What is your educational background?
I attended the “Liceo Classico”, which in Italy is the “Classical Culture High School Education”, where I studied Latin and ancient Greek. After that, I attended the Modern Literature Faculty at the Catholic University in Milan. The last two years had a focus on “Social Communication and Mass Media”. I graduated with the highest score 110/110. At that point, I was very keen to start a job as soon as possible and become financially independent.
How many languages do you speak? When did you decide to learn them, and why?
I speak fluently English and Romanian. I used to speak Dutch and French when I was a child as we lived in Brussels and The Netherlands, and Greek with my grandmother, at home. I learnt all these languages but English, by listening and talking. My parents also wanted me to learn English, so they were sending me to private lessons. But most of my learning happened by listening and translating pop songs as a child. I have a natural talent for learning languages, and I love them, I can pick them up very fast. I always wanted to be able to communicate with other people and to understand the society around me. I learnt Romanian watching Italian and English movies with subtitles, just using a small vocabulary helping me. I desperately needed Romanian to talk with the locals because of my project.
What difference has the knowledge of these languages made in your life? Did it have an impact on the way you think?
Yes, absolutely. Firstly, it allowed me to connect with people while travelling, and then to develop an international network for my charity, Save the Dogs and Other Animals. I couldn’t do what I am doing without being able to communicate in English. Lastly, languages do open our mind to different cultures.
Which job did you want to do when you were a child? Did you do it?
I thought I would become a lawyer, then a doctor, then – finally – a journalist doing reportages. I tried hard to become a journalist for many years, but I had no patience to wait for a decent salary, and I wanted to become financially independent. So I gave up and turned into PR and advertising.
How and when did you become a PR?
It was in the ’90s in Milan, Italy. At that time, it very easy to find a job in PR and Press Offices.
I worked for the fashion system briefly (what a nightmare!) and then for a couple of advertising agencies, before joining Saatchi & Saatchi, where I worked as an accountant.
How was life as a PR during the ’90s and how long did you do this job for?
It was competitive, stressful and exciting at the same time. Conflict was a constant among the creative department and the accountants. Often the Account Director would throw all the workload at my colleagues and me. There was no typical day: every day was unique! I worked in PR and Advertising for five years.
What life and transferable skills have you learned from this job?
I have learnt to work in a team, to respect deadlines, to finalise projects, to “sell” a campaign to a client, to make successful presentations and to be communicative.
How and when did you start thinking about changing career and specifically about dedicating your life to save pets/animals?
In 2001, after my first trip to Romania. Suddenly, I was feeling very uneasy about my daily work, and I was losing interest in my job. The turning point happened when I was assigned a campaign for a medical foundation in Milan doing researches on animal. I mentioned to the Director that I was feeling uncomfortable to work on this campaign because it was not aligned with my ethical values. He ignored my feedback, and I was forced to work with that client. It was then that after a one month trip in Romania (August 2002), I decided to resign once back in Milan.
You always had a passion for travelling. Did your travels help you in finding inspiration?
I have always loved travelling, and I tried to travel as much as I could, even if mostly in Europe. After a trip in Southern Italy in 1994 and one in Jordan in 2000, I realised that I was too sensitive to human and animal suffering and that this would have limited my travelling in the following years. Which – indeed – happened. I never visited countries where there is visible animal/human suffering because holidays turn into rescuing animals and feeling guilty/frustrated for not being able to help people. I cannot cope with these emotions.
How did you go from leaving your PR job to the idea to create Save The Dogs and other Animals? What or who has been your inspiration?
As mentioned in my autobiography, that was recently published in Italy, I was supporting some Romanian animal rescue groups from a distance. I soon realised that that type of support system was not working at all. Also, the money was regularly stolen.
At that point I felt that I had to make a decision: Forget about the dogs being killed on a mass scale and go back to my life at Saatchi, or quit my job and throw myself (with little money and no knowledge), into a dog population management project. It then became very clear to me that I could not go back to my old life.
So I moved to Romania, without knowing that I would spend there the next four years of my life. I had the idea of starting a project and then handing it over to someone local. It was an illusion; I found myself “trapped” and absolutely unable to delegate to others what I had started. So in 2005, I created Save the Dogs and other Animals in Italy, in order to structure a regular fundraising activity which became vital to finance the project. I was inspired by women like Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall and Brigitte Bardot – the one trying to stop the cull of Romanian stray dogs, without succeeding. But, ultimately, I had to find in myself the resources and the energies to change my own life.
What is Save The Dogs and other Animals, and what is the mission of this project?
Save The Dogs and other Animals is a charity with a mission of fighting against dog and cat overpopulation through integrated spay and neuter projects, with a “community engagement” approach. The organisation has now two branches, the Italian one and the Romanian.
