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Toward a Culture of Animal Protection in Cuba

The main veterinarian of the Clinic located in the Quinta de los Molinos ecological park, attached to the Office of the City Historian (OHC), Dr. Leyssan Cepero Fiallo infuses the love he feels for animals to pet owners and colleagues. Under his responsibility various projects for the care of flora and fauna, aimed mainly at children and young people, are implemented. Among the most important actions that the Clinic carries out every year are the campaigns of sterilization and deworming of pets and urban animal colonies. This initiative has contributed to fostering a culture of animal protection in the population of Havana.

When I was a child, I had all kinds of animals; my hobby was innate. My father took me to the baseball stadium because he wanted me to be a sportsman, but I sat with my back to the field, until he definitely realized I wasn’t going to be a ballplayer,” says veterinarian Leyssan Cepero in this interview.

The main veterinarian of the Clinic located in the ecological park Quinta de los Molinos, attached to the Office of the City Historian (OHC), Dr. Leyssan Cepero Fiallo infuses the love he feels for animals to pet owners and colleagues. Under his responsibility are implemented various projects for the care of flora and fauna, aimed mainly at children and young people.

Among the most important actions that the Clinic carries out every year are the campaigns of sterilization and deworming of pets and urban animal colonies. This initiative has contributed to fostering a culture of animal protection in the population of Havana.

How long have you been interested in animals and veterinary medicine?

When I was a child I had all kinds of animals; my hobby was innate. My father took me to the baseball stadium because he wanted me to be a sportsman, but I sat with my back to the ground until he definitely realized I wasn’t going to be a ballplayer. Even so, I studied karate at a sports school until I reached 12th grade, when I was recruited to the Escuela Superior de Perfeccionamiento Atlético (ESPA).

From a very young age, I knew I was going to study veterinary medicine, so I decided to reorient myself towards that specialty and go to university in what I really liked. At first, the idea was not approved by my family. In spite of that, I took the entrance exams and started my degree at the Agrarian Department of the University of Havana in 2011. In the latter, I stayed in day school for two years until, for personal reasons, I came to live in Havana. I then changed to the course for workers, where I received the title of veterinarian doctor and zoo technician.

While at university, I first worked as a plant and drug group leader at the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas (CNIC). In my 4th year of graduation, I was proposed to work as a veterinarian in the National Department of Dog Training of the Ministry of the Armed Forces.

Finally, I received a call from Doctor Eusebio Leal proposing that I come to work as the main veterinarian in the Quinta de los Molinos ecological park, as they needed a specialist who knew how to work with all animal species. At that time, I was also vice-president of the Cuban Society of Clinics and Veterinary Surgery, attached to the Scientific Veterinary Council of Cuba. It was thanks to that institution that the Historian of the City received references about my work in that sense. At first, I was not very convinced, so Dr. Leal proposed that I come for a month’s trial and, if I liked it, I would stay. I’ve been here for eight years now.

From the point of view of the veterinary specialty, what do you like the most?

What I do the most are surgeries, because I specialized in Clinic and Veterinary Surgery of all species. In other words, I operate on a turtle as well as a bird, a dog as well as a cat. In the Veterinary Council of Cuba, where I am currently Vice President of Clinica and Veterinary Surgery, we give training courses at a national level to all veterinarians who are interested in working with a diversity of species: reptiles, birds, pets… since specialized knowledge is required for each case.

What motivated you to begin your collaboration with the Spanky Project and, in turn, work with the Civil Society Community, Heritage and Environment of the Office of the Historian?

Since 2004 I began to collaborate with Spanky, when it was still working in the National Department of Dog Training. Every time they carried out a massive sterilization campaign, they summoned me to support them, because they needed target surgeons, so that the animals would come out healthy and without problems after the surgery. When I entered the Quinta de los Molinos I was elected as Spanky’s representative within the Office of the Historian, while the Civil Society Community, Heritage and Environment attends to the project directly by the non-governmental side.

What do you think will be your greatest contribution to the mass campaigns?

The main objective of mass campaigns is to prevent many animals from being abandoned. We have calculated that of every 100 animals you find on the street, approximately 90 percent belonged to a home. For example, a cat can give birth two to three times a year; multiplied by 12, we have almost 60 offspring wandering around the city, and with dogs something very similar happens. During these years, we have reached a large number of sterilized animals, mainly in Old Havana, which is where the project is centered, but we are already extending the reach to other municipalities. Now, through the Office of the Historian, we are able to move to other areas and sterilize animals from “colonies” that we capture with trap cages and then return them to their habitat. It is said that when animals from a colony are sterilized, stray animals no longer enter; in other words, they become controlled colonies. They are also marked to prevent them from being captured again and undergoing surgery.

