Dino Fortunato, when he was not yet called that, was a vagrant dog and stranger to a group that gravitated around a small town in Calabria. Lost and affected by leishmania, his way of interacting with people and the difficulties in integrating with other free dogs showed to those who had observed him carefully that his life on the street was not part of his history and his destiny. Fiona and Carlo, two American tourists, had returned to Italy, to his family's place of origin in a difficult period of their lives. Carlo was undergoing medical treatment to cure an illness and the encounter with that mutt changed the fate of all three by starting "Mondo Stray", a four-episode documentary (the first will be available online on YouTube from Friday 26 March 2021) in which the situation of free ranging dogs is analyzed from North to South Italy.
Fiona Cole and Carlo Cesario husband and wife, returned to the "Belpaese" and traveled the boot to describe an Italy which, with all the problems that exist to manage the phenomenon of stray dogs, still emerges as one of the most advanced countries in animal health caring. Through the testimonies of four experts, including Luca Spennacchio, dog trainer and member of the scientific committee of Kodami, "Mondo Stray" however helps to understand how and how much there is still to be done in our territory to achieve a peaceful coexistence between our species and that of dogs. A long journey that begins in the North and ends where it all began, in Calabria. A total immersion in the life of the relation between people and dogs in all its facets, touching cultural, social aspects and up to the folds of a complex way of relating, with places where the dog is now just a "pet" and others in to discriminate which subjects could peacefully remain in their territories and which ones instead need an adoption is difficult due to the continuous emergency in which the volunteers operate and in the absence of true support from the bodies in charge. And, above all, in a country where the practice of euthanasia has been prohibited since 1991 but kennels have become places where many animals are imprisoned for life.
Everything started when you met a free ranging dog in Calabria. You were two American tourists in South Italy and so you knew for the very first time that in our country there are still free dogs on some part of the territory. Let's start from Dino Fortunato, how was your first meeting?
“Stray”, a film about free dogs in Istanbul. Elizabeth Lo, the director: «Zeytin and the others show us the world without prejudice»
Carlo: We met Dino Fortunato in 2010 when an adventure in my dad’s hometown went wrong. Fiona is originally from England and I was born in the States, but both of my parents are originally from Calabria. We had taken my 82 year old father back to his hilltop village in Calabria, and we were living there with him for several months. We also had our dog, Rufus, with us, who we had rescued in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I developed a serious health issue, so I was trying to navigate the Italian healthcare system while we were looking after my father, and that was when Dino came into our lives.
Fiona: We have spent a lot of time in Italy and we were already aware of the presence of stray dogs in the South, but this was the first time we lived in a community with free-ranging dogs. The village is near the coast and abandoned dogs are a part of life. They are dumped on the mountain road and they make their way into town looking for food. There was a little pack of stray dogs who had been accepted into the village, but we heard that the residents were afraid of bigger dogs and chased them away. One night, when we were walking Rufus we saw this big brown Shepherd scavenging for food in a dark alley. When we approached to take a closer look, he ran away. We found out that he was hiding in a picnic area down by the roadside during the day and coming up into the village late at night. He was very thin, so we started feeding him. It was a difficult time for Dino, and a difficult time for us. It’s a long story, but, in the end, we kind of saved each other. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
So you began to compare the differences between Italy and USA about dogs without owners. How is the situation in the States?
Carlo: We have widespread euthanasia in the States. In the past, the number of dogs being euthanized daily was horrifying. We still have large numbers of sheltered and euthanized dogs, but there has been a great deal of progress in reducing euthanasia. And there are growing amounts of data to track rates of homeless dogs and euthanasia in order to monitor shelter management. So although it isn’t enough, there has been lots of progress through spaying and neutering, adoption, some restrictions on euthanasia, microchipping, and transporting dogs out of "high euthanasia" municipalities to "high adoption" municipalities. Things are moving in the right direction, but the numbers of both unwanted dogs and euthanized dogs in the States are still extremely high in our opinion, and many of our shelters are full.
Fiona: In Los Angeles where we live, we don’t have free-ranging dogs. Loose dogs are picked up and taken into the shelter. In recent years, there has been a lot of publicity to raise awareness of shelter dogs in the States, for example the “Adopt Don’t Shop” campaign, which has highlighted terrible conditions: we have here puppy mills and illegal breeding operations. In Los Angeles, we have a high adoption rate, but we also have a lot of people who leave their dogs at the shelter or abandon them. The conditions inside the shelters vary greatly across the country. For example, our local shelter has a lot of volunteers and resources, but the dogs are housed in individual concrete kennels, and the stress levels are quite high.