What challenges did you have to overcome to start your new career or maybe is better to say life mission?
The cultural barrier with the Romanian population;
Having to deal with the tendency to see something “bad” behind every human initiative (“there must be some kind of personal advantage by moving here and starting a shelter…she is probably doing money laundry or looking for prostitutes to send to Italy…);
The lack of loyalty of the Romanian staff: members often leave from a day to another with no notice;
And lastly, it was tough to live in substantial poverty, with no salary and no decent accommodation for many years, before we had the necessary resources.
In 2012, ten years after starting Save The Dogs and Other Animals you received two awards for your career, Prize Donne, Pace e Ambiente Wangaari Mathai and Cavaliere dell’ Ordine della Stella d’Italia, followed by the Jeanne Marchig Award in 2014 and the Clarissa Baldwin International Award for Excellence in Animal Welfare in 2017. What did these awards mean to you?
They were an encouragement to go on, no matter what. They made me feel less isolated, less “invisible”. The prize from the President of Italy was also the confirmation that our “inclusive” approach, the idea that were there is human suffering there is also animal suffering, was recognised and seen by the Italian authorities. It was an important sign that our work was considered for what it truly is: An essential contribution to the progress of human society.
What are the highlights and lowlights of your job?
The highlights are: Every animal rescued successfully, but also every meeting with the public, the gratitude expressed by our donors, every new person supporting our mission. The lowlights are those animals who we cannot help and can’t make it, the lack of dialogue and connection with the authorities and the politicians, the slandering from other animal welfare groups.
What is your typical day?
If I am not travelling (which of course now is the case as the pandemic has stopped my trips to Romania and Southern Italy) I am waking up and checking Twitter as a first thing. I should meditate every day, but I can’t be constant. I am not disciplined. Then I am walking my dog Amelie, and we go together to the office, which is only 1,7 km from my flat in Milan. I have regular online meetings with my Italian and Romanian staff, lots of emails to answer to, many phone calls and people I need to stay in touch with. Lately, I have often interviews via skype or phone, as the release of my book has caused a lot of interest around the organisation. I love talking about what we are doing to make the world a better place and inspiring other people.
Where do you see yourself in the future? What are you enjoying the most?
I wish I could become like Jane Goodall, a calm, wise woman inspiring millions of youngsters all around the world with her speeches. At the same time, Save the Dogs would go on working on dog population management with as many projects as possible in Italy and Romania.
You have recently published a book that is the story of your life mission to save animals. What does this book mean to you, and does it represent a milestone in your career?
Yes, it’s a milestone for sure. I felt the need to look back and draw a line: I had to think over my life, learn lessons and share them with others. People kept telling me “This is a special story, you need to write it down”, and they were right. I receive moving messages daily, and this is the confirmation that I have been doing the right thing. I think we have a moral duty to share the lessons we learn in our lives and to fight against the pessimistic mood, which seems to take over the world. I want to be an ambassador of hope, even if I tell a story full of pain. Still, the main message is “Every single person has an enormous power to make things better”: you need passion, ethics and a clear mind. And you will succeed, no matter what.
Why do you think is usually later in life that we find our life mission and changing becomes something inevitable?
Maybe it’s not inevitable, but it’s likely to be like that.
It’s kind of “physiologic”: When we are young, we are trapped in the illusion that owning or being successful are the keys to happiness. When we realise there is a hole in our soul, which cannot be filled by anything material, then we turn to what is really relevant in our lives: Something more spiritual, something deeper. I am glad I did it when I was 29, because I clearly felt I could not be happy working in advertising, while so much animal suffering was happening in the world.
Did COVID19 had a negative impact on your career and Save The Dogs and Other Animals?
Our operations in Romania are heavily affected by the pandemic. We were forced to stop current activities for many months, some of our foreign veterinarians were unable to come back to the clinic, and British volunteers could no more join the team and help out. We are still facing huge odds: no Romanian vets seem interested in working for a charity in our Region (they are all gone in the UK), and the movements of the expat staff are limited, as well as the animals heading for families in Germany or Sweden. We had to be flexible and change procedures, but at the same time, it implied much sacrifice from members of the staff…to who I am very grateful.
How did you overcome the challenges related to COVID19?
Being creative, thinking out of the box and trying to work on risk management. The team in Milan went on smart working while 2-3 people shift in the office. We maintained a positive communication towards the public: people are in desperate need of hope and joy in these dark times.
Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
I hope my book will be soon translated in English because my story is somehow “universal” and I think it should reach as many people as possible.
I dream about the day when the animal rights movement will be considered 100% part of a wider rights movement, including human or environmental rights. If there is a lesson to be learnt from the pandemic is that we are all interconnected; we must take care of all the components of mother earth, not neglecting any of it. There is no human welfare without protecting the animals and the environment.