Italy's Dirty Secret
A report from FAACE on Animal Abuse in Italy
By Matilda Mench for FAACE
The 22nd of April every year sees an oxcart race take place in the village of Chieuti, in the province of Foggia, between Bari and Pescara in Italy
With two oxen per cart, four oxcarts race against each other. The winning team gets to carry the effigy of St. George in the village saint’s day procession on the 23rd of April.
We had been asked to attend the fiesta by Italian rights groups and to spread the word, if we considered it as bad as they did. The local newspapers have over the years reported on the cruelty of the race, mentioning the blood stains on the pavement and publishing pictures of the bleeding animals.
Before the race starts the priest blesses each ox and cart team in front of the church.
The oxen are controlled by pulling on the nose rings, which in the savagery of the race, tears the nose. Some men are in the carts and some are on horse back riding alongside and behind. All are armed with lances with spiked ends. The oxen are driven on with these lances which make the oxen bleed on the legs and back. They are also beaten with sticks. They race for approximately four and a half kilometres up and down the hills. The oxen are made to run at full speed in the blasting heat of the afternoon. Cattle are not built for this!
I was standing on a wall about 300 metres from the finish when a police car drove past at full speed, with sirens blaring. A dark horse, whom I had observed as being extremely nervous and hard to control earlier, came chasing behind it. It nearly shaved me off the wall. Immediately I thought of Tony and the crowd at the end of the race in the village. There was no time to warn him!
The horse crashed into the crowd and amazingly nobody was injured.
Fortunately Tony had just left that point and was no longer in the crowd.
One oxcart came up the hill in front of me, the oxen’s heads covered in saliva and foam. Tongues hanging out. Riders spiking them! A moment later another, followed closely by another. They overtook each other in front of me. All the people on the wall had to jump back in order not to get hit.
Suddenly one ox collapsed. A weird sound, when the huge body crashed on the concrete of the road. Later on they claimed it had slipped, but it collapsed due to complete exhaustion. As it lay there people started to shout: “Ha morto?” - “Is he dead?”. But he wasn’t. He laid breathing heavily in the hot sun.
People jumped down on the road to help getting him back on his feet. But another cart came racing up. The crowd screamed in terror, but the cart managed to avoid the fallen ox by centimetres, overtaking at the same time.
People jumped back on the street. Now a red Fiat car wanted to drive through. There was a near lynching scene when the mob beat the car with sticks and made it reverse back.
The ox was put back on his feet. But the race was over, as people were all over the place. I followed the oxen from the crashed cart, with their tongues sticking out, blood dribbling from their noses and, blood on their thighs from the spikes.
The winners celebrated in front of the church and did several rounds of the village. Later on I found a white horse bleeding heavily on one of it's legs, from the hock down. It appeared to have been speared by mistake. Last year a horse broke its leg in the race. All the horses where covered in white foamy sweat.
I followed the ox, who had collapsed, to the stable. Within seconds they were hosing the animals off with cold water, even into their noses, as they destroyed the blood evidence. No cameras allowed here, it was pointed out to me. When a horse entered the area, the oxen panicked.
We went to the newsroom of the local paper “La Grand Provincia” and showed the evidence of the collapsed ox. The villagers did not want that to get out! They took our pictures with protest signs, because the authorities had not allowed a peaceful sit-in by the local animal rights people. Later on we showed our evidence to a local TV station, which reported on it.
The next morning, when I wanted to buy the paper, the seller did not want to give it to me. I asked again and again and he wanted to know which section I was interested in. Then he showed me my picture on the front page, pointed his finger at me and said: “You are an animal rights activist”. Two more men appeared and asked me about the fiesta. I told them that it a miracle that nothing bad had happened when the horse crashed into the crowd, and that we were against the race, not against the fiesta. Eventually the tension eased, I got my paper and for the rest of the day we kept a low profile.
We are calling for a tourism boycott of the area and will present the evidence to the European Union and the Vatican! And there will be a legal complaint. Last year the authorities rejected it, claiming there was not enough proof of cruelty due to the lack of video evidence. We hope to be more successful this year.
All donations to help FAACE continue their vital work to: Fight Animal Cruelty in Europe, (FAACE), 29 Shakespeare Street, Southport, Merseyside, PR8 5AB. UK. www.faace.co.uk
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