Cuban cat fanciers are a rare breed, but on Sunday they put on their annual cat show as part of an ongoing quest to make the country more feline friendly.
Several hundred people streamed through Havana’s Kid Chocolate Arena to ooh and aahh over 100 cats competing for best of show awards.
The point, Cuban Association of Cat Enthusiasts members said, was to make their countrymen see that cats are animals worthy of love, not the neglect or mistreatment they say is too common.
“Our people have always preferred dogs. Like in many countries, cats have been a little left out,” said Cuban Association of Cat Enthusiasts president Angel Uriarte Rubio, a physician who founded the organization in 1991 in part to proselytize for cats.
“We’ve been working 20 years to create the possibility that cats will be seen in a better light by the people,” longtime association member Olga Fernandez Lopez said.
Progress has been slow, but if the slightly eccentric crowd at Sunday’s show was any indication, inroads have been made. As attendees wandered around the rustic gym, named after a famous Cuban boxer, they stopped to have their pictures taken with the cats, poked their fingers through the cages to pet them and voted for the ones they liked best.
One fashionably clothed woman, Glynnis Hernandez, had her cat’s face tattooed on the back of her shoulder in a big splash of color.
“I just really love my cat,” she said.
In a day-long process, judges poked and prodded the animals, felt their fur, stroked their tails and looked at their teeth. At the end, four cats were given “best of class” awards and one, Chester, was voted most popular by the public.
He was of the Bengal breed, a brownish red cat with spots that made him look strikingly like a leopard, but his owner Carlos Comesanas, said it was not just his beauty that made him a crowd favorite.
“He is a charismatic cat. The other cats lie in the cages resting, but he is always attentive to the people. He strikes poses. He’s like a model,” Comesanas said.
After hours in his cage, Chester was less like a model than an irritable cat, hissing and struggling to escape.
Cuba’s distaste for cats is viewed by cat fanciers as a prejudice handed down through the generations and, like much on the island, has been slow to change in the five decades of isolation that followed Cuba’s 1959 revolution.
Despite its 20 years in existence, the cat association still has only about 250 members, Uriarte said.
Cat fanciers discard the past and say most people do not understand that cats are animals that freely give and receive love.
They also remark often about the sense of self and independence that cats have, which perhaps appeals to people living in a society where individualism has not been encouraged in the communist system.
“Cats are very close to my character,” said Uriarte. “If you were to ask me if I wanted my son to be like a dog or like a cat, I would say a cat because a cat maintains a certain dignity.”
Tony Martinez, the partner of Hernandez and the tattoo artist who gave her her cat tattoo, said he loved cats because they are free.
“The main thing is freedom. A cat doesn’t have an owner. A dog has an owner, but nobody tells a cat what to do,” he said.