The Wonka’s: A Case Study on Dogs and Minimalism

Mason and I walk our four dogs twice a day, which means driving to Springfield once in the am and once in the pm. In the last quarter-mile of our ride, we pass a small pink house that we ignored for years. For one thing, they didn’t have any animals. For another, it’s a beat-down home with a muddy, junk-filled backyard. The only remarkable feature is its color, a dingy pink but pink nonetheless.

In retrospect, I’m sure I didn’t pay attention to the house because without consciously realizing it, I judged it and the family who lived there. And I’m sure my judgment was based on the capitalist conviction that being poor is bad. But, just like so many times before, a dog set me straight. Dogs are the Buddha’s of minimalism because they don’t see external wealth. They only see what’s on the inside.

We first spotted the mutt at the pink house two years ago. He was sleeping on their porch under a sign reading, “Beware of Dog.” Disregarding his blissful pose, he looked like the kind of dog who causes wariness. A beast, he must weigh 90 pounds. His coloring, brown and black, suggests a Rottweiler and Labrador mix. So does his physique because he has the brawn of the former and the snout of the latter.

The sight of that brute napping so peacefully under that sign was so funny we started paying attention to the pink house, so much so that the family even earned a nickname. Two grandfathers, a youngish couple, and three girls, ages 5 to 10-ish, live in a space that can’t be more than 800 square feet. Because of their crowded living circumstances, we couldn’t help but think about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, thus they became the Wonka’s.

Now, we call the dog Mr. Wonka, and “check in” on him every time we ride to town. One of the first things I noticed is that he’s never leashed and doesn’t wear a collar. At any moment, he could run away and leave the pink house, its slumped roof, and grimy walls behind, but he doesn’t. And why would he? Completely unaware of his social status, that damn mutt is undeniably happy. From his swinging tail to his slobbering smile, his body language reads like a neon sign glowing, “Welcome Home.”

After a few months of paying attention, I began to realize the people in that house are as happy as their dog. The Wonka’s are a family-oriented bunch. Every morning, the grandfathers, dad, and all three girls stand outside to wait for the school bus. And Mr. Wonka is right there with them. He escorts the kids to the bus, then meanders back to grandpa, so they can watch the sunrise in Robertson County.

On weekends, the porch is never empty. Mom and dad are usually holding court with the neighbors. The grandpa’s are grilling on the hibachi or drinking beer from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. Apparently, the Wonka girls didn’t get the memo that kids don’t play outside anymore. Over the years, they have built forts, rode bikes, raced relay-style, and sloshed through mud puddles, all while dressed in bedazzled pink dresses. Nobody in that family ever looks sad, angry, dejected or any of the subconscious feelings I associate with poverty. Instead, their body language mirrors Mr. Wonka’s, as though everybody is exactly where they want to be.

Last week, I got stopped behind a garbage truck and sat in front of the pink house for a solid three minutes. The girls were standing in a kiddie pool. With clasped hands, they were surrounding Mr. Wonka and giggling. Uncontrollably. When I saw that mutt, I started giggling too. Looking perfectly content, he wore a blue cape and a magician’s hat complete with a tassel on top. He was big enough to plow through those girls and shred his cape within seconds, but he didn’t. Instead, he sat there as though wearing Dumbledore-type attire was completely normal. I circled the block twice so I could see that silly, happy dog again and again.

Overcoming subconscious social prejudices is a constant struggle for me. Minimalism is a lifestyle but it’s also a belief system that strives to strip away consumerism and all its superficial connotations. When I first saw the pink house, I disregarded it because what can be fun about being poor? But, when I stopped seeing the home through the lens of materialism and started seeing it through the eyes of a dog, I realized the Wonka’s have something way more important than material wealth. They have happiness. They have each other.

Now, Mason and I wave when we pass the pink house, and they wave to us, probably wondering, “Who are those crazy people with four dogs hanging out of a Civic?”

One day, I plan on telling them they are my daily inspiration.

Minimalist Lessons from Your Dog

(Adriana, four years ago)

Want to be a minimalist? Or at least learn about minimalist values? My best advice is to use your dog as a mentor.

