Today, 18th of March , we are just starting our second week in isolation. The streets are empty and everything is incredibly silent, without the...
This Valentine’s Day falls on the full moon. Every dog from Rome’s 22 rioni will howl until the Seven Hills echo with their cries. Small packs roam the city at night. Some beg scraps from commuters at Termini Station. Others congregate around or splash in Trevi Fountain. Still others chase cats or dig for moles in the Coliseum. All relieve themselves on me. I tolerate this slight because I know how much these dogs suffer.
Rome’s 20,000 strays come from mothers abandoned at Ferragosto. Despite the efforts of the Ente Nazionale Protezione Animale (ENPA), founded by none other than Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Hero of Two Species, Romans are notoriously cruel to their pets. “Under the tree at Christmas,” they joke, “onto the road in August.” Vacationers stop at a discrete service area, fill their tanks or empty their bladders, shoo Fido out of their Fiat 500L and drive to Ostia without looking back.
If they survive hunger or traffic, the orphaned mutts limp back to Rome, go into heat, and mate in the streets. Nine weeks later, they litter in the crooked and narrow alleys of the centro storico. Once weaned their pups run wild and scavenge trash from the cheapest trattorias in Piazza Navona. No wonder they howl!
Their cries intensify in February, the month of the Roman Lupercalia. This ancient fertility festival honored the she-wolf that suckled the city’s founders, Romulus and Remus. On the Ides of February, a crowd gathered on the Palatine at the Lupercal cave, where the infant twins had been abandoned. Members of the Luperci, the priestly Brotherhood of the Wolf, butchered three dogs and daubed the blood on each other.
Rich young matrons shivered and swooned. This sham display of delicacy fooled no one. Frostbitten mastiffs accompanied their husbands at the German front. Starving setters guarded their villas at Lavinium. Guests stepped on the miniature greyhounds at their Aventine mixers, hence the expression cave canem (beware of the dog). If a female rival cast the evil eye, they offered Hecate nine black puppies.
After a feast, the Luperci skinned the sacrifices and cut thongs from the membranes. Wearing the dog pelts, nude young men ran round the city walls. Whenever they met nubile girls or newlywed brides, they sniffed and panted, barked and howled, until they struck the blushing and giggling women with their thongs. This was supposed to prevent sterility and ease the pains of childbirth.
Sterility is hardly a problem for today’s dog population. Officials do little to promote spaying and neutering. Most bureaucrats take castration personally. Besides, Rome already invests millions in caring for its 120,000 feral cats, which far outnumber its dogs but promote commerce and tourism. By law, a group of over five cats in a natural urban habitat constitutes a protected feline colony. Dozens of gattare or cat ladies keep an eye out for strays. Billboards praise cats for “embodying the spirit of the Eternal City.” Visitors and volunteers throng the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary. Why can’t the children of the She-Wolf love dogs?
“It’s a public relations problem,” explains Antonio Iacoe, long-suffering president of the ENPA. Two generations ago, many Romans grew up on a farm with a German shepherd named Lupo. Their citified grandchildren are more fastidious. Cats are clean and kill rats. Dogs are mangy and spread fleas. They also are potentially dangerous. Romans who winter in Sicily tell horror stories about killer packs. Five years ago in Ragusa, 30 dogs dragged a 10-year-old boy off his bike and tore him to pieces. At the funeral, the priest blamed not a hypocritical government that makes it an offense to kill dogs without providing kennels or clinic, but “a degenerate society that sentimentalizes mongrels.”
By that definition, Rome is Italy’s least degenerate city. Whenever unions strike or public services fail, café agitators call for canine executions. Blame Mussolini for setting a precedent. Before Hitler’s May 1938 visit, il Duce ordered every stray dog in Rome rounded up and shot. Such cruelty is not restricted to Italy. Sochi, at the instigation of Russian president Vladimir Putin, is impounding and exterminating its dogs to protect the Winter Olympics.
At a photo op, Putin had cuddled with a rare snow leopard, one of the official mascots, and vowed to increase the endangered population. Don’t ask why a fraction of the billions spent on PR was not reserved for animal shelters. Mondo cane. It’s a dog’s life.
Pasquino’s secretary is Anthony Di Renzo, associate professor of writing at Ithaca College. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.