Quarantine keeps crime in check––for now
ROME, CASTEL VOLTURNO, Italy––The deadly global COVID-19 pandemic, killing nearly 32,500 Italians to date, might if anything have made Castel Volturno, the unlikely spay/neuter hub of the nation, just a little bit safer.
Certainly stay-at-home orders seem to have at least temporarily reduced the mob violence for which the 2,500-year-old city is known.
German immigrant veterinarian Dorothea Fritz, who founded the Castel Volturno-based Lega Pro Animale Sterilization Centre for Dogs & Cats in 1986, and has survived there for 34 years, is back to sterilizing dogs and cats amid conditions which at the best of times resemble a war zone.
No-man’s-land for warring gangs
“The virus struck hardest in Italy’s prosperous industrial north, where the first homegrown case was registered on February 21, 2020 and where most of the infected and dead were recorded,” summarized Associated Press reporter Trisha Thomas on May 2, 2020.
“Castel Volturno is another world entirely,” Thomas wrote, “a 17-mile strip of land running along the sea,” about 30 miles north of Naples, “that is controlled by the Camorra organized crime syndicate,” though in recent years challenged by an immigrant “Nigerian mafia.”
“Here,” Thomas reported, “there have only been about a dozen COVID cases, and none among the [African] migrants,” or at least none known to the Italian authorities.
The immigrants, from many African nations but reputedly mostly from Ethiopia, Ghana, and Nigeria, form an illegal but long-established community, variously estimated as from 10,000 to 20,000 people, who have over the past 20 years or thereabouts crowded into a failed planned residential and commercial development called Destra Volturno.
“Ground zero for migration crisis”
Billed as a high-end destination resort city by the original mob-connected developers, Destra Volturno was sabotaged when other organized crime factions used the site for refuse disposal.
“Known as the ‘Terra dei Fuochi or land of fires,” according to Thomas, “Castel Volturno and surrounding areas have unusually high cancer rates, blamed on illegal dumping and burning of toxic waste that pollute the air, sea, and underground wells.”
Wrote Voice of America reporter Jamie Detmer in August 2017, “Now Castel Volturno is one of Italy’s ground-zeros when it comes to a migration crisis roiling Italian politics, straining the country’s resources, and trying the patience of Italians.”
That was before COVID-19 heavily taxed the resources of the rest of the country.
“Anti-migrant sentiment, fanned by populist parties, is mounting fast,” Detmer continued. “Italians increasingly are infuriated by the influx of mainly economic migrants from sub-Saharan African countries — an increasing number coming the past two years from Nigeria.
Drug runners, pimps, & pit bulls
“Castel Volturno isn’t an actual no-go area for law enforcement,” Detmer observed, “but it is a municipality police prefer to oversee gingerly,” as “the scene of an infamous 2008 Camorra massacre of seven African migrants,” shot at random, according to police, to “send a message to Nigerian drug-runners and pimps.”
Concluded Detmer, “Casual violence is common here, prompted by petty squabbles, arguments over drugs, or as an expression of despair.”
Animal life tends to be no more highly valued. In recent years, pit bulls kept as rather ineffectual watchdogs have proliferated, along with the street dogs and feral cats who have always haunted Castel Volturno.
Pit bull attacks in Castel Volturno that nearly killed a four-year-old child in May 2015 and an adult man in March 2019 made nationwide headlines. Both pit bulls were reportedly family watchdogs.
Many other pit bull attacks are believed to have occurred without being reported, lest the victims and their families be deported.
“No-kill” hoarding horror inspired Fritz to stay
Italy is among the world leaders in numbers of dogs and cats fed per household, but this is in part because sterilizing dogs and cats has never been a priority for much of the country.
Spay/neuter projects surviving and thriving tend to be in the affluent north, focused on street dogs and feral cats in and around tourist locations such as the ruins of ancient Rome, the sinking city of Venice, and the historic churches and Renaissance-era palaces turned museums of Turin, Florence, and Pisa.
Fritz, educated in Munich, Germany, began her veterinary career in Greece, another notoriously difficult venue for spay/neuter advocates, before moving to Naples.
There Fritz visited and was appalled by what was then a typical Italian animal shelter, professing a no-kill philosophy, “in which more than 450 living skeletons suffered. The dogs all lived together,” Fritiz recalls. “Many were sick and reproduced uncontrolled.”
Survived closure by mob politics
Fritz founded the Lega Pro Animale Sterilization Centre for Dogs & Cats, gradually building the practice––and regional acceptance of spay/neuter procedures––despite sometimes violent opposition from mob-connected private kennel operators who took over and made an industry of collecting government subsidies for housing homeless dogs and cats, after Italy in 1991 banned killing animals for population control.
The Lega Pro Animale Sterilization Centre for Dogs & Cats was briefly closed circa 2000 due to legal action brought by private kennel operators. After that, it did not close again until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the recently ended suspension of services.
