Saturday, February 13, 2010

La Nuova Cuccia

"Wear rubber boots and bring rubber gloves," they said. I'm the new guy at an animal shelter with a population of 250 well fed dogs and two very nervous cats. La Nuova Cuccia is a shelter, located 31 kilometers north of Rome, with a notorious past. Approximately ten years ago, the shelter was taken over by the Italian government for being more of a gulag than a rescue society. At that time there were about 700 dogs crowded into a chaotic warren of ramshackle kennels. They lived in filth and were slowly starving to death. It is against Italian law for an animal shelter to euthanize an animal, or to abandon one for that matter, so neglecting 700 dogs was a very serious situation indeed.

A new group of volunteers took over the shelter and began to care for the animals. They fed them, gave them fresh water, cleaned the kennels and tried to let them out of their runs at least once a day. They solicited donations and received food, doghouses, blankets and supplies. Their goal was, and still is, to find homes for the dogs or to care for them until the last dog dies. La Nuova Cuccia doesn't take in animals anymore and it will shut down after the last dog goes. But for now, there are still 250 dogs (and two very nervous cats) to be cared for every day. On Sundays I try to get up there to lend a hand.

This little guy is named Yorkie. I guess when you have to name 700 dogs creativity suffers somewhat.

The shelter is divided into sectors and each sector contains 12 to 15 kennels, each kennel has one, two or three dogs and each dog has its own doghouse in the kennel. The kennel floors are concrete and slope downwards to a drain set in the front. I work in Settore Violetta and look after 28 dogs. Two by two, I let them out of their kennels to run in the sector's open space while I go in with a bucket and a mason's trowel to clean up the floor. Then I bring in a hose and wash down the floor with a stiff broom. I dump their water buckets and refill them with fresh clean water, then I take all their bedding outside and shake it out. When I've finished cleaning the kennel, I put the two occupants back in and move on to the next kennel. There are 15 kennels in Settore Violetta so it takes me a good two hours to clean them all.

This is Furto. I suppose the name English Setter was already taken.

After the kennels have been cleaned, we begin feeding the dogs. Some dogs have special diets and others need to be fed apart from their kennel buddy. Nio and Sheila, for example, share a kennel and are the best of friends but if Sheila wasn't fed outside the kennel, Nio would never get a second bite of his food. One of the other volunteers mixes up big vats of food and we bring it to our sectors in wheelbarrows and serve it to the dogs on disposable plastic plates to eliminate the need for dish washing. With the few required separations and the three dogs that have special diets, it takes almost two hours to feed them all.

This is Laika.

Once everyone has been fed, I start back at the beginning and let the dogs out two by two for a little bit of exercise/socializing time. Usually there's a bit of cleanup maintenance to do during this period but mostly it's a time to play with the dogs or just talk to them. All the dogs are pretty fluent in Italian and, surprisingly, none seem to be the least bit bi-lingual. I chatter away in what I assume is Italian and they listen politely as long as I hold a treat in my hand. In what has turned out to be somewhat of a mixed blessing, none of the other volunteers speaks any english either. That's good because it's forcing me to use Italian much more than I usually do but it can also be a drawback when it comes to receiving basic instructions. I was working in Settore Violetta when another volunteer entered and gave me a lengthy set of instructions. I understood most of them perfectly but missed the part about not leaving the sector for the next fifteen minutes while a very dangerous dog was being exercised in the adjoining sector. Fortunately, he was being put back into his kennel when I wandered out to see what was going on and I didn't have to demonstrate how capable I am of vaulting a fence when pressed. Most of our dogs are senior citizens and enjoy just sitting out in the sun for a few minutes. Some of the dogs like to chase a ball and some prefer to just wander up and down the row of kennels checking things out like nosy old men. When it's time for them to go back into their kennel, I give each dog a chunk of liverwurst as a treat and close them up. This part of the day takes over three hours to complete.

Pluto is the biggest dog in my sector.

