Umbria, Italy. July 2020.
In true Sivitri style, I went off on another ‘adventure’. This time, it was primarily out of necessity.
After losing my home and job in Florence, I stayed in the Tuscan countryside for a couple of months to regroup and explore what was ‘out there’ for me in these uncertain times, but after little progress, the time had come for me to move on.
I applied for a few volunteer positions through a website I had barely used. There you can seek out a work-trade placement in which you may have the opportunity to learn a new skill and work in exchange for accommodation. Definitely something, I am learning, one should rather do in their 20’s.
My plan was to find a position at a retreat center or Agriturismo; a self-sufficient place with an organic garden and some fruit trees where I’d learn about permaculture or perhaps essential oil distillation and also be able to use my skills to help in whatever way was needed. Between massage and yoga, design, and nutrition I have a lot to offer. In my spare time, I would pursue my writing and creative projects and continue building my business ideas.
I applied for many positions but did not find exactly what I was looking for. Only one woman replied to me: Paula Park, in Vocabolo Santa Croce, in Migianella, in the town of Umbertide, in the Province of Perugia, in the region of Umbria.
In her profile, she said her passion was her animals and that she had horses and dogs, which she needed help with, plus there was help needed around a property that she managed.
Hmm, horses, I thought, I love horses and have always wanted to have more experience with them. I envisioned photographing and connecting with these beautiful sensitive souls against a backdrop of lush green hills – Ahh, yes, always the perpetual idealist … and dogs, well, I love dogs and I’d love to interact with them more. Since love and affection had been lacking in my life, I thought it would be a perfect way to give and receive some of that. Plus, she said she had puppies that needed to be photographed for her website.
I looked through all of her work exchange reviews and EVERY SINGLE ONE was positive. She’s generous, kind, the dogs are sweet, the property has lovely views. They all thanked her for the experience.
Wow, ok! Who could go wrong?
After moving so many times in the last couple of years, I asked Paula Park if a longer stay of at least three months would be possible, as I wanted to stay put for a while. She suggested I bring my massage table so that I could work on the guests at the property she managed; that way I could make some money. Great! But something in the energy felt, let me just say, unclear, however I didn’t feel like I had much choice and so I arranged a time to arrive and a ride there. I packed up all my things in Tuscany and took off with my massage table, a bag of my favorite herbs and spices, my camera, laptop, and a suitcase of summer clothes; mainly work clothes but a couple of nice things just in case. Perhaps I’d go to South Africa afterwards or the south of Italy, maybe Spain. I needed to take a couple of different scenarios into account so that I was prepared.
My wonderful friend agreed to drive me and we set off on a hot summers morning. We watched the landscape change from the dramatic hills of Tuscany to the gentler farming countryside of Umbria. I was thrilled to see the joyous sight of acres and acres of sunflowers in full bloom.
Umbria is the region where the Umber pigment was originally extracted; a natural brown or reddish-brown earth pigment that contains iron oxide and manganese oxide. The name comes from terra d’ombra, or earth of Umbria, the Italian name of the pigment. The word also may be related to the Latin word ombra, meaning shadow, which is particularly interesting as it relates to this story.
After driving up a long and winding road that seemed would never end, we finally found the location and descended down the white stone driveway towards the property – the place that she managed and where I would be staying; guest accommodations, surrounded by lovely gardens and a gorgeous view of the surrounding Umbrian hills. Her house was front and center.
As we parked, I noticed an overweight woman with sun-drenched skin and shifty blue eyes getting out of her car. Could that be her? I thought. I called her name: “Paula?” She turned around. Yes, it was she. I introduced myself and as she said hello the smell of alcohol wafted out of her mouth. Hmmm, I thought, it’s noon. My friend, trying to put my mind at ease, said: “She’s lovely. Yes. Nice place. It’ll all be fine”.
She motioned towards a little house and told me I’d be sharing it with another volunteer, Rodrigo, from Brazil. She said that her German visitor was making lunch and that I could rest until it was ready. As my friend, who drove me there, was about to leave, I felt my insides make a U-turn to go straight back up the driveway with him and leave that place. I should have begged, pleaded, and made sure that I fled.
