|Sean Bean, who's starring as Odysseus, visits with Melita off the set.
Note: In Homer’s story, when Odysseus returns home after 19 years at
war, nobody even recognizes him. But nearby, lying close to death on a
pile of dung, an old abandoned dog hears his voice, looks up, and wags
his tail. It is Argos, Odysseus’s old buddy, who has hung on all these
years, waiting for his person. Now, unable even to get up, but finally
content, Argos wags his tail once more, and gives up the ghost.
Lights! Camera! Rescue!
On location in Malta, the movie director calls in the animal care director
By Francis Battista
I'm trotting up a flight of stairs behind some beefy guys in yellow Nomex
trousers and blue t-shirts with “Fire and Rescue” in bold yellow print on
the back. I've got a video camera on my shoulder and a woman in her
60s is speaking to me rapidly in a foreign language.
Wakey, wakey Francis!
Too late for that. I really am in Malta, riding along with the SPCA Malta
animal control van. We are answering a call from the Fire Brigade for help
in rescuing a cat trapped in an airshaft between buildings. Olaf, the SPCA
driver, lowers a ladder out of a second-floor window onto a small roof about
10 feet down. From there, he will climb down to the bottom of the shaft
where a pretty tabby cat, probably feral, has been trapped for days. The
woman, who by now understands that I am not Maltese and has switched
to perfect, if accented, English, explains that she has been lowering food
and water to the kitty for two days.
OK. So if I'm not dreaming, what am I doing here?
The latest chapter in thousands of years of Maltese history includes being
a production location for Hollywood blockbuster films. A good chunk of
Gladiator was shot there, as was the WWII thriller U-751.
When director Wolfgang Petersen began filming Troy (due out in May 2004)
at an old fort on Malta's coast, the production crew was greeted by a pack of
friendly stray dogs. The dogs weren't looking for a scoop – just some food
Stray dogs at location shoots are a pretty common sight even in the States,
but this pack was just the tip of an iceberg of stray and semi-feral dogs and
cats that populate the island.
As soon as Wolfgang's wife, Maria, visited the set and saw the situation,
it was “Lights, camera, action for the animals!” She called the SPCA Malta
to see what she could do to help, and learned that they are underfunded
and understaffed, but also under the management of a new board of directors.
The board wants to rebuild the 100-year-old organization, which had turned
into the animal control agency for a government that allocates six cents
(the price of a bullet!) to put an impounded animal down. Hopes for a new
start were high, but options were limited.
Maria immediately saw an opportunity to team up the SPCA with her
husband's A-list cast, and she got the ball rolling for a Hollywood-style benefit
at the American Embassy. (The ambassador's wife was delighted to help.)
Everyone – from Petersen, Brad Pitt, and Orlando Bloom to production
assistants and crew members – supported the event.
The next thing was to recruit some help from Best Friends, so before you could
say “The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Rhodes
and Malta,” Maria had sent me a ticket, and I was winging my way to the
Mediterranean and getting the cook's tour of back alleys, industrial sites,
and public gardens at the crack of dawn…not something you find in the
My mission is to help fashion a trap/neuter/return program for the dogs and
cats that roam the island and cannot be placed in new homes, and to help
the SPCA transition from the old to the new.
My first stop is the SPCA Home, what used to be called the Dogs' Home until
the early 1960s when the RSPCA held the reins and Malta was a British colony.
The building is old and the cages, though clean, are stone and concrete
chambers with low ceilings. The blue paint on the heavy iron bar doors is
chipping, but the dogs are healthy and energetic.
My guide is Christel Selis, a Belgian national who is filling in as home manager
until an appropriate Maltese can be trained and qualified for the position.
Christel is tall and slim, with a deep voice and a generically European accent.
She has a wonderfully dry sense of humor, and sometimes I imagine myself
listening to a Garbo or Dietrich tossing off subtle one-liners followed by a
Christel's hands-on skill with animals lends an atmosphere of confidence and
care to the operation, but the lack of suitable admission and nursing areas
makes it difficult to give the animals the care they need, and the lack of
funding means that many of the things that we take for granted in even our
most depressing shelters, such as vaccinations, are a luxury for the animals
The dogs and cats are beautiful and eager, but most of them are unlikely to
find a good home any time soon. So the expectations of the staff are reduced
to giving the creatures in their care some brief respite from the hardship of
the streets, re-homing some, and swallowing tears and bile about the fate of
the rest. The conversations about thoughtless people who dump old loyal pets
and the Sisyphean task of changing the way people relate to animals is all too
familiar. But for the language and some local variations, I could be talking to
rescuers in Los Angeles or Atlanta.
