When in Cuba... 

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  • Story and photos by Matt Whelan
  • When in Cuba...
   
 

There is something admittedly perverse about posing for photos with an animal that you might well later have for dinner.

But that, perhaps, is in our nature.

"OK, now hold it up high!" Ernesto yelled, and took my picture.

I mean, what compels us to consume some animals on an industrial scale, yet have such affection for others? And why do different people in different places find such different things acceptable to eat?

"Now put on shoulders!" Ernesto yelled, and took another picture.

Cows in India are treated like gods, yet here in the West we grill millions of bovine deities every year. A guinea pig in Peru makes for a good roast, but at my house would have free room and board, and cost a near fortune in vet bills. The Japanese like to eat whales, the French enjoy frogs, we eat pigs but not dogs, and the Chinese — as a visit to a market in Chinatown might lead you to believe — will eat just about anything.

"OK, now hold like baby!" yelled Ernesto. Click.

Here, in the humid, salty marshland of the Zapata Swamp on Cuba's southern coast, they eat crocodile.

They have been since breeding facilities were introduced in the '60s to bolster wild stocks of Crocodylus rhombifer, the Cuban crocodile, which, having been hunted heavily for its leather, was close to disappearing. So successful were these projects that they were kept going as farms.

I'd been invited to a crocodile dinner in nearby Playa Larga, and recognizing how fashionable it is to know where one's food comes from, decided to pay a visit to one of these farms, to look dinner directly in the eye. I found one just off the long, straight strip that connects Playa Larga on the coast with inland Jag├╝ey Grande, and for a few pesos one of the operators, Ernesto, showed me around.

The crocs are segregated by age, in pens that at first hold little critters reminiscent of a pet lizard an old roommate used to keep in a tank next to a jar of crickets and a collection of bongs.

But crocodiles grow up fast, and by the time we made it to the seven-and-eight-year-olds, I was suitably intimidated. An adult Cuban crocodile is almost three metres long, weighs 180 kilograms, and has 40 pairs of worryingly large teeth that can cut a man clean in half. They're also extremely fast, and often launch themselves clear of the water when picking off prey. These are quick and fearsome reptiles in their prime.

So too, sadly, is their meat, for which they will soon be slaughtered, along with, as Ernesto put it: "otros productos." By this he meant crocodilian jewelry, clothing, and purses, which you can buy at a stall across the road — if that's your bag. Keep your receipt to avoid an embarrassing and expensive misunderstanding at customs. You'll need to prove your new croc skin cowboy boots with matching wallet and belt all came from a farmed crocodile. Wild crocodiles are well protected by the government, which many say has done far more to benefit its endangered species than its subjects.

But despite the success of the farms, the Cuban crocodile remains critically endangered, due mainly to habitat degradation and genetic dilution.

"What do they eat?" I asked.

"Chicken. Fish. Egg." Ernesto said.

"What time?"

"One o'clock," he said, adding: "Every Tuesday."

"What else do they do?"

"Sunbathe," Ernesto said. "And they like to eat each other."

Indeed, cannibalism is popular, and many are missing snouts or the tips of their tails.

In one cage lay a massive, solitary beast, far bigger than any I'd yet seen. He seemed very alone — no one else with whom to sunbathe — and I was feeling sort of sorry for him, until I was told that this was the farm's stud, the lucky fellow whose only duties in life are to get fed and fornicate. Every other animal I'd seen in the pens was this guy's progeny. So too, quite possibly would be my evening meal.

It was while I was pondering the taste of the great beast's offspring that Ernesto cajouled me into holding one poor creature — mouth bound shut ­— on top of my head.

"OK, smile bigger! "Ernesto yelled, and took another picture.

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