People define minimalism in many different ways. The most hardcore define it as owning 100 possessions or less. Even under these admirable guidelines, dogs easily qualify, but this isn’t the kind I’m talking about. For my family, minimalism means finding happiness in simplicity. And simplicity is programmed into a dog’s DNA.

Simplify Your Toys

One summer afternoon a few years ago, I watched Adriana La Cerva investigate the front yard. She had still been a puppy, floppy ears, pink paws, nothing but cuteness. At one point, she found a mammoth sunflower I’d thrown near the tree line. The flower’s head was wider than her front half, the stalk longer than her length, nose to tail.

The sunflower was still alive but wilting after a storm had bent its stem. Adriana didn’t care. She acted as though she’d discovered Escobar’s hidden stash. Clutching that flower in her tiny maw, she wrestled and sprinted and leaped and even flipped ass over teakettle a few times. She was downright giddy, and it was all because of a sunflower.

When she exhausted herself, she pranced through the front door, holding her prize high, so the rest of her pack could admire it. And they did. Colorful balls, braided ropes, and stuffed squeaky toys were scattered across our house, but that flower was the only thing our dogs cared about for the rest of the afternoon. At the time I didn’t understand what I was witnessing, but in retrospect I realize it was a lesson from my dog, a lesson about finding happiness in simplicity.

To this day, Ade feels the same way about sticks, nuts, cornhusks, and pinecones. She’ll discard any manmade toy in an instant for a natural one. In the most obvious way possible, dogs embody minimalism because they don’t care (at all) about material possessions. In fact, I bought every dog bed, collar, leash, and toy that my dogs own. The canine industry makes billions of dollars a year because of people like me, not Adriana. If Ade had her choice, life would be filled with sunflowers and sticks. In her world, nature would always come first.

Simplify Your Experiences

Another minimalist value that dogs have mastered is living in the moment. If my dogs listed their favorite activities, it would look something like this: long walks (rain or shine), car rides with windows down (also rain or shine), napping in warm laundry, sunbathing, running in the woods, swimming in the creek, and long wrestling sessions. Full disclosure: I’ve tried all of them, and none disappoint. Plus, they don’t cost much more than a little gas or electricity.

These experiences share another commonality. They all engage multiple senses, meaning they aren’t passive but visceral activities. Dogs are really good at living in individual moments because each one is an sensory explosion. They don’t only see their surroundings, but they listen to it, taste it, touch it, and of course, smell it. Have you ever seen your dog throw back her head, stick her nose in the air, and take a giant sniff? Have you ever imitated her? Well, I have. Sure, sometimes I get a whiff of manure or something dead, but other times it’s the scent of wild honeysuckle, fresh-cut grass, or an impending thunderstorm.

A few days ago Adriana and I were walking through the historic section of Springfield. I was lost in my mind, mulling over work gossip, my current read, my mother’s mental health, giving my dogs a bath, and a phone bill I needed to pay. Suddenly, Adriana halted, and I was jolted right back to Oak Street.

Following the direction of her snout, I saw three baby chickens rooting in someone’s yard. The peeps were too busy to notice a dog and a human, so they didn’t scatter, but kept working while we kept watching. And we watched those fuzzy yellow babies for a solid five minutes. I knew, even then, that without Adriana, I would have passed those three chicks without ever seeing them. Without Adriana, that walk would have dissolved into every other one. Instead, she made it into a memory.

This happens all the time on our walks. While I’m busy muddling through my human thoughts, my dogs are busy living in the moment. Whenever I do pay attention to them, when I emulate them, all sorts of treasures appear. Besides baby chicks, my dogs have pointed out deer, ducks, herons, beavers, snapping turtles, rabbits, frogs, fish, snakes, hawks, river otters (!) and turkeys.

Sometimes, they point out unsavory things too, like dirty diapers or empty fast food bags. Other times, they tell me necessary information, like a runner is approaching or a stray dog is off leash. The bottom line is whenever I imitate my dogs and engage my senses, I discover something beautiful, surprising, or at the very least interesting.

Simplify Your Emotions

I could write twenty pages about what a dog’s capacity to love can teach us, minimalist or not. Across the board, dog people attest to their animal’s unconditional love. And personally, dogs have cured my broken heart more times than I can count. But, what makes their love a minimalist value is its purity.

