On a cold, raining and foggy start to 2014 I made the journey down to Frosinone, with four others, as a new volunteer for ACL Onlus to check the welfare of approximately 130 dogs and puppies at one of many local canili. As a Pet Group Member and a long-standing animal lover and volunteer, this lifestyle is pulling me more into its clutches with every passing year.
ACL Onlus (Associazione Canili Lazio), established in 2005, works at the national level to combat the issue of stray dogs, improve the welfare of dogs locked in public and private pounds, and create opportunities for adoption to hundreds of dogs located in the most remote pounds of the Frosinone (southern Lazio) area.
ACL volunteers regularly visit the pounds, monitoring the health and wellbeing of the dogs, ensuring that the pound owners take proper care of their needs and adhere to Italian rules and regulations, and most importantly, handling adoptions. ACL also uses its resources (which come from donations and volunteers) to rescue stray dogs and provide them with medical care, temporary hospitality, re-education, etc.
We arrived to a typical dog shelter scene: 3-4 dogs per kennel living 24/7 within the confines of a cement prison. This particular kennel in Frosinone does have proper shelter from the elements, with a roof over everyone’s head, but beyond that, no extra amenities. The only other piece of “furniture” was the wood pallett that elevated them off the ground to sleep. The sad part about it is that where there were four dogs per kennel, one or more would have to sleep on the cement floor. My heart broke and sank.
I am not a newcomer to dog rescue and shelter work. In the midst of a “mid-life crisis” whilst travelling around Asia over 8 years ago, I spent six months volunteering at vet clinics and animal shelters in Thailand. At that time in Thailand there were very few if any laws governing the treatment of animals and no governmental spending on the welfare of animals (this may have changed in recent years as the dog meat crisis has since brought this issue to the forefront). Suffice it to say, I’ve seen the worst of the worst. I worked in a tattered, broken down shelter in Hua Hin (south of Bangkok), which was barely hanging on by the last few strings of two British women who had lovingly and unfortunately spent every last dime of their retirement on saving and housing about 100 dogs. They kept at least 20-25 dogs at their home at any one time as well. We showed up every day to clean the kennels, feed and water the dogs and serve up eye drops, tick and flea meds and any other medication needs to the sick ones. After several hours of work, we hand-picked the lucky winners for that day to get a loving, much needed bath, massage and tick treatment.
Back to Frosinone. Row after row of anxious, nervous, happy, sad and curious dogs watched our every move and waited for one second of tenderness, a touch, a beloved treat. Martina Buonincontri, the Focal Point and volunteer for ACL Onlus at this shelter (also a colleague and Pet Group member) did the tour of the shelter, first checking the sick/quarantined new arrivals. There were two puppies that had been left in the field that morning, a Westie type, and several others. They were getting checkups by the vets and microchipped before being introduced into the rest of the shelter.
Then the process began of going one by one to each kennel and checking the conditions of each dog. Some had mange, some seemed thin, one was limping, and one who seemed unhealthy and so on. Martina made a note of each dog and then cross-checked each dog’s libretto for treatment or recommended treatment in the “therapy book”.
The saddest part for me, that I couldn’t shake, was that these dogs are only cared for by one guy employed to take care of the entire shelter. This means they get the most basic care possible. Not one of them ever touch their paws to a blade of grass. They are never out of their kennels to run around and expend energy, except for the few times a month the ACL volunteers make the Saturday morning trip from Rome to Frosinone and manage to take 2/3 of them out for a brief stroll. So all that frustration and pent up energy goes into incessant barking in some, literally climbing the fence like monkeys, jumping up and down incessantly, and running in circles. I saw a puppy German Shepherd type dog jumping up and down as if his life depended on it. I am quite sure this activity is now wired into his brain and if he ever gets adopted, will need rehabilitation to correct this learned behaviour. One other dog had permanently hunched haunches, from little to no activity. His back legs would not straighten out. Very hard to get these images out of my mind.
This is one of many shelters just in the Frosinone area alone. And one of the better ones. I cannot imagine what some of the others look like, and don’t want to.
First thing is to not pity these dogs and cry for them (hard to do but working on it) and turn this sadness into action. The first order of business is to try to bring awareness and get as many of these dogs adopted. ACL Onlus does a very good job at this, promoting and coordination dog adoption. Some of these dogs have spent their entire lives in the kennel.
Second plan of action is to get as many volunteers as possible to start slowly getting them on leashes and walking around on grass and having a moment like a real dog. IN the grass, smelling things as a dogs should. This will make them more adoptable and socialized.
Also check out www.aclonlus.org