The facility is still ramshackle but at least now it's clean and orderly. The animals are cared for daily by a rotating corps of volunteers and visited regularly by a veterinarian. People still come to look them over and adopt them or they drop by to donate food, blankets or money. In the past two weeks, two of the dogs in Settore Violetta have been adopted (the oldest and the youngest) and now some reorganization will take place this week. Compatible dogs will be moved into the kennels and, on Sunday, I'll put on my rubber boots and begin letting them out two by two...

Perla is the shyest of the dogs in Settore Violetta.

At work, part of my portfolio covers Italy's aid to developing nations. When Haiti was struck by the earthquake several weeks ago, I was tasked with monitoring Italy's relief effort and reporting it back to DC. This put me into contact with the Protezione Civile, Italy's disaster relief corps. Within a day, the government of Italy decided to send a C-130 mobile hospital unit to Port-au-Prince with a medical team specially trained in crisis care. They dispatched the aircraft but it was diverted to the island of Guadeloupe because of the chaos at the Haitian airport in those first days. My contact at the Protezione Civile asked me to confirm that the US government had control of the airport and to help them get a landing permission for their plane. The Department of State had opened a 'Haiti Task Force' so I called them and they referred me to an Air Force command center who referred me to a Lt. Colonel in Arizona who was actually trying to bring order to the confusion at the airport in Port-au-Prince. He immediately cleared the Italian relief flight for landing as soon as they could get airborne and the first Italian relief mission arrived just three days after the earthquake struck.

In addition to the mobile hospital, Italy sent teams of disaster relief specialists, medical and humanitarian supplies and their aircraft carrier, the 'Cavour', with its hospital, a group of 300 engineers, several helicopters and 90 pieces of heavy construction equipment. As their contribution to the reconstruction effort, Italy has committed to build a physical rehabilitation facility in Port-au-Prince that will specialize in manufacturing prosthetic limbs. As my contact at Protezione Civile said, "Unfortunately, we have some experience in earthquake disasters after Abruzzo." He quickly noted that even though the scale of the two disasters was not comparable, he felt strongly that they had gained valuable experience in dealing with the aftermath of such a crisis. After touring their command center and witnessing the immediacy and the generosity of their response, I'd have to agree.

There was a bit of a drama the other day when I had a small 'incidente' with my, formerly, mint condition 1995 Mustang. I decided to drive into the Embassy one day because I wanted to use the car on the weekend and it needed gas. There's a gas station between the Embassy and my apartment and it's convenient to stop there on the way home. Having my car at the Embassy would also give me an opportunity to stock up at the commissary. Due to construction on one of the gates into the Embassy compound, I had to use an alternate gate and drive down a chute made of metal barriers on one side and a sidewalk on the other. The chute was narrow but wide enough for my car. At least it was wide enough until I hit the carabinieri jeep parked on the sidewalk. The sound of my passenger side mirror being knocked off was the first clue I had that I might have used just a bit more caution as I barreled down the chute and past the jeep. My first instinct was, naturally, to blame someone. The carabinieri were the obvious choice, but it's difficult to hold them responsible as they were, in fact, parked, stationary, not moving in broad daylight. They were also, I might add, standing outside their jeep looking at me in utter disbelief. Their jeep wasn't even scratched, I learned the word for idiot in Italian and diplomatic immunity came into play. My mirror is now held on with duct tape and I forgot to get gas on the way home that night. As my friends all say, "It's been Romanized."

Il idiota is the guy on the right.

It snowed in Rome on Thursday and we all managed to truck on in to work and put in a full day. Sure, less than half an inch fell and even that was quickly washed away by an afternoon rain, but this was the first snow to fall in many years in Rome and we all soldiered on. Shortly after I arrived in Islamabad, it snowed there too. No one felt the need to abandon their post there either. In other words, snow fell, work went on. However, let a few feet of snow fall on DC and the whole place shuts down. If they really cared, they'd have used dog sleds to get to work. Hey, dog sleds. More snow is expected this week and I happen to know where we could find a bunch of willing dogs who'd be delighted to have the work! All I need to do now is figure out how to say, "Mush," in Italian!

Trust me, you do not want to be this tree in Settore Violetta. Oh, the indignities it suffers.