Dogs teach us how to love without labels. I’ve never met a creature who cared less about social status or categories than a dog. If they could read, they’d scoff at Thorsten Veblen and his theories about conspicuous consumption. Dogs don’t care if we are rich or poor, liberal or conservative, overweight or skinny, outgoing or reserved, Muslim, Christian, or atheist. They don’t care if our skin is black, brown, or white, or if we are gay, straight, male, female, or any sex in between. A dog’s love is socially uncontaminated. Label free. Simple.

They also know how to make forgiveness simple. Last Tuesday I was tired. I spent all of June and most of July traveling for work. I had cramps and only two days at home before I had to catch another flight. Ade wanted to walk. I could tell because every time I moved towards the door, she followed.

It was a glorious summer evening, and normally, we would walk. We would jump into the Honda and head to town for our two-mile evening stroll. But, all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and binge watch British crime dramas. At one point, Ade was staring at me so intently that I could clearly hear her thoughts, “I’ve barely seen you for a month. The least you can do is walk me.” And she was right.

But, my exhaustion won out. I turned on my heating pad, spooned out a bowl of chocolate ice cream, and streamed Acorn TV. Ade shot me one recriminating glance before she jumped on the bed and cuddled close. She forgave me within seconds. She always does. And the most remarkable part is that she does it without holding a grudge. When dogs forgive, they also forget.

Of all the lessons my dogs teach me about minimalism, simplifying my emotions is the hardest one I’m still trying to learn. But I have four great teachers, who love me unconditionally, ugly parts and all. All minimalists have different definitions for their lifestyle. But, at its core, minimalism is the belief that happiness can be found in simplicity. And there is no better example than your dog (s).

Dog Mom AF

Adriana sleeps under the covers. She has since she was a puppy. I’ve never discouraged her because sleeping with dogs is one of the greatest experiences of being a dog mom. When I crawl into bed, I slide her warm body against my stomach and spoon all thirty-nine pounds of her. Almost every night, she gets too hot and ends up somewhere by my feet, but for a couple hours we sleep fur to skin. By far, those hours are the most snug.

This little joy isn’t completely free of risks though. After all, Adriana is a dog who does dog things, like runs through poison ivy. She carries the oils inside on her fur, then transfers them to me. The rash has covered my skin from neck to bellybutton on several occasions. On several others, I found a tick crawling across the quilt. There have also been times when feathers from dead birds ended up between the sheets. Until last week, I thought I’d experienced all the dangers of sleeping with dogs, but I learned an entirely new one.

Late one night, sky still black, Mason and our three other dogs softly snoring all around me, I heard Adriana jump off the bed. She padded down the hallway and slipped out the doggie door. The plastic flap slapped closed behind her. Our dogs have access to our fenced yard 24-7. They don’t use it a lot at night, but it isn’t unheard of either. Somewhere in that zone between sleeping and waking, I deduced that Ade needed to pee, so my dog-mom senses never sounded any warnings.

We live in the middle of the countryside. The forest surrounds us on three sides. A country road runs past the front, and a bush-hogged field sits across the street. Instead of people, our neighbors include owls, fox, opossums, raccoons, turkey buzzards, deer, groundhogs, coyotes, squirrels, frogs, lizards, and rabbits. Occasionally, these critters venture into our yard. Once, a fox slipped through a square in the chain-link fence and stole dog toys. In late autumn, after the leaves fell, we busted him when we saw the impressive stash he had piled outside his hole.

The plastic flap whapping closed woke me again. I must have snoozed while Ade was outside because it seemed like seconds, but the coldness of the sheets proved it had been longer. As she pranced back down the hallway, I heard her collar’s distinctive jingle. She jumped on the bed, tunneled under the covers, and settled next to my knees. Just like I had a few hours earlier, I reached for her, slid her against my chest, and cuddled her body’s warmth. The soft hair on her ears brushed against my chin.

Feeling the tug of a deep, dream-filled sleep, I hugged her tighter and inhaled. I fully expected the fresh scent of dewy grass, but that’s not what I smelled. I smelled poop. It was the remnant of a dream, I told myself, but that stench didn’t support my theory. Inhaling again, I breathed deeper, hoping with all my might I had imagined it. Nope. I hadn’t imagined anything. Adriana was covered in poo.

