Animals are an addiction for us. We can never get enough. The same could be said of the people of Italy. From what we have seen they really love their animals. We were told in Spain that most “pets” we’re actually working animals therefore not treated as a family member. Our hosts in Spain were considered abnormal for even having their dogs inside the house! However in Italy people adore their pets and treat them as one of the family. When buying train or metro tickets there was even an option to input how many animals would be travelling with you. During a visit to the local pet shop we even found dog nail varnish and tiny tuxedos for tiny dogs.
And so one afternoon we were summoned by our host for a meeting to discuss his idea. Would we like to join him for three days at “The pet festival?” It is near Milan and he is one of the organisers. We jumped at the chance! Having no idea what to expect we woke early the next morning, filled the camper van we would be living in with supplies and set off. It was 5 hours worth of driving with two excitable dogs but the scenery for the first half was so beautiful I could do nothing but gaze out of the window in awe. The second half of the trip however was Italy’s answer to Norfolk; flat and boring! Our host explained that it was very fertile farming land but pointed out the occasional tourist complexes nearer to the coast where people paid astronomical prices for the privilege of staying in an apartment and sitting on the beach. I much preferred our way of travelling.
We eventually got there and I could finally understand the concept a little better. The place was like an Italian version of the N.E.C in Birmingham but on a smaller scale. We arrived on the set up day and our host immediately marched off to solve a million and one problems that had cropped up within the dog section of the festival. There was also a cat section, an American themed equine area, a massive aquarium part and dotted in amongst all of this was small animals and reptiles. I quickly found where the snakes would be so I could anticipate their presence. Everything was still in the process of being built and set up so we meandered round but didn’t get the full effect until the next day. Overnight our host was to be staying at a local hotel and so Pete and I were in the camper van.
We arrived just before opening the next day and stalls had sprung up overnight, every table and inch of space was taken up and there were literally animals everywhere. Being a pet festival you were actually allowed to bring your own pet to enjoy the day (and there were many freebies for both human and animal to attract attention). I was in my element seeing the Guinea Pig area due to the fact that when I was young I used to show my Himalayans. However the breeds had moved on since then with the introduction of the Luncara and the Skinny Pig (hairless) which I couldn’t see the appeal of but was the most popular breed there. We enjoyed visiting the ferrets (known as furretti in Italian) but the cat area was a little less inspiring.
When showing cats it appears to be all about the cage decoration. Don’t get me wrong, the cats were gloriously beautiful but the owners decorated each cage with colourful materials, sometimes even on a theme and always surrounded by rosettes and trophies from past show wins. It seemed to be less about the cat and more about the ego of the owner. I could well be wrong but it was difficult to get any other impression from the cat area.
It was certainly a very popular festival and such a big event that Pete and I didn’t even discover the equine area until half way through the first day. There was a full sized sand arena, plenty of western riding and even bull wrangling which seemed to be more about shouting obscenities at the cows whilst on horseback than anything else. It was impressive to watch but the welfare of the cows did become a little questionable. The horses however were incredible. Each new mount that entered the ring I was practically drooling over. There was a stunning jet black stallion with a beautiful head carriage which made me gasp as he came into the arena. There was several Appaloosas and amazingly talented and brave kids riding hot headed quarter horses. Everyone was in full western gear (Stetsons not helmets) and western saddles and everyone was neck reining. It was fascinating to see in real life as apposed to the many horse films I grew up watching. There was an intense atmosphere in this portion of the festival due to the music. Just the other side of the sand arena was a full on line dancing country extravaganza! There appeared to be several line dancing clubs (all appropriately dressed) taking part as well as an array of onlookers that seemed to know the steps and joined in too.
However not everything was quite so idyllic. There was a darker side to the festival that made me quite uncomfortable. For a start there were animals for sale which should not have been there. We saw several Gennets, Dwarf and Yellow Mongoose, a pair of Mara (Patagonian Hares), many Sugar Gliders, Owls and Hawks, and several other species which do not make ideal pets. The acquisition of them can be questionable, either taking them from the wild, sometimes illegally or breeding them without proper assessment of genetic health and welfare. The other problem is keeping them. These kind of creatures have an awful lot of specialist care requirements, much more difficult than caring for your average cat or dog. Often they are bought for status symbols but not cared for appropriately and go on to lead very miserable, unhealthy and short lives. For example, I used to look after Mara and they need to dig. If they don’t have the opportunity to do so they get very distressed and may also encounter claw length problems. They are very flighty, can run at 30mph therefore are difficult to catch and treat with vet care and it is often very difficult to spot when there is a problem that needs vet attention in the first place. They are also social and mate for life. I highly doubted whether anyone at that pet festival would be able to provide all this for these animals if purchased.
The emphasis on buying pets as opposed to rescuing was another issue for me. And with these animals being bought I wondered how many would actually go on to live good lives. It seem very much a “for profit” type of deal. I even saw a few young Boa Constrictors which were at the manageable stage now but would one day grow to be over 12 foot in length and potentially dangerous if not regularly handled. The zoo where I used to work had a rescued ex pet Boa with exactly the same story.
The last thing that really impacted me was the discount aisle. There was a massive table selling baby snakes, all in tiny tubs, all for a discounted price and every single one deformed. The lids quoted tail, backbone and head deformations therefore they were being sold cheaply. I couldn’t see anything obvious on anyone so I was glad they were at least being honest about it but the concept left a bad taste in my mouth. I wondered how many of these deformations might have occurred from metabolic bone disease and therefore potentially worsen with owners who had only a basic understanding of reptile husbandry.
And the difference in welfare standards from what the UK deems acceptable was not just to be found at the pet festival. For example whilst in Perugia we had stumbled upon a fun fair and were surprised to see pets as prizes. And this was not just the goldfish in a bag concept which I remember from my youth but mammals and lots of them. At two separate stalls we saw Ducklings, Guinea Pigs, exotic Fish, Hamsters and even Rabbits. It was a shock because in 2006 Britain passed the Animal Welfare Act as law which banned this kind of practice and I had completely forgotten that it is a UK based law, not a European one. I wondered how many of these animals that had been “won” had gone on to be well cared for and my experiences in animal shelters sadly suggested not many.
Sadly a common (and easily rectified) problem was the lack of castration in pets, particularly dogs. Owners opt instead to send their dogs away when the females are in season but this seemed to require more effort and could still lead to unwanted litters for which our hosts have had to deal with many times. The popularity of hunting also showed us, on several occasions, associated problems, particularly with dogs becoming emaciated and loosing their pack during the hunt. Quite severe injuries can also occur to these dogs but I have also seen this in the UK, particularly with illegal badger baiting.
However at the pet festival we were lucky enough to witness the outstanding care and training of the many varying breeds and activities they partake in. The entire experience was an eye opener and I am very glad we went but it also leads to questions of the current European laws in regards to animal welfare and whether they could or should be amended. With Britain leaving the EU I fear the positive changes which the UK have implemented may become as isolated as our little Island and therefore have little effect overseas. However there are dedicated people such as our hosts working to improve the situation, particularly helping owners to understand their animals and rescuing aggressive or dangerous dogs. As long as there are these kind of people working tirelessly for the cause I believe, as always, that there is hope.