- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

ROME

Every dog has its day, and this could be it for every mistreated kitty, pup and parrot in Rome.

Animal monitors are on the prowl, working hard to get officials to apply strict new guidelines that, if enforced, could be the toast of the animal kingdom.

A city ordinance that took effect in November gives dogs the right to daily walks and protects stray cats. Romans who leave their pets in a vehicle in the hot months of April to October or confine their fish to round bowls instead of a good-sized aquarium face fines of up to $600.

More serious offenses, such as using animals to beg, can lead to the pet being confiscated.

“Many beggars always have puppies. They buy them on the illegal market for a few euros,” said Francesca Cantalini, a monitor for Rome’s animal rights office. “The puppies are often sedated, so that they don’t move around, and when they grow up, who knows what happens to them?”

She spoke while combing the streets around Rome’s central train station for beggars using animals. She soon spotted a woman in a dark kerchief kneeling on the pavement, a white puppy in her lap attracting sympathy and shiny coins from passers-by.

Mrs. Cantalini called police, tried to catch the attention of a passing patrol and pleaded on her cell phone for a half-hour. The police never showed up, and soon the beggar moved on, lifting the tiny mongrel from the pavement and taking it with her.

The case revealed a major flaw in the new rules: Monitors need police intervention to hand out fines or confiscate animals, said Giampaolo Vassallo, Mrs. Cantalini’s teammate.

“The hardest part is getting the police involved — it can be very frustrating sometimes,” he said after failing to rescue the puppy.

Ilaria Ferri, head the Italian chapter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said that as a result of this shortcoming, the city ordinance would amount to “good intentions that will stay on paper,” just like Italy’s many national laws on animal rights.

She pointed out that each year Italians abandon about 350,000 pets, mostly cats and dogs, despite a law that makes it a criminal offense.

Rome officials insist that the new rules can be a useful tool to educate owners on how to respect animals.

“It’s like an instructions booklet for all pet owners,” said Roberta Pinto, director of the city’s animal rights office.

“It sends the message that animals are living beings and have rights,” she told the Associated Press. “Of course, it will take a lot of work to modify certain bad habits.”

Mrs. Pinto said her office seeks to coordinate the monitors’ efforts with municipal police and train officers in the new rules.

Other no-nos in the ordinance include displaying animals in pet shop windows or offering them as prizes at fairs. Electric and choke collars are banned, as are trimming cats’ claws or dogs’ tails and ears for aesthetic purposes.

The ordinance also gives legal recognition to Rome’s “gattare” — the “cat ladies” who feed thousands of strays — and grants them the authority to care for the city’s colonies of cats.

Municipality officials said the law is too recent for them to be able to provide figures on how many violations had been committed.

Although police intervention is sometimes crucial, Mrs. Cantalini and Mr. Vassallo said the measure is reserved for the more serious cases of mistreatment.

The two usually spend their days going door to door, talking to owners of pets seen languishing on tiny apartment balconies or tied to short chains.

“We’d rather educate than punish people,” Mrs. Cantalini said. “We talk to owners about their pet and try to check back with them often.”

The monitors demonstrated this approach when they spotted a man begging on Via Frattina — one of Rome’s most elegant shopping streets — while surrounded by a small menagerie of four dogs.

The man gave his name as Laszlo and proudly displayed the membership card of an animal protection group he belonged to in his native Hungary. Now he is homeless, living with Panna, a large white shepherd; a portly boxer named Ginzburg; and Zaza and Bahur, two brown mutts.

“Obviously, he lives with his dogs and takes good care of them. They are much better off with him than in a crowded dog pound,” Mrs. Cantalini said.

The pets are all in good health and even have a vet, she explained while chatting with Laszlo.

“Don’t worry,” she said, petting Zaza. “We’d never take them away from you.”

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