I flipped on the lights. The pitch-black scat of a groundhog or a fox was smeared across her ruff, ribcage, and flank. She had rolled in it. Hell. She was so filthy it looked like she had frolicked in it. And she was pleased too, thumping her tail twice when we made eye contact. She looked so innocent that if I couldn’t see and smell the poop all over her, I would have called her my little angel.

At 3:35 AM, as Mason was giving Ade a bath and I was stripping sheets, I wondered if sleeping with dogs was the best idea. But seconds after that thought formed, another one smashed it into oblivion. It doesn’t matter if my dog rolls in poop or carries poison ivy and ticks inside the house. For me, sleeping with Adriana is worth all of the dangers. And that’s how I know I’m dog mom AF.

An Unlikely Pair

Boo and Ade sit next to the fence with their backs facing the house. They sit side-by-side like mirror images, ears up, shoulders straight, resting on their bums. They are an unlikely pair. Boo is a fifteen-year-old black cat and Adriana is a five-year-old white dog. Together, they smash every stereotype and cliché I’ve ever heard about the rocky relationship between cats and dogs. They’re watching something through the chainlink fence, something I can’t see. But I trust it’s there, and I trust they’ll kill it.

I also trust in the evening when I go to the basement, I’ll find their trophy. Over the past few weeks, they’ve left me lizards, mice, moles, birds, and chipmunks. They leave these dead things as presents, right in front of the stairs so that I can’t possibly miss them. Occasionally, they give me organs or limbs, such as a furry tail or a liver, perfectly intact but grotesquely separated from its owner. I always feel so conflicted. Deep down inside I am touched because I know this is their version of a thank you card, yet at the same time I have to choke back gags.

Boo and Adriana weren’t always so close. During Ade’s first four years, Boo didn’t waste his time on her. For one thing, their personalities were vastly different. Boo is the epitome of cool; he’s black and sleek with ultra-smooth mannerisms. On the other hand, until about six months ago, Adriana still acted like a perpetual goofball who ransacked rooms within minutes and didn’t understand personal space. She’s matured a lot recently, and he noticed.

Boo’s brothers were another reason he wasn’t always close with Adriana. Last spring, three black cats lived at the Farnival. They were inseparable, but now, Boo is the only one left. Goo died of old age in early summer, and Fuzz simply disappeared during autumn, when the leaves were just starting to fall from the trees. The last time I saw Fuzz he was in a forest drenched in yellow. For a long time, I hoped he’d return, even had dreams of him showing up at the tree line as quietly as he left. Eventually, I had to let go.

It took Boo two weeks to let go of Fuzz. I’ve never seen an animal so clearly grieve for another before. We’ve lost several elder pack members over the years, but the remaining dogs always acted with more curiosity than sadness. Even when Goo died, Boo seemed to confront it with the same grace as most animals confront death. He simply moved on. But when Fuzz disappeared, he acted completely different.

Through my office window, I’d watch his thin silhouette jog to the bottom of the yard. Then he’d spend thirty minutes pacing back and forth across our fenced half-acre, calling and calling for Fuzz. Boo cried several times a day for fourteen days straight. His grief broke my heart, and we considered…considered adopting another cat. But then, Boo discovered Adriana, and he stopped crying for a brother who never showed up.

I first noticed Boo and Ade’s blossoming relationship when I caught them napping on the same dog bed. In the beginning, they acted tentative towards each other and occupied opposite ends. Boo mostly pretended like Ade didn’t exist, while Ade glanced sideways every few seconds, as though any minute he might break out his razor-sharp claws. It’s happened before. The dogs have scars to prove it. But as they began to trust each other, they moved from opposing ends to the center.

Now, Boo naps sprawled over Adriana’s ribcage or crawled into a noodle against her stomach. Now, he allows her to clean his ears, and Ade lets him nuzzle her snout. On occasion, when they nap, some sound startles Adriana. She’ll jump up and send Boo flying in the air. He lands with grace and an indignant meow. But on cold winter days or rainy spring afternoons, they sleep next to each other for hours.