But this story would not have been written if I had obeyed my instinct and every bone in my body to leave.
So, I had lunch around a table with her German visitor and his son and the son’s girlfriend. The German was an awkward man with a limp which he had acquired as a result of an injury from a motorbike accident. He wore a cheezy Hawaiian shirt and faded jeans and talked the hind leg off a donkey. He made silly jokes, which got sillier the more wine he drank.
The girlfriend of the son, not more than 16 years old, had false nails painted with blue and black nail polish. She wore a disgracefully short mini skirt and had painted-on eyebrows, which made her look surprised and angry all at the same time. The boyfriend wore boxer shorts, no manners, and a hickey on his neck and had nothing too interesting to say. He had the same awkward body as his father, gigantic feet, and seemed altogether oversized for a 17-year-old. The two of them couldn’t keep their hands to themselves and made funny little doting faces at each other the entire lunch.
Two of the volunteers joined us as well. They seemed to just appear out of nowhere. They apparently had been working on the other property – the one she rents. It seemed like a bit of set-up – Sunday lunch out on the terrace with plenty of wine, good food, and everyone present. It was the first and last time we would have a meal like that, where everything, including Paula Park, for the most part, was hospitable, light, and somewhat ‘normal’.
Robert, one of the volunteers, who sat next to me, was American with Italian ancestry. He was in Italy to get his Italian citizenship. He was a little bit of hick, a little bit of white trash and a little bit of lost all rolled into one. He swaggered in an unsure way with his head cocked slightly forward as though, with every step, he was making a feeble excuse for something bad he’d done. He had black toenails and bad teeth and rambled on when he spoke, way past the point that anyone was still interested. He never finished a sentence and was unable to realize when he had said enough, and later, I would come to learn, unable to keep from gossiping or keep anything to himself at all. Furthermore, and most importantly, he was unable to speak up in a situation that I came to learn was clearly fucked! (excuse my language, but honestly, there is no other word that would be quite as appropriate). You will soon learn why.
Paula Park proceeded to drink a couple of bottles of wine all by herself and by the end of the lunch was almost falling asleep at the table. We all finally excused ourselves and later I went back to ask what the schedule for the following day would be. Again, it all seemed a bit vague. All I knew is that I would have to be awake quite early and instructions would be given during breakfast, which wasn’t really breakfast at all. It was a: help yourself to cheap bread and factory-farmed eggs and jam, taken from a mini-fridge that hadn’t been cleaned in three years, affair. There was barely any counter space to create anything of significance in there and the entire house smelled like dog. So, I resolved to ask for a ride to the grocery store, where I would buy my own things such as almond milk and bananas and make a smoothie in the mornings so I wouldn’t have to spend any more time in that weird kitchen than I absolutely had to.
That night, at dinner, Paul Joan Park got drunk and was gushing all over everyone. Laughing and shouting in her coarse Scottish accent with her course uncouth manners and her course uncouth voice. There was no grace there, and no authenticity; just a vulgar mouthed woman who evidently was hiding some deeply seated pain, and no-one seemed to notice, except me.
The next few days went by and I was given my orders, which I carried out; simple cleaning and gardening. Some days Paula Park was there for lunch but mostly she wasn’t. Robert later revealed to me that she had a boyfriend that she went to have sex with, four times a week. He lived in another town and was married. Robert also told me that the boyfriend gave her money and meat. Every time she came back from his house she would reverse right up to her front door and unload big pieces of pork and beef and, sometimes, homemade pasta and jam. She would then carry on about the fact that she had brought us amazing food and proceeded to lay it all out on the kitchen table, pointing out what was what; making sure that we noticed the effort she had made for us. In the same breath, as Robert mentioned her affair, he also told me that Paula Park had been gifted her car, had no money of her own and that she got violent sometimes when she drank. He said that her daughter had called the cops on her more than once!
On most mornings Paula Park, who never worked, would give us orders about what to do and then disappear for the majority of the day, leaving us to work and make our own lunch out of ingredients that were mostly canned, jarred or frozen, bought from a discount grocery store called Euro Spin which I had never heard of or seen in Italy before but just from the name I visualized the cheap-looking logo and the low-grade things you could purchase there. When I actually did end up driving past it one day, it was exactly as I had imagined. I resolved from that day on to call it Euro Trash! Yes, I’m a snob when it comes to quality and that will never change!
