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Dog-eat-dog day afternoon in Italy

Modern women aren’t supposed to scream. Isn’t it a sign of weakness or helplessness? But sometimes screaming can save your life, or the life of someone you love.

I was reminded of that one August when I returned to my apartment building after a trip out of town. By then, the blood had been removed from the second floor. I don’t live on that floor but I would have seen it walking down the stairs with my dog. You couldn’t have missed it: the cell phone pictures, taken by the lawyer who lives on that floor, were impressive. If you didn’t know what happened, you might think a murder had taken place. Maybe a double homicide — there was that much blood. The entire pianerottolo (what Italians call the public space connecting apartments on each floor of an apartment building) was covered with pools and swirls and Rorschach blotches of red.

Nobody died, fortunately. But the incident is an object lesson in the unpredictable nature of life, what you might call la forza del destino — in Italy or anywhere.

The would-be assassin was a pit bull named Brad (yes, as in Brad Pitt Bull), who lived on the other side of our building. My dog Giada (pronounced Jada) and I had encountered Brad occasionally, going out or coming in from our respective nature walks, and Brad had always been composed. He was a large animal, tawny beige, rippling with muscles, and as handsome as a pit bull can be (I speak not as a fan of the breed). He had always been accompanied by his owner, a 30-something slight man with a brush cut whose many tattoos seemed to weigh more than all the rest of him.

The victims didn’t live in our building. They were in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time. A woman had come to water the plants in her mother’s apartment while the mother was away (as most Italians are in August). The dutiful daughter had brought along her dog, a small timid mixed breed male that had been languishing at the local pound until she chose him as her pet. The dog was a year old and weighed about 20 pounds, not much bigger than my Giada.

Brad’s owner — or someone who had been in the apartment where Brad lives — had left the door open when exiting. Brad had been left alone. He saw the open door and decided to go down the stairs, perhaps to look for his absent owner. Meanwhile, the woman had finished watering the plants, so she opened the door of her mother’s apartment and stood with her dog on the pianerottolo as she turned the key in the lock. (The doors in our building are “blindate”, reinforced to discourage break-ins, so you have to turn the key to lock them).

Brad must have smelled the male dog from two floors below. He charged up the stairs, enraged that an unknown male dog was invading HIS territory, and attacked the animal straightaway. The dog began to scream, the woman began to scream, the lawyer next door flew out of his home with the first thing he could grab — his father’s walking stick. As the woman tried to separate the two dogs, holding hers with one hand and trying to restrain Brad by his (thick, studded) collar with the other, the lawyer hit Brad as hard as he could with the stick.

After 10 blows (but Brad “didn’t seem to feel them; he didn’t even flinch”, recalled the lawyer), the pit bull relinquished the smaller animal and fled down the stairs. The two victims were hustled into the lawyer’s house to await the police, fire department, carabinieri, and Red Cross. (Calls had been made to a number of public entities from the various residents who had overheard the screaming). For the record, if you are ever in need of help in Italy, the Red Cross showed up almost immediately. The police were the last to appear, 15 minutes later than everyone else.

The woman had bruises all over from trying to restrain the dogs, but only one bite, on her arm, probably by accident. Her dog fared far worse, with a broken leg, contusions, and a muzzle half ripped off. But the vet who patched him up promised that he would be fully functional — physically if not emotionally — in two weeks’ time . . . and he was.

Had Brad wanted to kill the smaller dog, he could have done so in about 10 seconds, grabbing the latter by the neck and Not Letting Go. According to the vet, the attack was not meant to kill but to warn: this is my territory. You are not welcome here. Stay away.

It is also worth noting — and again, I am no fan of pit bulls — that Brad attacked neither the woman nor the lawyer, though he could have done serious damage to both. What he did do after running down the stairs was to bolt out of the inadvertently-open front door, inseminating panic as people saw a nervous pit bull, mouth dripping with blood, out of control on the street, lunging after passing cars. Police tried to block off the area and catch the dog, but it took three hours before someone was able to calm him down enough to collar him.

The aftermath was typically Italian. Brad was taken away for evaluation, found to be temperamentally stable, and returned to his owner two days later. Although pit bulls and dogs with a history of violence are required to wear muzzles in public places, Brad ‘s owner has not seen fit to respect this law. Hey, this is Italy! Laws are not meant to be obeyed . . . or flaunted. They are simply ignored.

The victim wanted to sue for damages, but — unlike the US — the maximum amount she could claim was dictated by law. An older woman’s maximum is less than that of a younger woman. A single woman receives more than a married woman. A woman with a “public” job, like a model or entertainer, receives more than an accountant or economist or — heaven forbid! — a housewife. (I learned all these things the hard way, when I was attacked by a neighbor’s dog in France years earlier. My modest compensation had been pre-established, regardless of a month spent on crutches and my permanent scars).

There was also the rumor that Brad’s family (the human one, that is) had unsavory connections and that they might have succeeded in forestalling legal action with a generous out-of-court settlement.

Eventually the victim did sue and there was a pre-trial settlement. Mysteriously, a few weeks later the basement storage unit of the victim’s mother was broken into and everything in it was either stolen or destroyed. Such things happen everywhere, but Cosa Nostra gives them special poignancy in Italy. Almost makes you want to scream.

writer, PR professional, mother, dog-lover, traveler. See more at www.paroleanima.com

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