At some point, Boo started looking for Adriana during the middle of the night. A few nights a week, after his midnight haunts, he creeps through the doggie door, then pitter-patters down the hallway. In the bedroom doorway, he meows for Adriana. I don’t know how she answers, because she’s under the covers and doesn’t make a sound. But, when he determines she’s there, he tunnels underneath the sheets until he finds her. Ade spends a few minutes sniffing him, and he spends another minute cleaning her fur. Then, they settle around each other in a shape that reminds me of the traditional yin-yang symbol, white spooned against black. We all sleep cocooned together until dawn.

Ade outweighs Boo by thirty pounds, but in their hunting poses at the edge of the spring-bright grass, he looks like her shadow. I realized their relationship had reached next-level status when I first saw them hunting together, a recent but now frequent activity. It’s, by far, the most conclusive evidence that they’ve moved beyond sharing body heat, beyond coexisting in the same space. Now, they are choosing to spend time with each other outside of the house. Despite all their differences and all the stereotypes, these two animals are friends.

Is Ade becoming more cat or is Boo becoming more dog? If I had to guess it’d be the former. Ade is as insecure as he is confident. Besides, she’s probably in awe of his athletic efficiency, especially at killing things. And he must, in his own aloof feline way, be proud of her patience and size. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, their relationship is on equal ground, maybe they accept each other because of their differences.

That evening I walk down the basement steps and in the center of the landing is a frog without a leg, a thank you card from an unlikely pair.

Four Ways to Help Cuban Dogs

Yesterday I posted a story about the dog overpopulation problem in Cuba. Click here to read it. It’s not easy to read about suffering dogs. Believe me, it wasn’t easy to write about them either. It took me over a month to finish that post, and there were times I almost gave up because I just wanted to forget about the Alamar dog and the Muraleando puppy. Yet, I couldn’t pretend like I didn’t see them. If we don’t see the problem, then who will? The good news is that there are practical ways we can all help Cuban dogs. I’ve listed four below.

1. Spread the Word

I normally spot one to two strays a month in Robertson County. I saw 40 dogs in one week in Havana. At some point during my trip, I asked our tour guide Norberto about all the strays. Without twitching an eyebrow, he told me that Cuba doesn’t have an animal overpopulation problem. At a different time, he also said there aren’t any slums in Cuba. I gathered that our definitions of animal overpopulation and slums are different, or he wasn’t allowed to tell me about his island’s problems. Knowledge is the only way to counter this type of propaganda. Words can be powerful tools. Dogs can’t tell their stories, so it’s up to us to spread the word.

2. Support Cuban animal welfare Organizations

Here are three boots-on-the-ground, reputable organizations:

All People for Animals in Cuba (APAC)

TAP Animal Project

Cubans in Defense of Animals (CEDA)

All of these organizations have wish lists, and if you can afford to donate money, then fantastic. But, you can also support them for free through social media. As we all know, social media has an incredible amount of influence these days, so follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and IG. It’s such a little thing, but it means so much.

3. Volunteer

Did I mention how good the mojitos are?

There are numerous restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba, but volunteer work is one of the reasons we are allowed to go. So, if you are up for an adventure, desire a fantastic mojito, and want to make a difference in a place that desperately needs our help, then volunteer at an animal welfare organization in Cuba. I advise checking out Aniplant. Nora Garcia is a total badass who has been saving Cuban dogs for almost 30 years.

4. Bring Supplies

If you are going to Cuba, or know anyone who is traveling there, leave room in your suitcase for animal supplies. Cuban rescue organizations need everything from gauze to blankets, but they really need flea and tick preventative. Before I left, I had been advised that if immigration asks about the 30 doses of Frontline I stuffed in my suitcase, tell them they are gifts not donations. Luckily, I wasn’t even questioned. In fact, the process was so easy I regretted not bringing more. But, to be on the safe side, do your research before you leave, and remember it can all be confiscated.

Giving a Voice to the Dogs of Cuba

(One of the lucky dogs living in Cuba)

(A stray in the Alamar suburb)

When my mother-in-law asked if I wanted to go to Cuba with her, I said why not? The Castro mystique, the old cars, and the architecture vaguely interested me. Visiting a communist society also intrigued me, but these were all ambiguous ideas floating around my mind. The only clear reason I could articulate for wanting to visit Cuba was the dogs.