The walled gardens
Next stop on the tour: the famous walled gardens of Malta. Most of these date
from the rule of the Knights of Malta, and were once associated with grand
palaces. Now they are oases of green and calm in the midst of the crush of
one of the densest human populations on earth. We are looking for cats
and their human caregivers.
We begin at the Romeo Romano, one of the old walled gardens, where a small
group of young women tend a colony of about 50 cats. They are distressed
because a kitten was found drowned in one of the park's fountains the day
before. It is impossible to tell whether it was malicious or accidental.
Most of the cats look healthy; a few are obviously not well. The young women
struggle to spay and neuter them, but several kittens and young cats indicate
that there is some way to go. Adoption opportunities are slim, so it's best
to let the kittens grow up in the garden colony where they are relatively safe.
The next morning, we are at another garden bright and early, before Malta
heats up to steam-bath conditions (115 degrees in the shade and ultra-humid).
We meet the lady who tends the public toilets – Our Lady of the Toilets, as I
affectionately dub her. She also feeds the cats, with help from a young
Again, decent care is provided, but there are plenty of kittens – always a
giveaway on the status of spay/neuter. One kitten is on the edge and will
probably die in a day or two without special attention, so we take her back
to the SPCA, where she rallies and is doing very well, but will need eye
surgery. The story is repeated at gardens all over the island.
A dog’s life
The dog story mirrors that of the cats. There are small feral packs dotted all
over the island, and many neighborhood strays. Most of them scavenge food
from garbage and handouts or the kindness of feeders who give them bread
soaked in water mixed with pasta and a little kibble or some canned dog food.
The nutrition level is poor, and injuries from cars or intentional abuse is
common. Where feeders do spay/neuter, it is only the females that are fixed.
When I examined a couple of very old-looking dogs, it was clear that they were
much younger than they looked. Parasites and the dreaded fly-borne disease
leishmaniasis had taken a serious toll.
One dog I encountered on the docks was too weak to move. He was covered in
ticks, and had wasted away to skin and bones within a few feet of food and
water placed by an optimistic, kind soul. We returned with a vet the following
day and after a conclusive exam, humanely euthanized him – probably a few
feet from where he was born. Most street dogs probably meet a similar end,
but without the benefit of a humane intervention.
Islands of hope
As difficult as life is for the stray and feral populations on Malta, there are
some bright spots. Island Sanctuary, a local rescue group, takes dogs off the
street and offers lifetime care. All dogs are spayed or neutered, and new
homes are actively sought. They also do what they can with a modest
trap/neuter/return program for street dogs that are being fed by people who
won't take them in but are concerned about their welfare.
And Thomasina Cat Sanctuary looks after about 300 stray cats in their main
facility and through foster homes. All cats are fixed and given adequate health
But neither Thomasina nor Island Sanctuary has a handle on the larger problem
In fact, no one is dealing with the big picture. That's the mission the SPCA is
struggling to fulfill while extracting itself from the legacy of the past.
Building a future for the animals
In many ways, Malta is not that different from, and in some ways not as bad
off as, some American cities. That means a significant improvement can be
made with a modest but systematically applied spay/neuter program. The
caregivers are in place, and proven models are available. What's lacking now
is enough funding.
Back on the movie set, the crew had become quite attached to three of the
dogs that were hanging out there. They had nursed one back to health, but
couldn't find him a good home, and started the other two on the road to
recovery. And they felt they couldn't leave any of the three behind.
So when filming in Malta was finished, and the crew's plane was headed to
Mexico, the three dogs were dropped off in Los Angeles, where two went into
new homes. The third, little Melita, who needs special care, came to Best
Friends Animal Sanctuary, where she's getting stronger and wondering what
happened to the Mediterranean Sea!
And, oh yes, I almost forgot: the Fire Brigade and the cat stuck in the airshaft.
Olaf climbed down to the bottom of the shaft and the cat began to leap and
claw up the wall toward elusive freedom, but needed another five or six feet of
bounce to make it. Olaf positioned the ladder in the right spot and stepped
back. The tabby shot up the ladder to cheers from the Fire Brigade, the lady of
the house, Olaf and me, and scampered along an adjacent wall and into the
shade of a huge fig tree. He stopped and, looking back, sat down to groom
himself in confident self-approval of his getaway.
You can help the Malta animals in their spay/neuter campaign for street dogs
and cats by sending a donation to:
c/o Best Friends Animal Society,
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