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Dog Days

Well, life got in the way of posting over these last weeks, so I’m picking up again with my July trip. Sorry that it qualifies now as a kind of blast from the past.

On Sunday, I drove to Guardiagrele to see Jilly and John and to meet their new dog, Doobry. They’d brought Doobry home just a week before from the Lanciano shelter, where he and two siblings had been tossed from a car window.

I was detoured en route due to a cheese rolling contest, which sounded like a hoot under the searing July sun.

Doobry is named for a character in a children’s story Jilly had written but never published back when she was teaching. It’s a shame, too, because the characters and idea behind it are original and imaginative. Maybe she’ll still do something with the story one day. It's for that reason that I didn't try to steal any of her artwork for this post.

The winning little Doobry has some naughty behaviors like chewing shoes and dragging his indulgent new parents out of bed and outside to watch the sunrise, only to snore his way through it while they sip their coffee.

Not that Jilly and John wouldn’t be up pretty close to the crack of dawn, anyway. They’d have to be early risers to get done all the things they get done. They’re very enterprising and I’m very envious. Practically self-sufficient are they, potting tomato plants in discarded kitchen appliances and competently pruning trees and canning preserves and making homemade wine and brandy from just about everything but compost. (At least I don't think it was compost.)

They sent me home with some tiny round plums, figs, and apricots from their trees, plus three herb plants for my own yard: rosemary, mint, and wild thyme. I planted them two days before I left; let’s hope they survive. The neighbors on one side who’ve come back from Toronto to get their house in selling condition (anyone want to move in next to me?) have kindly agreed to pour water on them periodically from their upstairs window (their only real access to my yard) in hopes the plants will survive till I get back there.

Speaking of surviving…

After lunch with J&J, I spent a good bit of Sunday trying to help a disoriented dog I’d seen heading toward me in the middle of a busy state road. He was poodle-ish and white, very dirty and matted, and seemed to have trouble with his eyes. I couldn’t get too good a look at him because I was trying to navigate traffic myself. I turned around and found him running through Castelfrentano on SS84 toward Guardiagrele. I got ahead of him, parked, and called to him — as did another woman, I might add — but he dodged us both and kept running. I got back in the car after fruitlessly trying to reach someone at the Lanciano shelter (or canile) and found him again sitting in the shade near a roadside restaurant. The carabinieri station wasn't far, so I headed there and reported the whole situation to an officer who seemed sympathetic. I told him there was no response at the Lanciano canile, and he said they don’t typically come out to pick up animals, anyway. They must be brought there. Moreover, the shelter would be closed by now, it being Sunday evening. The officer said he would look for the dog I described in the environs the next day when the canile was open again and would take him there if he could.

On my way home, I passed the spot where I’d last seen the poor creature, and he was gone. Over the next days, I went back four times to Castelfrentano to find him, armed with fresh meat from the butcher, but saw no sign of him. Despite what I know of Italians’ relationship with animals, I half-believed the officer had acted because I so very much wanted to believe it. On the way home, I did find a big black dog sitting in a car parts lot where a guy was about to close up the gates. I asked if I could go in and leave the dog some meat (the chopped sirloin I’d bought for the white dog was sitting in the back seat). He said okay, as long as it wasn’t poisoned.

I spent a lot of time during this trip following homeless dogs around, but often it’s cats I’m trailing. This is one of the glaring blemishes on the landscape of Italy, especially outside the major cities. There are so many abandoned, homeless, and roofless animals that you almost don’t want to look right or left as you travel. I always try to have food, water, and bowls in the car for extreme cases. I know there are arguments against helping feral or homeless cats and dogs. You’re sometimes not doing them any favors getting them accustomed to easy food if you’re not going to provide it regularly or permanently. I get it. Nevertheless, some cases of skeletal mother cats with kittens to nourish and sick dogs who might recover with a bit of wholesome food and water are tough to turn from.

Animals in Italy often are referred to as i nostril amici a quattro zampe, our four-legged friends. The friendship, unfortunately, is not reliable. At ends of holiday seasons, family pets are left on the street, at rental houses, along rest stops on the autostrada. Italy has launched a PR campaign discouraging people from such callous abandonment, but the cultural attitudes are tough to shake.

For one thing, and with some exceptions, Italians have this idea that any life is better than no life, even if it’s one of exposure, hunger, mange, and illness. And, I’m sorry to say, there's a mind set about little creatures being disposable; there will always be another needy little candidate to replace a pet if necessary.

Many “pets” that have nominal homes with families or at restaurants simply are not well cared for.

All too often they’re roofless and unvaccinated. They’re also unsterilized, not least because the people who claim them don’t have the spare 100 euros to spend and certainly don’t consider it a priority, especially given their belief that neutering would deprive their four-legged friends of their fun. Of course, that misguided attitude multiplies the problem exponentially and produces legions of sick, injured, starving, and thirsty animals who wander day after day looking for shelter and succor.

One incident in particular from last year still haunts me. It was early morning, and I was driving through a wooded area en route to Pescara to return my rental car. I came around a curve to find a dog lying in the middle of the road. I stopped and got out to make sure he was dead. He was, but must have died just minutes before, because his little body was still soft and warm. He’d evidently been traveling in a pack with four other dogs of various breeds, who stood together about 20 yards from the scene. I’ll never forget the looks on their faces as they watched me walk over to inspect their fallen comrade. They stood motionless and looked at me as if to say, “Can you do something?” As I walked back to my car, their stricken eyes still following me, I stopped and bowed to them and said “I’m sorry for your friend.” But that was all I could do. Or, more accurately, it was all I did do. I regret to this day that I didn’t dig into my luggage to find a piece of clothing to wrap the little soul in and lay him to rest in the forest. He deserved that measure of dignity, but I was preoccupied with the car which, parked along one of the many hairpin turns of that route, would have been a target and a danger to any other car that might come careening through. My failure to give the little dog that measure of respect in the presence of his companions nags at me.

It’s for all of these reasons that I’m starting to think about how I might help with the overpopulation situation. The idea struck me when an acquaintance in town told me her cat had just given birth to five kittens (all, like their mother, left outdoors). I asked why the cat wasn’t spayed, and she answered simply that she couldn’t afford it.

I’d really like to do something in my area of Abruzzo, but don’t know where to begin. My idea is a mobile sterilization unit, free to all comers, announced in public billboards, and underwritten by a fund I’d seed with help from GoFundMe or the like. One big hurdle is insurance, so I’ve been advised to try to partner with an existing animal advocacy group and operate under their auspices. I’ve already contacted a few for advice or help or partnership in getting started, but they regret that they as yet have no operations or foothold in Abruzzo. There’s another I more recently discovered called I hope to contact on my next visit.

If anyone has any advice, I’d love to hear it. I'm kind of at a loss and know this may well be a pipe dream, but it's worth mulling. You never know.

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