I’ve been researching animal abuse and overpopulation in developing countries for years, but imagining and seeing are two different beasts. I wanted to see how a third-world economy affects dogs through the lens of my own experiences rescuing them in the rural south. That’s hard to explain to anyone who doesn’t understand the depth of an animal’s personality. After all, I knew what I was in for, right? In late February, I traveled to Havana for seven days with Kentucky Wesleyan College on an educational trip focusing on culture and art.

Convento de Belén

I saw my first Cuban dog on my first morning in Old Havana. I was standing on a cobblestone sidewalk outside the Convento de Belén, a center for the elderly, children, and the mentally ill. The government had restored the former church to its original beauty, painting it a pastel yellow, but if anything, the clean color made it stick out in stark contrast to its surroundings.

The buildings circling it were dilapidated, so dilapidated that gaping holes cut through walls and left nothing but exposed steel rebar and rubble. Windows were boarded shut or barred. I questioned how anyone could possibly live there, but they did. Laundry dried and swayed like colorful national flags on the third or fourth floor of these once elegant Spanish-style homes.

A dozen elderly women exercised in front of the center. The dog scooted past them without even pausing. He weaved around potholes, street vendors, and children dressed in school uniforms. The dog was white with brown spots, so it was easy to see his bright red collar and ID tag. His confidence and swagger were also easy to read.

When I asked Norberto, our translator and tour guide, about the dog, he explained the animal was part of a community program that adopts strays. During the day, the dogs roam the streets of Old Havana. At night, they guard museums and other important government buildings. Dog food doesn’t exist in Cuba, so local restaurants and cafes donate their scraps.

For the rest of that morning, I thought about Old Havana’s rescue program and hoped that everything I’d read was an exaggeration. Maybe there weren’t a lot of strays in Cuba. Maybe there weren’t an abundance of starving dogs. But, by day two, all my hopes were doused. I quickly realized the mutt with the red ID tag was a lot like the elderly center, one gleaming ray in a country overrun with poverty.

Cuba’s economic problems began before Castro’s revolution and the Bay of Pigs, but things really got bad when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Cuba lost 80% of their imports virtually overnight. Cubans call this time the “Special Period,” and thirty years later they are still recovering.

This recovery added to a strict US embargo means Cubans don’t have access to resources we can buy anywhere. For people, it means medications, toilet paper, toilet seats, towels, sheets, and soap are luxuries not necessities. For dogs, it means no dog food, flea medication, heartworm preventative, medicated shampoo, or antibiotics.

Organopónico Vivero Alamar

Two days after visiting the elderly center, our group headed to Organopónico Vivero Alamar, an organic farming collective. The farm spreads for a small but efficient 22 acres inside the suburb of Alamar. It’s an immaculate, organized space with rows of lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and medicinal herbs. I saw horses hauling wagons and farmhands cutting sugarcane or milling around thatched-roof huts. It was an idyllic scene, but like the Convento de Belén, the telltale signs of hardship surrounded it. Right outside the farm’s gate, trash lined the streets like some sort of apocalyptic wildflower, and Soviet-style apartments, gray and peeling, loomed above. 

As my group started loading the bus, I lagged behind. Out of nowhere, as though she had been there all along, an emaciated dog appeared. She was maybe one year, but it was hard to tell. The dog was so thin that her ribcage and spine stuck out like a mountain range. She had a severe case of mange that left her bald and scabby. I peered around, amazed such a pathetic animal could simply appear without warning, and realized the Americans were the only people reacting.

The farmhands continued working without pausing. They acted as though they were accustomed to such sick dogs. I asked a woman who spoke a little English about the animal.

“We give food,” the lady said, then shrugged her shoulders.

It wasn’t a cruel shrug. It was a helpless shrug. It’s not that Cubans don’t want to help the dogs, it’s that they can’t. Their average salary is 30.00 a month. Even if the people could afford medical care, vets often can’t get the products needed to treat mange. It was the first but not the last time I got that same empathetic but helpless shrug.

For all her sickliness, the dog wasn’t afraid of humans. She approached us with hope, as though she might get a few morsels. At the exact time when my heart was about to explode, one of the college students in our group ended up on the dirt, shaking, pasty white, and throwing up. She had heat exhaustion. The dog disappeared in the confusion.

