Dedicated to helping abandoned pets - Veterinary Practice
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Dedicated to helping abandoned pets

John Bower reports on the recent International Companion Animal Welfare Conference in Italy.

When it was suggested that I attend a conference on the banks of Lake Maggiore in Italy in late October it seemed churlish to decline.

When I heard it was called the “ICork” Conference, it seemed even more essential to go as it was obviously something to do with uncorking wine. Not so, I found when I saw it written down – ICAWC.

This was truly a welfare conference of international standing and attended by some 220 delegates from all over the world but mostly from Europe. The two-and-a-half day event was organised by Clarissa Baldwin, chief executive of Dogs Trust, one of the larger canine welfare charities in the UK, and the list of speakers and topics meant it was to be a most interesting meeting.

Caroline, my wife, was giving one of the papers on a behavioural topic, which was another good reason to attend, so we flew out conveniently from Bristol to Milan where, just as it had been in Devon, it was pouring with rain! We were met and transported to the impressive Regina Palace Hotel in Stresa, literally on the banks of Lake Maggiore which, at 35 miles long, is one of the largest lakes in Northern Italy.

We arrived half way through the evening meal but places and food had been saved and the room was buzzing with excitement and interest from the first day’s papers.

Delegate mix

The delegates were from many different types of establishments – rescue homes, welfare organisations, rehabilitation units, neutering centres, DEFRA, governments, representatives from the Kennel Club – and also some vets and nurses.

Some came from relatively poor countries where animal welfare is given a very low priority, but they were there to learn what could be done on a very low budget, and were among the keenest there. Many of the trustees of Dogs Trust were in attendance and it was good to see them all taking such an active interest.

As is the case at most veterinary type congresses, much discussion took place in the bar until the wee small hours but this did not deter the delegates from attending the first lecture the next morning!

The morning was clearer and what a view from our hotel room window! Firstly the huge lake with its several Borromean Islands and clear water lay in front of us, but the backcloth was the Alps – magnificent towering mountains already (or permanently?) covered in snow. Boats were going about their business, and people were walking the lakeside paths. But it was breakfast and lectures for us.

Varied topics

The topics and speakers were many and varied. Clarissa Baldwin opened the proceedings with a welcome address and also spoke about putting a value on companion animals – The Canine Charter.

She showed a video of this Dogs Trust event, hoping to encourage similar events in other countries with the aim of raising people’s perceptions and the status of dogs.

Ray Butcher spoke on population dynamics, before Anneleise Smillie, who has a BA Hons from Bristol and is working with Animals Asia Foundation in the UK, gave excellent presentations on education and animals as therapy in humans.

This interesting topic was followed by the closely-related human-animal interaction talk by Anne-Marie Wordley from Australia who is completing her PhD on that topic there. Luke Gamble, a young UK vet, spoke of his experiences in the World Wide Veterinary Service where he organises teams of recent UK graduates to visit areas of need to catch, neuter and release stray dogs and cats.

A real difference

On day two, Clarissa had the early start and told us about the Dogs Trust Honours Awards, using a spectacular video of the event which honours dogs who have made a real difference to their owners’ lives, whether it be a Hearing Dog that has changed a child’s life, or a dog which rescued someone from a fire.

Caroline Bower, a vet and behaviourist, then gave a very useful paper for the delegates on Practical tips for avoiding stress in companion animal handling.

There were 12 papers in total this second day, too many to mention all of them, but Chris Laurence (who also seemed to be the IT guru) on pets in Europe, Adrian Burden on vision/mission/strategy (both from the Dog’s Trust) and Becky Robinson from the USA on Making the best for feral cats deserve a special mention.

Becky is president of the charity Alley Cat Allies, where they have been catching, neutering and releasing feral cats for many years with great success. They have found that these feral colonies live healthily as neutering leads to a great reduction of colony disease. She did, however, cause Chris Laurence, as the “IT expert”, some harrowing moments as she was the only speaker not to use PowerPoint but used another programme in the form of a 15-minute video.

As her paper was to last 30 minutes, Chris had to keep pausing it, or trying to, and its reluctance to restart was somewhat disruptive but hilarious! Still, she got the message over.

It became obvious that in many parts of the world welfare was of low priority to all except perhaps the delegates at this conference who were determined to raise standards in their areas. There were many examples given of simple welfare improvements and naturally the conference focused to a large extent on neutering. The conference finished with question and answer sessions and much discussion.

Lake treat

On the Friday night, the speakers (and luckily spouses) were treated to a boat trip to one of the islands on the lake, the Isola Pescatori, where we all had a wonderful meal in excellent lakeside surroundings – under umbrellas by now, of course, from the boat to the restaurant.

Interestingly, the island restaurants had closed for the winter but Clarissa had somehow managed to persuade this one to remain open for us. There was, of course, still time for a few hours discussing welfare of animals (and people!) in the hotel bar afterwards, especially as the Saturday was free and provided us all with an opportunity to explore Stresa.

Luckily the sun came out and we decided to walk along the lakeside, where we were pleased to see several pairs of Great Crested Grebes in winter plumage, to the cable car which leaves from Stresa Lido and, in two stages, takes you to the top of the Mottarone mountain.

Spectacular views

There were spectacular views over the lake and islands to the snow-capped Alps as we rose higher and higher, encountering snow at the top. We enjoyed a pasta lunch in a typical snowclad mountain top restaurant before descending to the Alpine Gardens at the half-way stage which were included in our return ticket.

This peaceful plateau half way up the Mottarone would be well worth a visit for the flora and the wonderful views in the spring but in November just for the views as few flowers were out.

All in all, it was a fascinating weekend with many interesting speakers and some amazing delegates who hung on every word. Many of these people live on a shoe-string, had to hitch-hike to get to Stresa, and are absolutely dedicated to animal welfare, determined to do whatever they can to improve the lot of abandoned pets in their care. It was a humbling and inspiring experience.

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