The Poisoned Dogs of Tuscany

In Italy, they’d just as soon kill you as scratch you behind the ears.

Two months after Muriel Spark’s poem “Mungo Bays at the Moon” was published in The New Yorker, her brown dog Mungo was found poisoned at her garden gate. As the British press has copiously reported this week, Mungo was the fifth dog lost by the British novelist, who lives in Tuscany, over the past 12 years.

Although this sounds like something straight out of Spark’s wonderfully creepy novels, she and her pets are not special victims. This is a story of everyday life in Tuscany. Hundreds–and quite possibly thousands–of dogs, cats, and other domestic pets are killed by poisoning each year in this cradle of European civilization, this sun-soaked land of vines and olives and cypresses.

My wife and I are lucky enough to own a farmhouse in Tuscany. Five years ago, Susanna came into the house one day to find a very thin and pregnant spotted white, bitch lying on the sofa in the sitting room. She was a mongrel, as virtually all the stray dogs in Tuscany are, but obviously with a powerful strain of Dalmatian in her and with that alarming Dalmatian’s “smile” that looks like a snarl. Soon she had a name, Allegra, and two pups, Brutta (ugly) and Bella (beautiful). Susanna found a good home for Brutta, but Bella we kept. After a while, Allegra and Bella were joined by another stray dog of a very different kind, a huge white fluffy sheepdog who was given the name of Eddy. Eddy adopted a posture of world-weary dignity and behaved like the indulgent father of unruly daughters. They accepted him, though, and liked to tease him mercilessly until he would give in and join in their games.

If these dogs had a fault, it was their habit of barking all night, having made it their mission, most unsuccessfully pursued, to keep the wild boar away from the house. For most of the time they enjoyed a happy and carefree existence. Then one morning a couple of years ago, there was a blast from a shotgun very near the house, and Eddy came running home with blood pouring from his face and side. He recovered. But then, in January, Bella and Allegra did not come in, as they always did, for their evening meal. The next day Susanna discovered Allegra’s stiff body lying in grass behind the house, and a couple of days later the body of Bella was discovered in one of her favorite patches of undergrowth.

W ho could possibly have done this awful thing? I asked the vet who performed the autopsy on Allegra. He is an Englishman, Dr. Malcolm Holliday, who has been in Tuscany for 25 years and is one of two representatives in Italy of a British charity, the Anglo-Italian Society for the Protection of Animals. Holliday is heir to a long line of British people who have fallen in love with Italy but have been appalled by the Italian treatment of animals. With a city practice, he treats several cases each year of dogs poisoned maliciously by next-door neighbors, perhaps objecting to the noise.

But Holliday endorsed the general assumption that almost all dog poisonings in the countryside are committed by hunters. Many dogs die in bitter territorial wars between rival squads of wild boar hunters and in the fierce competition between truffle hunters seeking a bigger share of the lucrative truffle market by eliminating rivals’ hounds.

Americans may find this hard to believe, but gun owners are an even more privileged tribe in Italy than in the United States. They have a constitutional right to walk over other people’s land without permission. An ordinary person just going for a walk in the country is trespassing–unless he’s holding a gun, in which case it’s OK. Hunters are allowed to take their dogs on buses; other people are not. The law requires dogs to be tied up during the game breeding and shooting seasons (a law we were guilty of breaking in the cases of Allegra and Bella).

But for all that, the hunters are not happy. They have practically no pheasants or partridges to shoot at anymore, and they are fiercely protective of the birds put down in the countryside in February by the shooting associations to which they pay their dues. Consider, further, that nearly all predators apart from foxes are now protected species, and that owning a gun license is very expensive, and you will understand why the hunter’s lot is not a happy one.

Nevertheless, hunting continues to have an atavistic hold on many Tuscan men over the age of 50, and it is among this group that the poisoners–probably only a handful of them–are assumed to lurk. Their main targets may not be dogs but foxes, for which they also lay illegal traps. But they do not hesitate to place their poisoned baits close to people’s houses where dogs, cats, and even children may find them. Together with their addiction to killing birds, they have inherited from their ancestors a cruel indifference to the fate of any animal, even that of a much-loved pet. All attempts to identify the poisoners are frustrated by a tradition of reluctance, even among their victims, to tangle with authority. I called on a neighbor whose dog was poisoned along with ours, and he said that if he found the perpetrator, he would give him the thrashing of his life. But he wouldn’t dream of going to the police. At that level of society, Tuscany is not so different from Sicily.

We think we know who may have done it. There’s an old man who lives nearby, a fanatical member of the local hunting fraternity. There is no evidence against him, but he once explained to another neighbor how to make poisoned meatballs with a mixture of legal substances–organophosphates and others–that cause internal hemorrhaging, which was what killed Allegra. His car was seen near our house around the time of the poisoning. But there’s little point in pursuing the perpetrator, whoever he or she may be. While poisoning dogs is strictly illegal, there have to be two witnesses who saw the laying down of the poison, and even then the punishment is only a modest fine.