As the suns rays beat down benevolently on the new and modern municipal dog pound at Muratella in Via della Magliana, the plight of its canine residents seems almost endurable. It is of course anything but. As Sonia Giacomelli, who works for the city councils animal rights office at the kennels says, a kennel can never be a nice place. For though the dogs are all well fed and humanely treated, the Rome kennel currently houses twice as many animals as it has space for at the moment 800 dogs live where there is officially room for only 390.
Above all else, kennels are a place of captivity something that is brought home when Giacomelli says it is better if the dogs are not taken out for walks by volunteers since for a while the dog has the illusion that he has a new life, and coming back is a lot worse than if they had never been out in the first place.
Nestled among hills on the road to Fiumicino, the Nuovo Canile Comunale opened in November 2003 (after leaving its old location in Trastevere) and has a large central building for administration and three circular buildings and outdoor areas for the dogs. The aim of the kennel is to find families willing to adopt a dog. This is a hard task, says Giacomelli, since people tend to favour small, pure breed white dogs and most of the animals are mongrels and fairly large.
The dogs in the nearest cage are pushing their noses through the metal grid of their enclosure for some human contact barking wildly at the possibility of being let out. One of them has patches of hair missing and big red welts on parts of his body. Giacomelli says he isnt ill but stressed because he is enclosed. Many of the dogs develop skin symptoms like these, or have severe behavioural problems, she explains.
The dogs medical needs are covered by in-house veterinarians and assistants and, if needs be, by private clinics around Rome; despite this, many of these animals still suffer terribly from being locked up in cages. As Giacomelli says, some have been house dogs all their lives and having to go to the toilet in a cage is deeply traumatic for them. In fact these dogs have special notices fixed on their cages and are walked by staff several times a day. The major problem for the kennel is space. Most of the dogs share cages intended for one animal. Each cage has an indoor and outdoor area measuring eight square metres (there are also bigger cages for groups of dogs). This in turn has a door that leads out on to a larger communal outdoor area, which ten cages share and in which dogs take turns to roam around. There are also six grassy areas where animals are taken when being trained by a so-called in-house educatore, or dog-handler, responsible for diagnosing and treating the behavioural ailments they may be suffering.
Priority at the kennels is given to wounded and abandoned dogs. In 2004 a total of 1,628 dogs were brought to the kennels and 1,127 were adopted. The number of animals is set to rise this year. Some dogs come to the kennel pregnant and their puppies grow up in cages, and many also see out their days here. The problem, says Giacomelli, is that people get dogs without thinking it through. They soon realise that it is a big responsibility. Our centre often gets calls about dogs that are kept out on balconies all day long, she says.
Yet attitudes towards dogs and animals have changed and improved, in great part due to the interest the municipality has taken in the issue and thanks to the work of municipal councillor Monica Cirinn, who is in charge of the citys animal rights office the first one to be created in Italy, back in 1994. A further step forward was made in October this year, when municipal regulations were passed specifically stating that animals cannot be abused. The regulations also stipulate what constitutes dog abuse.
The kennel has a budget of approximately ?2 million a year from the city and receives private donations too. There are now 108 employees on the payroll and Giacomelli says that the fact that much of the work that used to be carried out by volunteers (such as dog adoptions) is now done by staff has meant an exponential improvement in the professionalism of the service provided.
The kennel is also trying to prevent the dogs from needing to be brought to the pound in the first place. At the moment two regular staff members are in charge of checking out reported cases of dog abuse and deciding whether the animals need to be brought to the kennel. They also run a sterilisation programme of so-called cani liberi dogs that live in neighbourhoods and are fed by the locals.
All the animals that leave the kennels also need to be sterilised by law. They may have found someone to love and take care of them, but it makes no sense for them to go out into the world and have a litter of puppies that will simply be brought straight back to the pound for a life behind bars. They also have to be tattooed with an identification number, so that the new owner can be traced if the dog strays or is abandoned again.
To adopt a dog contact the Nuovo Canile Comunale at Via della Magliana 856, tel. 0667109550, www.corrieredelcanile.org. Alternatively, you can adopt a dog without taking it home with an annual contribution of 60. More information is available on the website.