Italy on March 9, 2020 closed all “non-essential” businesses, including animal shelters and spay/neuter clinics, in the northern part of the country: Lombardy, the epicenter of the outbreak, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto (Venice), and Piedmont. A day later the lockdown was extended nationwide. It remained in place through May 3, 2020.
Back operating after COVID-19 shutdown
“On May 4 our center opened again to start immediately with our so important work of birth control,” Fritz wrote to supporters.
“People in Italy have never been prohibited from bringing their pets to a veterinarian for emergencies,” Fritz explained. “Stray animals and animals in shelters have been regularly cared for.”
But rules requiring social distancing and wearing gloves and masks “turned into a big problem at our center,” Fritz said.
“On average 25 to 30 customers and caretakers come every day from all provinces in Campania,” the surrounding region of about 5.8 million people, “to have dogs and cats examined or to get them spayed/neutered. These are of course the ideal conditions for spreading the [COVID-19] virus. Our veterinarians were especially exposed to contagion: a dog on the table, the owner nose to nose with a veterinarian. In this case even protective masks do not help 100%.”
“From March 12, we had to close the gates”
As the lockdown progressed, Fritz continued, “Everyone was prohibited from leaving his/her own municipality. Police decided arbitrarily during road checks whether a visit to a veterinarian was an emergency. Spaying/neutering was not considered an emergency by the Minister of Health, and even public vets responsible for doing birth control of stray animals put their scalpels down. Our customers were often stopped from picking up their animals [post-surgery]. In this case we delivered the animals to them.
“So, from March 12, 2020, we had to close the gates of our center, reluctantly,” recounted Fritz. “We were aware that especially in spring, cats come into heat, and also dogs are very fertile. On that day [March 12], we had already made hundreds of appointments for surgeries, but we had to defer them to an indefinite time.
“Every 20 minutes one or more animals come”
“Now,” Fritz said, “we are calling all people whose appointment had been cancelled in March. They receive by email all documents required for the surgery, plus a certificate for police controls stating that they are on their way to our center to deliver their animals or pick them up.
“Just one person is allowed to come, with a protective mask and gloves. Every 20 minutes one or more animals come. People are not allowed to enter the clinic: they have to deliver their animals outside the door, where they can collect them in the afternoon at intervals of 10 minutes. Our concierge stays at the closed gate with the list of names and lets no other people in.”
“Many messages of solidarity”
Headquartered only a two-to-three-hour drive north, but a world away in other respects, the Rome-based Italian charity ENPA, whose name translates literally as “National Entity for the Protection of Animals,” adopted similar procedures for the 64 shelters it operates, most of them in the northern provinces.
“These days, due to COVID-19, we are receiving many messages of solidarity,” ENPA acknowledged via Facebook, “but also many, many requests for help, for food and care, from many people, whether for feral cat colonies, stray cats, and street dogs, or for owned animals,” whose caretakers “are unfortunately going through a time of economic emergency” due to the shutdown.
“We are trying to help everyone,” ENPA said, “how and where we can, and we don’t want to abandon anyone!”
ENPA listed as priority activities supplying pet food wherever needed, spaying free-roaming dogs and cats, transporting “animals of individuals needing emergency veterinary care,” and arranging “animal transport for adoption in Rome and the provinces.”
ENPA, the Lega Anti Vivisezione (Anti-Vivisection League), and the bat advocacy organization Protela Pibats have also appealed to Italian environment minister Sergio Costa “to intervene publicly in defense of bats,” in response to “numerous inaccuracies and fake news spread by the media, describing bats as species dangerous for spreading COVID-19, generating unjustified alarmism even toward protected Italian species.”
The three organizations “asked minister Costa, as the guardian of the biodiversity heritage of our country, to spread the correct message that Italian bats are formidable eaters of mosquitoes and other insects, do not pose a health risk to people, and who need to be defended because of the important biological role they play in nature, necessary for our existence.”
History of ENPA is history of modern Italy
ENPA since 2007 has been headed by Carla Rocchi, who previously headed the Rome chapter of ENPA, and is only the second female president of the organization, founded in 1871.
The first was Anna Winter, a British-born close associate of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the unifier of modern Italy. Winter, Garibaldi, and Timoteo Riboli jointly founded ENPA, then called the Animal Protection Society, in 1871.
About two dozen other Italian animal charities formed during the next 66 years. Legislation pushed by the dictator Benito Mussolini forcibly merged them all into the Animal Protection Society in 1938. The former Animal Protection Society was reincorporated under the present name, ENPA, in 1954.
ENPA, like the Lega Pro Animale Sterilization Centre for Dogs & Cats, has had brushes with organized crime.
Of particular note, in June 2007, fourteen years after the late American SPCA president Roger Caras issued a tongue-in-cheek appeal to U.S. Mafioso to leave their estates to animal welfare, ENPA was judicially awarded a small farm near Palermo, Sicily, confiscated from the Sicilian Mafia, for use in teaching humane and moral education. The farm produces honey, beeswax, and natural silk by methods that do not harm the insects.