It is three o’clock in the morning and we are wide awake in Iggy the Hymer at his beach near Campofelice di Roccella in Sicily. (N37.9985 E13.8824 ) We have an early start in the morning to check out a potential meet up spot in Cefalu. We’re making our way East towards Messina and the ferry off the island, and Fran & David – our new friends from Christmas in Giardini Naxos – are heading West to catch up with us before we go.
We should really be asleep then, and were until half an hour ago when all hell let loose outside the van. Jay and I were both deep in dreamland in our cosy, drop down bed. This is a wonderful, space saving contraption on our A class, Hymer B544 motorhome, where the cab seats fold over and our bed pulls down from the ceiling. It means all our living space is just that – living space. The bed takes just a couple of seconds to pull down or put away. There’s enough room for us to sit upright in it – no banging heads off the ceiling – it stays fully made up at all times, and it’s really, really comfy.
The only drawback is it makes a fast getaway a little bit harder. Especially when you’re not prepared for one. Which we definitely were not when two dogs started barking frantically right outside our bedroom in the middle of the night. They sounded distressed, like a dog sounds when it’s saying “Stop it! Leave me alone!” There were strange thumping sounds as well. Dragging noises. Mumbled voices. The dogs again. Was someone hurting them? We had no idea what was going on, but it didn’t sound good. It also sounded like it was happening right next to our bonnet.
I can’t even remember all the noises now. Everything happened so quickly. Trying to make sense of it all from inside a darkened van, on a deserted promenade, at 2am, was very difficult. We jumped out of bed, minds racing, grabbing for clothes as we worked out what to do. I turned the inside roof lights on. Our skylight blind was open, the person – or people – we could hear out there with the dogs, would see it. They would hear us moving and talking. Hopefully if they were hurting the dogs it would stop them until we could get outside.
Jay was ready in a flash and went to go outside, but I stopped him. Maybe I should have let him go – gone with him. But we didn’t know what was out there. What we were getting ourselves into. The dogs could attack him. Or the people could. I wanted the bed up and Iggy ready to drive before we opened the blinds to see what was going on. Then, once we could drive off if needed, we could act.
It seemed to take forever until we were ready and finally had a blind pulled open to see what was going on. All the noise had stopped within seconds of us turning the light on and starting to jump about in Iggy. There was a car parked a few feet away from us next to the big wheelie bin. The engine was running, driver’s door open, lights on, and a man was standing a few feet behind it. He was looking back down the road behind us. As we watched him, he got into his car, and slowly started reversing along the empty promenade until he was behind us. He stopped. Drove forward again. Up the road, past Iggy, before turning and driving back, past us again towards the exit. It was bizarre.
We both got out of the van and went to have a look around. I could see his taillights moving slowly away. His horn beeped and I could just make out what looked like a dog running towards his car. Then he drove off for good. Another car suddenly turned on it’s lights from the other side of the hedging surrounding Iggy’s parking bay. It spun round and followed the first car up the road and away. As the taillights disappeared, I could just see two dogs jogging up the road and vanishing into the darkness.
We really don’t know what to think about it all. We’ve been noticing dogs around quite a bit over the last week, and trying to figure out whether they were strays or not. The first ones to catch our eye were on the day we left Ragusa, when we went looking for a sosta to empty our toilet at. We’d stayed in Ragusa again on the night of the 1st of January. Having a second day wandering the streets of Ragusa Ibla was such a great start to the year. The wind had picked up again, but we were totally sheltered parked down in the valley in Iggy. It was forecast still to be bad on the next day so we stayed put once more and had a lovely lazy day at home, watching the clouds whip past high above us.
By the time we set off on January third then, our toilet was getting a bit full. So we stopped off at a sosta spot outside Licata. We almost didn’t pull in, as there were piles of rubbish strewn across the entry road, and we spotted two dogs foraging among them. It looked awful, but we really needed to empty that toilet! Figuring by the state of the place that it was probably shut for the season, we drove the short distance down the road and into a pretty little beach spot. The locked gates of the deserted sosta told us all we needed to know. There would be no toilet emptying happening here today.
The dogs – one large male and a smaller female – followed us down the road and approached us at the beach. Both were calm and friendly and seemed in good condition. The female clearly had pups, and indeed the pups soon appeared as well. The adult dogs reminded us so much of the big African strays in Morocco. Something in their quiet, non-aggressive demeanour. But they weren’t as cowed and they seemed well fed. We weren’t sure what to make of them, but shared some lunch with them for the sake of the pups before we set off again.
The next two nights we spent as beach bums in a lovely spot on the outskirts of Marina di Palma where again we saw dogs wandering the streets and beach. Once more they were large, friendly, non-threatening. Wandering alone or sometimes in twos, and always they seemed well fed and looked mostly healthy. Were they strays? Some of them had collars and some of them were without. Maybe people in these small places just let their dogs out to roam during the day? Or the piles of rubbish that now appeared everywhere kept the strays well fed? We just didn’t know.
After the men drove off tonight we did a search on Google, and sure enough stray dogs are a huge problem in Sicily and throughout Italy. Apparently thousands of dogs are abandoned every year. Often by the side of the motorway. My heart breaks when I think of all these gentle, beautiful big guys that we’ve seen this past week, being dumped out by the side of the road. Hopefully approaching every passing stranger. Looking for affection, to belong, to find their way home again. My eyes fill with tears as I write these words, and I feel that familiar aching helplessness for all the worlds pains that I cannot put to right. It is too sad.
We read on some websites that there is massive corruption in the Italian dog shelter system. The information is on activist pages and we can’t find any official news conformation so we don’t know if it’s correct. It’s also a few years old so could be out of date. The activists say that strays here were previously rounded up and put to sleep. The law now says that dogs must be kept in shelters, and they can’t be put to sleep unless medically required.
The government pays the private shelters per dog. Because of this many shelters have now been set up to make money from the poor creatures. Capturing them and keeping them in appalling conditions with inadequate food, water and medical care. Letting them get sick from starvation and quickly die so they can be replaced with another, fresh, money maker, as the cash for their care goes straight into the shelter owner’s pocket.
We don’t know if it’s true but wonder if that was what was going on here tonight? Were those men out hunting strays for money? Why do it at 3 am? There are too many things we don’t know.
The rain has arrived and kept me company while I’ve been writing this. Jay is sleeping again ready for the short drive to Cefalu in the morning. I’m glad we’re seeing Fran and David tomorrow. They’ve spent a lot more time in Italy than we have and it will be good to talk to someone about our bangs and barks in the night.
I think about the two distant, shadowy dog figures I saw on the beach road. Hear the distressed tone of their barking again in my head. Feel the strange noises in my memory. I hope they are okay those two, furry, four legged pals out there. I hope nobody hurts them. Hope nobody breaks their big doggy hearts again. And I wish I’d got that door open sooner.
p.s. I haven’t been taking photos of the dogs, not sure if they were strays or not. I will take some if I can and edit them into this post later. xx