In the evenings Paula Park would attempt to make dinner, but because she would start drinking (usually a pink gin with strawberries), the moment she walked in the door every afternoon, by the time she actually got around to preparing the food, she was so sloshed that cooking would take her forever and dinner time would be at 10 pm, which just did not work for me. I’d be too full to sleep and so I’d toss and turn in bed and then have to wake up early to do my work. After a few days of that, I decided to buy my own food and make my own dinner at a reasonable hour and that was that; except for one or two nights when I decided to join the others just to seem social. Honestly, I don’t know why I bothered as the conversation would always be dominated by Paula Park, seeking attention, sucking everyone else’s energy, and always wanting to be right about every single subject that was brought up.
There were certain times of the day when I would hear a dog barking. The sound was coming from her house. I seemed to recall hearing that bark upon my arrival too. I inquired about it. “Oh”, Paula Park said, “That’s my Ridgeback. He’s in my room because I don’t want him to bother the dogs that the guests have brought with them”. Hmmm, but I never see him at all. A Ridgeback, I thought. That’s a big dog. I grew up in South Africa and was quite familiar with the breed. They typically were hunting dogs. They require vigorous exercise on a daily basis.
I didn’t understand, and then, one morning, I saw Iron, the Ridgeback. She had just fed him and he appeared very nervous and agitated, running back and forth from the door of Paula Park’s house, down the stairs and back up to her door repeatedly like he knew he couldn’t go very far. I observed his mannerisms and looked at his body. He had huge swellings on both his front legs, a callus at the base of his tail, and on one side of his hip region. These could only be from sitting in a small enclosure for an extended period of time and struggling to move. A large, gorgeous animal, caged all day!
I grew increasingly sad and angry at Paula Park the more I heard him cry. I couldn’t stand it and one day mentioned my disapproval to the daughter who gave me the same stupid excuse that he needed to stay in whilst the guests had their dog there. She evidently had become totally de-sensitized and brainwashed by her narcissistic mother.
Paula Park’s kitchen, where we prepared our food, was right next to her bedroom. I heard Iron barking and crying again and heard a scuffle one morning when I was making my smoothie. The bedroom door was open so why wouldn’t he come out? I peered inside the room and there he was locked in a cage. A cage that should only be used to transport a small to medium-sized animal; certainly not to keep a large dog captive. My heart broke. The lie she had manufactured about keeping him away from the other dogs was totally insane. In fact, I had witnessed him on his 5-minute pee break playing and running away from the other dogs. She treated this dog as a possession and gave him absolutely no attention. She just shouted at him every time he cried to be let out.
Then, Thursday came and she wanted me to go and take photos of the puppies at her rental property. That was going to be my work for the day. I wasn’t sure what to expect after what I had already witnessed but I was, never-the-less, looking forward to finally seeing the dogs and holding the puppies. As a child our family always had adult dogs and I’d always yearned for a puppy so I usually jump for any opportunity to see one, play with one, hug one. Although, the thought of going to the other property energetically seemed daunting and I couldn’t put my finger on why.
She told us she wanted to leave early in the morning so we could wash the puppies and be ready for the vet to chip them before the photos were taken. Due to her disorganization, we ended up leaving late. Of course, there was no apology for getting us up so early and making us wait. Five of us eventually piled into her car and made the journey to the house where the dogs were.
We drove down the hill, under a bridge and along another very long and windy country road, passing fields of tobacco plants, wheat and sunflowers, and old abandoned factories along the way.
We arrived and Paula parked in the short dirt driveway.
The second we arrived I understood why I had felt, unclear and apprehensive.