However, it is not only a matter of implementing sterilization to prevent the proliferation of procreation, but also of educating the population in the handling and care of their pets. Among our educational activities, we conduct workshops with children, taking advantage of the fact that infants can extend their love for animals to their parents and the entire community. Other educational actions are done with respect to the Veterinary University. We receive students in our Clinic from the first to the last year of their studies. There is an agreement between both institutions to promote this exchange.

At the request of Dr. Leal and Perla Rosales, Director General of OHC, our experience has been extended to each of the provinces of the country. Next November we will do a campaign in Sancti Spíritus and, later, in Santiago de Cuba. The objective is not to sterilize animals, but to train the veterinarians who are working there. It is in our interest that groups be created at the national level and that they join the campaigns for World Sterilization Day, observed in all Latin American countries. For the past three years, Cuba has also been observing that day, and in 2018, seven Cuban provinces organized their own days.

Can you define the concept of “colonies”, which you veterinarians use a lot during the campaigns?

By “colonies” we mean the groups of animals that are found in the city; usually in parks, parking lots or other abandoned places. Where there is a colony, there is usually a protective person who provides them with food. That’s why they stay parked in places where they have shade, as well as sources of water and food. In the case of cats, they can roam in several areas, but there is always a common point where 15 to 20 animals live together. This is what happens with other species of felines that live in groups and do not allow another animal to enter their territory.

For this reason, the sterilization of a colony keeps it under control; that is to say, it prevents procreation from continuing. In the case of cats, there is always an alpha male or a female leader, usually the most adult cat, hierarchically structured as a herd. While other females hunt, the males create the defense of the territory; that is to say, it is like a mechanism where each one has a role. As for dogs, there are examples of colonies in the Colón Cemetery and in the Plaza Vieja of the Historical Center. Another case is the pigeons of the Plaza de San Francisco, which tend to group in the fountain located there and usually fly to other open spaces.

Do you believe that through your work an ecological culture has been achieved in the population of the Historical Center?

I think so, since we began our work in the Quinta de los Molinos, we have prioritized educational work. The people who come to us came with different levels of information and, at first, it was a bit chaotic. However, they are now more educated in procedures and rules of behavior, as well as the growing interest in attending the conferences we give to train them. Even Veterinary student comes with an eagerness to improve themselves, since every day we teach them new and important techniques, from the disinfection of an instrument to how to resuscitate an animal after the operation so that it comes out well from the anesthesia. Each one of the doctors has the experience and integral knowledge to work in all the areas. If one of them is absent, any of them can take his place.

One of our greatest achievements is that the second group of students trained at the Clinic since the early years of their careers have already graduated. Some have stayed with us as doctors and others do not stop attending our campaigns. Thus our experience is passed on from generation to generation, guaranteeing the future of this project.

To close, I would like to go a little deeper into what other actions are being carried out by the veterinary clinic at Quinta de los Molinos.

From the Quinta de los Molinos ecological park, we take care of all the animals that are in the Historical Center. For example: the pigeons in the squares; the peacocks located in the museums, and the ornamental birds in the hostels. All these birds receive veterinary attention with monthly check-ups, deworming and blood sampling to prevent zoonotic diseases from entering the country. We also have environmental projects with an extensionist profile, aimed at children and adolescents for the teaching of good practices in the handling and care of animals. For example, we give individual workshops on endemic species and how to protect them by keeping them in cages, including the type of food and veterinary assistance they require.

On the other hand, we make special routes dedicated to wild and exotic fauna within the Quinta. We give courses to the elderly on the responsible ownership of pets, as many have them as pets, and we offer completely free veterinary care services. I have already mentioned the campaigns of sterilization and massive deworming of dogs and cats, but this year even rabbits were sterilized. In fact, we have had to increase deworming to twice a year: we do one on Calle Amargura and the other in Barrio del Santo Ángel. We also do very serious work with the horses that are inside the Historical Center, whose deworming takes place every two months. La Quinta is open from Tuesday to Sunday and every day we have many activities dedicated to children and young people. Perhaps it is the children who show the greatest sensitivity with our work in order to promote a culture of animal protection.

Lizzett Talavera writes for Opus Habana.

A CubaNews translation by Walter Lippmann.

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