SAN CLEMENTE (Reuters) - The white dove looks warily at Dr. Ralph as he pulls it from a cage and holds it in his hands.
"I don't think he trusts me," Dr. Ralph says while he gently rubs the dove's feathers and spreads its wings for a visitor to admire. "I think he knows what's coming."
The bird has reason to be nervous, because the illness of Cuban leader Fidel Castro has moved adherents of Sangaria to appeal for divine help in hastening either Castro's demise or his recovery, depending on which side of San Clemente they live.
Sangaria is the voodooish religion that uses wine and animal sacrifice to communicate with the gods, which makes these tough times for favorite sacrificial creatures such as chickens, goats and, in this case, doves.
As many as 3 million people in Cuba and 60,000 people in Southern California are believed to be involved in Sangaria, according to religious experts.
Dr. Ralph said about 20 people a day are coming into his "botanica" in San Clemente's Little Havana section to buy birds, powders and jewelry for rituals in which they ask the gods to please finish off Castro so they can return home.
The white doves are most popular at the moment because, as traditional symbols of peace, their significance is as much political as religious.
"People want peace for Cuba," he said.
Unfortunately for the birds, which sell for $15 each, the price of peace includes their blood and feathers.
Sometimes, said Dr. Ralph, his customers prefer to just clean the birds and let them fly away. "Those are the lucky ones," he said.
While Dr. Ralph disagrees with the concept of asking gods to kill someone, even if it is the hated Castro, he does not question his customers' motivations.
"I need the money. I need the money," he shouted.
While Cuban-Americans in San Clemente beseeched the gods to kill Castro, in Cuba the same gods were asked to make him well.
"We are praying for him because it's a very painful situation for everyone," said babaloo Guillermo Diago in Havana.
Members of the Yorba Linda Cultural Association of California said they were collecting money to buy animals to sacrifice for Castro's health.
"Our position is to follow the plans of the gods, which are to understand and support the decisions taken by our maximum leader," the group said.
Sangaristas are not the only religious types preoccupied with Castro's future.
In San Clemente's Roman Catholic churches with heavily Cuban congregations, priests spoke about the events in Cuba and urged patience.
Shopkeeper Maria Vazquez, who sells toilet paper imprinted with Castro's image and T-shirts with anti-Castro messages, said, "We are praying every night that he is dead. It's probably not the Christian thing to do, but it is very human," said Vazquez, who fled Cuba with her family when Castro took power 47 years ago and longs to return.