The property looked abandoned. No fence, no gate, no house number. Dirt and horseshit piled high, no grass, no garden. A house, and yard that was un-kept with litter and various random objects abandoned and scattered about; a rusted wire cage, a plastic tub, old roof tiles, crushed plastic flower pots, a broken rake …
Surrounding the house were a series of smaller buildings and out of these buildings came the barks and cries of many dogs. As I opened the car door the smell of shit assaulted me and the howling grew louder. I knew right away that I was walking into something I did not want to be a part of. A wave of disappointment, sorrow and hopelessness washed over me. I almost left my body in anticipation of what I was about to witness. This was a scene shrouded in darkness and sadness. The anguish was palpable.
I got out of the car and walked closer to the building. Stunned and shocked, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. Robert had the door to one of the enclosures open. The first dog I saw was a pregnant female Boxer, crying and shaking, appealing to me with her voice and her eyes to get her out of there.
“Oh, they’re just hungry”, Robert retorted, after he saw the horror on my face.
She was in a wire cage within an enclosure. A few other dogs were beside her, wading around in their own shit – hysterically pacing back and forth. A group of Dalmations jumped up to the tiny wire mesh window of one of the gloomy, dark adjacent rooms. I walked further passed more cages and saw an English Setter and a Collie in a fenced enclosure with no water, scratching at the fence to be let out, the anxiety and desperation etched on their faces.
Further still, a worse enclosure, so dark I couldn’t see what breed or how many dogs were in there. Through the tiny fenced window, I could barely see them running back and forth, jumping up to the small window, crying, imploring someone to let them out – out of their minds with despair. All the doors were bolted shut and padlocked.
I hid behind one of the buildings and broke down in tears; my face in my hands. I knew my time with this insane enterprise was over. I wouldn’t be able to be in the presence of this wretched woman, Paula Park, who owned these animals and kept them in this prison. No matter how acceptable our accommodations or pretty the land where we were staying were, the entire operation was veiled in a shadow of negativity and heartlessness.
Robert proceeded to tell me that some of the dogs she had received in trade for the horses, which were no longer there. Apparently, they couldn’t stand the place either and had repeatedly attempted to run away, so she decided to get rid of them.
Whilst Robert was filling me in on various other haphazard and horrifying facts about what had been occurring there over the last 15 months, he proceeded to shovel the shit off the concrete floor of the enclosures, tossing it into a big pile right outside one of the buildings.
I couldn’t listen to anything else he had to say so I snapped into action and pretended to walk around the property looking for a spot to photograph the puppies but instead, without being seen, shot as many photos as I could of the poor animals. Shaking with anger and sadness, some shots were so hard to take because of the lack of light in the enclosures.
I came across Paula Park whilst I was on my secret mission and asked her if the dogs were ever taken out. She replied with a cold and dismissive, “No, they don’t.” In my mind I was thinking: Are you kidding me? You’re actually bringing people here, admitting to me that they don’t get taken out and you know I have my camera with me. Do you think I’m stupid?
I shot the desperate, dirty puppies, placing a blessing on each one that they would find a loving home as soon as possible. Then I was ordered to make a flowerbed in a concrete trough that was filled with a mixture of dog shit, water, and sand. I thought I would pass out from the heat and the smell, not to mention the total shock and heartache from the entire experience – my mind turning over with the knowledge that I needed to do something about this deplorable business, and in order to do that, I needed to get out of the entire situation as soon as possible.
The rest of the day was a blur for me. I tried to be somewhat nice, as I didn’t want to let on that I was going to report her whole operation. And I needed more information before I could leave. I needed as many details as I could acquire if I was going to properly help these dogs. I needed the exact address of where they were. I needed more pictures and I needed to find a ride out of there with all the darn things I’d brought with me.
An Italian girl arrived that evening. I couldn’t eat or sit around the dinner table with Paula Park or make small talk with these people who had turned a blind eye to what this woman was doing. I made light conversation and excused myself early.
The next day I went through the motions of doing my work and in the afternoon rested and prayed that somehow I could make it back to the other property to find the address.
The Italian girl had a car. I needed the right moment to bring up the subject of the dogs and assess her trustworthiness.
The next day she and I went for a short excursion to a nearby village. On the drive, she made mention of Iron – the big, beautiful Ridgeback who lives in a cage in Paula Park’s bedroom. I told her how I felt about that and mentioned the equally heartbreaking situation over the hill that I’d experienced the day before. I showed her some of my photos. She was horrified.
