in love with “Cuban culture” during my travels but your blog has brought me back down to earth that resort life is not Cuban life.

    I am throughly looking forward to continuing to read your blog in the future!

    Thank you!

    Your friend in Canada,


    • Welcome aboard, Natasha! You’re in for a wild ride (more due to the falling in love w Cuban culture, since you’ve already binge read the blog). I best get to writing. Cheers!

  19. Yusi

    Toby is so adorably cute! I’m so glad you took him in, the amount of strays that I see en La Habana makes me so sad. Growing up in Cuba, we had 2 dogs. The first one ran away and my brother and I were heartbroken for a while. Any white Maltese we would see, was our “Terry”. Our second, a beautiful chocolate Doberman “Linda”, we had to leave behind because we couldn’t bring her to USA with us. Luckily, the breeder, took her back.
    We have a Yorkie now and my dad was so against neutering, because of the machismo mentality you mention. Even after neutering, he humps his pillow, lol. The vet said it’s because I waited too long to do so. But no matter the time, neutering will always bring health benefits.
    This post had me in tears, you are too funny! No wonder you are blending in so well, because of you great sense of humor.

    • Cutting his balls off has become my TOP priority – for my (mental) health and his overall. Friends in the USA are advocating “neuticals” (those plastic, faux testicles mentioned in the post) but I know plastic balls will go over like a lead balloon. Whatever happens, I’ll be reporting on it here. Thanks for writing in.

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  25. On Wednesday march 15 I saw a sweet black dog at the entrance of el morro skinny and with swollen red paws. If there is any was you could help this sweet pup in would be a small miracle. I had nothing with me to help and cannot speak Spanish enough to get help. Please rescue or st least help this sweet pup to get treated. Thank you so much. Jody Scalpati

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