What made you decide to go in deep in knowing the street dogs of Italy?
Fiona: After our experience of rescuing Dino Fortunato, we were curious. We saw the little pack of dogs living freely in the village who were accepted or tolerated. But then we saw Dino starving and in serious trouble by the roadside, with no stability or social interaction with humans or dogs. At one point he was taken away to the public shelter and we saw for ourselves what that was like, and we had to navigate the system to get him out. So we just started wondering how it all worked. We got to know these dogs on the streets and we wanted to know their stories. We wanted to honor Dino’s story, find out more about where he came from, and dig deeper into the situation that brought him into our lives. We also wanted to honor the dogs who we met in that shelter in Calabria where Dino was being held, who we couldn’t take with us and who likely spent their whole lives there. We wanted to tell their story too.
Carlo: Through the process of rescuing Dino, we became connected to a community of dog-lovers online and we discovered so many passionate people in Italy, and all over the world advocating for stray dogs, looking for solutions, and willing to help. In fact, in the beginning, “Mondo Stray” started out as a broader idea. Our original plan was to make a documentary film seeking out solutions for stray dogs all over the world, in order to contribute to improving the issue and to give the dogs a voice. We wanted to film in a number of different countries, but, unfortunately, getting financial support for a documentary film in the States is very difficult. So we decided to make it ourselves… with very little funding and a lot of sweat.
North and South, you discovered how different Italy is in terms of relationship with free ranging dogs. What is the idea you have now?
Fiona: When we rescued Dino Fortunato in Calabria, we were exposed to a lot of negative talk about the situation in Southern Italy. And, for sure, the situation is tough there, for many reasons. We saw it firsthand for ourselves. But the fact that packs of dogs are allowed, in some cases, to live freely and protected in some parts of the South is one of the most evolved and progressive approaches to stray dog management we have heard of. It is so much more civilized than the policy of locking them up in a concrete kennel for their whole lives, or euthanizing them.
Carlo: We really learned a lot about the value of free-ranging dogs and what they can teach us about who dogs really are. And not just from our human perspective, but imagine if we asked dogs to tell us in their own language how dogs live? It is a fascinating subject that has really piqued our curiosity, and we have become very interested in how much this reality can influence the broader conversation about the well-being of dogs.
In your documentary there are 4 main protagonists, who are they and why did you choose those people?
Carlo: We were looking for people who were dedicated to the well-being of dogs, but we also wanted to find people who represented different parts of the story. The first episode, “La Cultura”, covers Luca Spennacchio. Luca’s take on the cultural aspect of Italy’s overcrowded shelters was eye-opening. He brought so many issues to light that are applicable not just to Italy, but to the world over. In the making of “Mondo Stray”, we wanted to find out more about the situation in Italy, but we didn’t want our film to be about pointing the finger at Italy. Ultimately, we wanted to inspire people to think about the broader issues surrounding the world’s homeless dogs, and Luca did just that. The second episode, “Closing the Spigot”, covers Dorothea Friz, a German vet who has been running a non-profit vet clinic in a small town outside of Naples since the 1980s. And after 36 years, Dorothea has got some stories to tell! She has witnessed the changes in Italy, and she has been part of those changes at the government level. She is very focused on prevention, which we thought was a key part of the story. But we were also just fascinated by her personal journey.
Fiona: The third episode, “Born Free”, covers Michele Minunno. We don’t have free-ranging packs where we live in Los Angeles or where I grew up in England, so it was enlightening to discover that there are packs of dogs in Southern Italy who, in some cases, can live totally free and in harmony with their environment. We were fascinated to find out more about the real stray dogs of the South, and Michele gave us so much to think about. Our fourth and final episode, “Labor of Love”, covers Rifugio Fata, a non-profit dog shelter in Calabria that is run by a group of women who are fighting an uphill battle to help stray dogs in the South. These women began their mission over twenty years ago, and they have built their private shelter from the ground up. Through Rifugio Fata, we also interviewed Fausto Vighi, a dog educator who has been helping them develop a rehabilitation program for their dogs. We hope that “Mondo Stray” will bring them, and all of our subjects, more exposure and support for their work.