During the next few days, I sat on our bus, as we were whisked from one model social or art project to another, and tried not to think about that dog. I relied on a skill I had used when I fostered for ICHBA. Back then, I learned how to harden my heart, how to numb my emotions. If I couldn’t mentally accomplish that one essential act, then I could have ended up like so many others who help animals. They take care of so many that they can’t properly care for one. As of today, if my husband and I had kept every animal we’ve rescued in Robertson County, we’d have 50 dogs and a dozen cats living in our home.

The sheer number of dogs running loose in Havana also helped dull the Alamar mutt’s memory. Ninety-nine percent of the animals I saw weren’t leashed, so it was impossible to guess whether they had homes or not. The majority were bony, too thin. On average, I see one to two strays a month in Robertson County. In Cuba, I saw 40 dogs in one week.

Proyecto Muraleando

On one of our last stops, we visited the Proyecto Muraleando, a social project aimed at transforming an abandoned water tank into a center for art and music. Colorful murals and tile mosaics cover every inch of the tank and half the block.

An artist, thirty-ish with skin the color of almond milk, guided us through the studio and explained how the children in his community are turning trash into artwork. We walked through spaces that felt more like scenes from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory than reality. Sculptures made with irons, toilet bowls, and hubcaps stand on the floor or hang from the walls. Upstairs, we drank mojitos and listened to a band play Afro-Cuban music with claves and bongo drums.

The artist was saying goodbye to our group when I saw a puppy sleeping under a metal sculpture. He couldn’t have weighed more than ten pounds. Just like the dog at Alamar, he had mange but not as severe. He woke when he saw the artist and approached dragging his back paw.

The puppy crawled up into a noodle between the artist’s feet. He was so close that he could have rested his snout on the man’s toe. The artist acted just like the farmhands and behaved as though the dog was a normal part of the landscape. That was the second time I had to actively work on numbing my emotions because every instinct screamed to scoop up that puppy and take him home to Tennessee.

I turned away and saw an alley across the street that looked like a bomb had exploded in the middle of it. Three dogs, two black and one red, were scavenging through debris. One of them held his front paw up and gimped on three legs. Another was missing patches of fur. There was so many that needed help.

I couldn’t hold back and asked, “Does anyone do anything about the dogs?”

It took the artist longer than a moment to respond. My question seemed to surprise or maybe offend him. “Nobody hurts them. And the people feed them when they can,” he said. Then he shrugged.

And I knew exactly what that shrug meant. It meant they had a hard enough time taking care of the people, how could anyone expect them to take care of the dogs too. When I had first arrived, my goal was to learn how a third-world economy affects dogs. What I realized outside that colorful, joyous art center is that Cuba’s poverty affects the dogs the hardest because they are on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder.

Trash can be turned into art. Even a chicken produces eggs, but dogs have no economic value, so they come last. For dogs on that island, it’s survival of the fittest. The ones who are genetically strong will live, and others, like the puppy underneath the statue won’t.

Two days later, I flew home and tried focusing on the things I loved about Cuba, like their Afro-Cuban music, organic farming methods, community art projects, and mojitos. Yet, I couldn’t completely think about any of it without seeing a backdrop of poverty on such a grand scale it overwhelmed these few gleaming rays. And I still can’t picture the dog with the red ID tag without remembering the one at Almar or the puppy at Muraleando. I’d been warned Cuba was a land of extremes, and I saw the evidence of it over and over.

I was able to deaden my emotions while I was in Cuba, but when I got home they were waiting. There was a lot of guilt and shame for seeing those dogs and leaving them behind. I also felt frustrated because animals are dying of starvation and infectious diseases 91 miles south of Miami. The resources they need are a short plane ride away, yet unattainable.

Then, I focused on what I can do and funneled all my frustration into writing this post. The idealist in me has always believed and always will believe that if more people know, then more will care. And with that empathy comes change. So, I’m giving a voice to the Alamar dog and the Muraleando puppy and to the 40 others I saw wandering the streets. I’m telling their stories with the hope that if enough people care, we can make a change.

P.S. In a few days, I’ll be posting a few practical ways we can all help dogs in Cuba.