NAPLES, Italy — Marcella Falco loves her job. But each morning, she dreads going to work.
Will this be another morning when she finds a dog chained to the gates of the animal shelter?
"It just breaks my heart. Every week, we find one dog, two dogs, just left outside the shelter," Falco said. "Sometimes they are just running around outside the gate. Sometimes they are chained. What choice do we have? We give them a home."
In Italy, animal shelters too often become the final home for thousands of abandoned or stray dogs, including the 550 dogs and puppies that reside at the privately run Rifugio San Francesco in Ischitella, a suburb of Naples.
"Adoption? No, not many Italians adopt," Falco said. "Maybe, maybe the puppies will be adopted. But the adult dogs — they come here to stay here, to die here."
Some are abandoned by U.S. servicemembers when they leave their duty stations, although the number of pets left behind by the military is not available. Most, however, are from the country’s rampant stray population.
Italy has nearly 150,000 stray dogs and nearly 2.6 million stray cats, according to Ministry of Health data. In the region of Campania, where the main U.S. Navy bases are located, there are more than 32,000 stray dogs and 128,000 stray cats.
Italian officials try to battle the problem with publicly funded shelters. Nonprofit shelters also take strays off the street, neuter them and let them go. And a few Americans have stepped in to adopt stray animals and keep them off the streets.
Better off homeless?
There are 81 animal shelters in Campania, but some animal-rights workers say animals may actually fare better on the streets than in some shelters that are poorly run.
"The situation of stray dogs in the region of Campania is anything but pleasing — not only for the thousands of dogs roaming the streets in search of food, but also for the many animals that live out their miserable existence in private and public kennels," said Dr. Dorothea Friz, who runs the Lega Pro Animale veterinary clinic and the Naples chapter of Mondo Animale Foundation.
Friz is a German who moved to Italy 27 years ago and runs the vet clinic in Mondragone, north of Naples.
Many shelters, she said, are run for profit, not for the love of animals.
Some shelter operators round up as many dogs as possible, cramming them into cages to collect cash from the local, state and federal governments that fund publicly run shelters, Friz said.
Operators are paid roughly 4 or 5 euros per day, per dog by the government, said Mariana Pompameo, director of the Veterinarian Hospital for Azienda Sanitaria Locale Napoli 1, the city’s health department.
So, a shelter with, say 500 stray dogs, could rake in 60,000 euros to 75,000 euros a month.
In 2007, Italy’s Ministry of Health spent nearly 5 million euros on the stray animal problem — from funding for shelters to anti-abandonment public awareness campaigns. That’s up from 4.2 million in 2005.
But the money isn’t going to feed, adequately house or treat the strays, said Friz, who has campaigned for government regulatory oversight. "If they are going to fund the shelters, [the government] should control them," she said. But shelter owners are "lining their pockets with the money. It’s become a business."
Government officials maintain there is adequate oversight of the publicly funded shelters, including quality control visits.
But Pompameo said that the high cost of running public shelters has forced the government to close some of them and rely more on private shelters or public-private ventures.
Pompameo denies animals in Naples’ public shelters are mistreated, but acknowledged that, like with many of the services provided via the public sector, there is a shortage of personnel to accomplish all the department’s needs.
Pompameo’s Naples office employs 11 veterinarians and 10 technicians. Technicians go out daily to round up strays to be taken to the department’s uptown veterinary hospital. Under Italian law, all strays must be neutered and cannot be euthanized. Regional law mandates that stray dogs must be sterilized before they are returned to the streets, taken to a shelter or adopted.
In Naples, on average, for every 10 stray dogs her agents catch, eight are returned to the streets after being neutered and microchipped, she said. One gets adopted out, and one is transferred to a public-funded shelter.
Finding ways to help
Out on the streets, residents often feed their "neighborhood dog," and there are groups that raise money for the treatment and feeding of animals. One such group, Naples Friends of Animals, hails from the city’s U.S. Navy base.
"Naples Friends of Animals was founded on the belief that stray animals are to be treated with the same love and respect as other living beings," said Genni Day, former president of the nonprofit volunteer organization at the U.S. Navy base here.
It is an all-volunteer, not-for-profit organization that raises money to neuter the city’s stray dogs and cats to prevent more homeless animals, she said.
Since April, the organization has spent more than $10,000 for neutering and treatment. The animals are then released where they were found.
"I do what I do because my heart aches every time I see a homeless puppy or kitten trying to survive on the streets," said Day, who served as a veterinary technician in the U.S. for five years. "I know all of the intestinal parasites and diseases that can run rampant on the streets with the strays. I hate to see any animal suffering.
"Moreover, I’m just a huge animal lover with a huge heart that wants to help the animals here."
Friends of Naples also has a cadre of volunteers who foster stray cats and dogs, keeping them safe, healthy and loved until they can find a home.
"Every now and then, we have a family who falls in love and adopts," Day said.
One such volunteer is Petty Officer 2nd Class Steve Dockendorff. Since arriving in Naples 18 months ago from Bahrain, the sailor has fostered 17 dogs. He now has three foster dogs in his Casapesenna villa, including three-legged Bullfrog, who was hit by a car and had a limb amputated.
"They’re all street dogs. I don’t believe in buying pets when there are too many free ones out there," the 28-year-old sailor said.
So what, he says, if he spends $75 to $100 every two weeks to feed them.
"I know this isn’t for everyone," he said. "It’s a lot of work. But I’ve been around animals all my life. And I have the willpower to do it."