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NAPLES, Italy — Mia Mattsson-Mercer knows she can’t save them all, but she can try.

So several days a week, she dons her vest and boots, and grabs several pairs of protective gloves, then heads out in her SUV on missions to rescue stray dogs that roam the suburbs of Naples.

She’s rather busy.

There is no shortage of strays and, sadly, no shortage of those in the greatest need — the dying, sick and injured.

"I could lie around all day and read books … and eat bonbons, but this is my responsibility, my passion," said the tall, lean, Swedish-born volunteer with startling blue eyes.

In 1999, she started the non-profit foundation Animals without Limits to rescue and treat stray dogs in war-torn countries.

Those who no longer can afford to care for pets sometimes abandon them along the highways, she explains. Or children might torture dogs to allay their own suffering — something she saw often while working in war-stricken Bosnia and Herzegovina nearly a decade ago.

She finds the animals beaten, sick, tortured and suffering.

Mattsson-Mercer, whose husband is stationed at Allied Joint Force Command Naples, works closely with the clinic Lega Pro Animale in Castel Volturno. Funds donated to Animals without Limits pay for medicine and surgical treatment of the strays, to include spaying and neutering. Italian law prohibits euthanizing healthy animals, so the clinic and organizations spay or neuter them, and either return the strays where they were found, or adopt them out.

Animals without Limits is not an adoption agency, but people wanting to adopt can do so from a number of animal shelters in the area, she said.

Mattsson-Mercer often sees dogs ill and near death from coming in contact with rat poison that workers have used to keep down infestations because of the tons of garbage that litter Naples’ streets.

"It’s a slow painful death for rats, which bleed to death from the inside, and it’s also like that for strays," she said. "We don’t think about that. Well, some of us do."

Mattsson-Mercer’s work gets dogs that have a chance of survival into a clinic where they can be treated and released again, said Dorothea Friz, who runs the Lega Pro Animale veterinary clinic.

Living as a stray often is preferable, Friz said.

"Re-homing (adoption) is very, very low in Italy," said Friz, a German native who moved to Italy 26 years ago. "Italians are not educated to go to shelters, not educated about adopting. The [death] rate in a shelter is higher than on the streets. [Dogs in shelters] are not taken care of. You have 1,000 dogs, 2,000 dogs, 500 dogs in a shelter, and they are not treated well."

Shelters earn 3 euros a day from local governments for each dog in a shelter, Friz said, and for some, it’s become a business.

She tries to counter that — visiting schools to educate children about pet adoption and advertising on roadside billboards. Once a month, her clinic offers to spay and neuter dogs and cats for free.

The 43-year-old Mattsson-Mercer is an animal psychologist and three-time published author.

"I work with humans who have problems with their animals," she explained. She senses reasons for animals’ behavior, and works with owners to understand and adapt to the behavior.

Her psychologist job took her around the globe and a gave her a chance to brush shoulders with royalty. She worked with the Swedish royal family and their horses, and the same with the Bahraini royal family’s horses. She also worked with a German Olympic equestrian team.

As exciting as that was, she felt empty, she said. "I started thinking about all the animals who didn’t have an owner," said the mother of 3-year-old Olivia and 6-month-old Max.

She never wanted to marry, never wanted to have children. The victim of child abuse, she felt she never would be able to protect her children. But she found her soul mate, and now her family brings balance into her once topsy-turvy life.

In 1999, she attended an animal rescue conference in Sofia, Bulgaria. Inspired, she drafted plans for the Animals without Limits. "I dropped my job. I wanted to be part of this."

She returned to Sweden and asked her family for a single Christmas gift that year: a plane ticket to war-ravaged Bosnia, where for a year-and-a-half, she lived in a small apartment, froze in the winter and scavenged for food like the locals. "I didn’t know what was worse, being hungry or freezing. But I understood the anger."

Through her efforts there, she rescued a dog that children put in an oven to burn and watch it panic, a dog bludgeoned with a hammer in the head, hogtied with barbed wired and tossed from a bridge.

"But I understood the anger."

Life now finds her in Naples, rescuing dogs and caring for the five she and her husband, Lt. Col. Todd Mercer, rescued from various parts of the world.

Her experiences are the stories of her three books, written in Swedish but which she’s working to translate into English. She writes of the traumatized dogs in war-torn nations, of her experiences as an animal psychologist, and of the healing power a dog’s companionship can have on ailing children.

And she’s writing a fourth book, this one in English, about a child that survives the trauma of an abusive childhood, and of the affection of a dog that healed her.

It’s her own story.


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