Over the next couple of days, we spoke more and I persuaded her to take me up to the rental property where the dogs were so I could get the address. I couldn’t remember exactly how to get there but I knew somehow we would find it.
We set out, nervous but determined. We went too far up the road I thought the house was on, so we backtracked and tried another road. That one was not right either. They all looked the same. Then on the way back, I asked her to try one last road. She was paranoid and wanted to turn back. She didn’t want to run into Robert on his return to the house but I encouraged her to go a bit further. I prayed and asked the angels to help us. All of sudden, right before I was about to give up, there it was. The prison. All the dogs howling in the heat of the summer’s day.
I searched for the number of the house. There wasn’t one as I thought I’d recalled. We dropped a pin to the location on Google maps and quickly screenshot it. We then ran up to the house and shot a video and some more photos. The puppies were trying to escape through the small space in their enclosure. The mother looked absolutely desperate, sad, and thin with sores on her body from lying on the damp concrete floor surrounded by her and her puppies’ feces and urine. I photographed her and the floor and we escaped with the evidence and left that atrocious place.
The only thing left to do was to photograph Iron, the Ridgeback, in his cage and plan my escape. I was desperate to help him too. I had visions of kidnapping him whilst Paula Park was out. If I’d had my own car and he hadn’t been chipped, I most certainly would have.
There were several minor things that happened following that day, such as Paula Park, in her sober state, screaming and shouting over this and that and then in the evenings getting belligerently drunk and laughing her head off. I avoided her and her house as much as I possibly could.
Unbeknownst to me, Robert and the Italian girl hinted to her about my unhappiness there, which of course made Paula Park mad and mean towards me. Naturally, before I had the chance to tell her myself that I was leaving, she decided she wanted the upper hand and sent me a text immediately telling me she thought I wasn’t suited for the place and ordered me to leave!
The morning before I left I tried to convey my reason for not wanting to stay. I said that I felt misled by the description in her hosting profile and that I didn’t understand how she could say her dogs were her passion. Before I could finish my sentence she launched into a thousand insults towards me and told me to get out of her sight as soon as possible.
The truth, evidently, she could not bear.
I knew there was no use in trying to explain my feelings as she is totally unable to see the pain and destruction she leaves in her wake.
The next couple of nights I took sanctuary in nature and the quiet of the night sky after everyone had gone to bed. I tended to my heart, which always lets me know with physical pain when I need to get out of a hurtful situation. Because I couldn’t sleep, I’d get out of bed and peer out the window at the stars and take deep breaths to calm my nerves. I avoided Paula Park and her house like the plague and tried not to hear her vulgar voice or step foot inside her smelly, disorganized kitchen.
I packed my things before even knowing if my angel rescuer could come to get me. Thank God he did.
As I was driving off, in my anger, shock and upset, I wanted to call Paula Park by many names – I wanted to call her hideous, disgusting, a delusional drunk, a mean and sad excuse for a human being. I honestly had visions of punching her in the face and locking her up in a cage without food, water, or a bed, and I wanted people to come and observe her in her utter misery until she woke up, realizing how despicable she actually is. At the very least I wanted to see her taken away in handcuffs for her crime against these 25 dogs that she keeps under lock and key 24 hours a day. Much like factory farms or human trafficking operations she only has them in her possession so she can sell them.
I wanted to steal the key to those despicable cages and take all those animals to loving homes.
Of course, I’m going to try my best to get them out of there but who knows when they will get relief and if they do, will they even live a normal life afterward as they are so mentally unstable from living in such horrific conditions, for what, I was told, has been more than two years.
I took a deep breath and reminded myself how much pain she must be in to be so oblivious to the harm she is causing and I left quietly and calmly the next day. I was brought back to safety to start my search for home all over again.
I will pray eventually to be forgiven for wanting to destroy Paula Park, and also at some point, to actually forgive her, but not right now.
Now that this true tale is written, I shall calmly submit all my carefully and precisely put together evidence to the animal rescue agency and pray that these dogs have many angel saviors to liberate them from that awful prison, owned by that despicable Paula Joan Park.
– The End –