Choose 4 important things you learned from each one of the people you interviewed
Carlo: From Luca Spennacchio, we learned that ideas are powerful. We also learned that questions are powerful. Luca taught us that laws without a supporting culture don’t really mean much. He made us think about the fact that our dogs reflect who we are as humans, both as individuals and as a culture at large. We can learn a lot about ourselves by the way we treat the furry companions who have been living by our sides for thousands of years. Dorothea Fritz taught us that data is really important, and data is not just numbers. Data tells us stories about the big overwhelming issues that we don’t quite understand, and that we can’t wrap our heads around. She taught us that sometimes being precise can really be an act of love, because it allows you to approach an overwhelming issue of suffering with a very effective road map. And you can’t talk about Dorothea without talking about grit, persistence, bravery, toughness, and dedication.
Fiona: Michele Minunno taught us to imagine our dogs growing up with their natural mother, within a family unit of dogs. And that is a tricky one, because if you imagine that, you might look at your dog and be sad that they didn’t get to develop in a social context with other dogs. But then again, it really makes you reflect on who your dog is, not as a human thinks, but as a dog thinks. Michele taught us to try to learn a little bit of dog language, so we can ask our dogs who they are. The women at Rifugio Fata taught us about resilience. They really started from scratch and from their hearts, and they had to figure it out as they went along. They also taught us how to face our conscience and act. That is what an activist is: an activist takes action.
Italy is one of the most advanced occidental countries in terms of protection of dogs, even if we still have many problems. What do you think USA and other countries could borrow from us?
Fiona and Carlo: The law in Italy regarding the treatment of stray dogs is of great value. Not only does it ban euthanasia, but it is an animal-centered law that is truly designed to protect the well-being of dogs. I think the work that is being done in Italy to study and protect the free-ranging packs is also something that should be explored in all countries where it is possible for dogs to live freely. As Luca pointed out, many cultures no longer accept free-ranging dogs, but in places where the local population is open to this, I think there are many lessons to be learned from Italy here. The open pen system that Michele showed us, rather than concrete cages, is something that all dog shelters around the world should be thinking about. In an ideal world, all of our dog shelters would be empty. But until that happens, as Michele pointed out, we all have a responsibility to reassess how our dog shelters are set up, in order to minimize the suffering of those who are trapped within them.
Dino Fortunato had a great life with you, what's the most important teaching he left you?
Fiona and Carlo: Dino Fortunato brought so many beautiful things into our lives. It was such a joy and a privilege to watch him grow into the amazing dog he was always meant to be. We feel blessed to have known him and to have loved him. He helped us through many tough times in our lives, and he brought us many gifts. If I had to pick one teaching he left us with, it would be the importance of spirit. Dino endured terrible suffering in his life, through his abandonment on the mountain road, his time in the crowded shelter and his fight with Leishmaniasis. But he never lost his spirit. Even when his ribs were sticking out, he was panting from stress and he had sores all over his ears and his legs, his tail never stopped wagging and his eyes were bright.
Why did you decide that it was important to make a documentary about stray dogs?
Carlo: It is such a widespread issue, all over the world. What that means is that the numbers are just staggering. These are living beings. And when you know what beautiful beings dogs are, you want to do something about it. It’s hard to accept all of the suffering. And I think it was out of a kind of urgent sense of confusion and overwhelm that we started investigating what lies at the bottom of this issue. At this point, we have adopted three rescue dogs, and I think dogs are just a part of our consciousness.
Fiona: We wanted to make this film to promote the well-being of dogs, but we also wanted to contribute towards the dialogue about where we are heading as humans. The conditions in dog shelters all over the world—like prisons, psychiatric wards, factory farms, child labor, animal experiment labs, puppy mills, the list goes on—are allowed to exist in our society largely because they are invisible. Most people associate stray dogs with poorer countries, like Mexico and India, where they are more visible on the streets. They don’t think about the dogs stuck in shelters back at home, because so often they don’t see them. But every country in the world, to a greater or lesser degree, has unwanted dogs. We are all part of this problem, and we are all part of the solution. Dogs are man’s best friend, but they are also humankind’s best mirror. How we treat dogs tells us so much about who we are, and about where we are, as a species.
Italian version available here: