Truffle Hunt Turns Deadly for Dogs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The wooded hills of the Upper Tiber Valley, now swathed in gray mist and gold foliage, have a lot to hide.

Truffles, one of the world's most expensive delicacies, grow wild on the buried roots of some oak, willow, hazelnut and poplar trees here. Finding and unearthing the rare fungus is a ritual that rewards the diligent hunter and his essential companion, the dog with the well-trained nose.

This season, the forest is yielding its delicious prize but withholding a dark secret: Who is poisoning all the truffle dogs and turning the autumn hunt into a slaughter?

Since the hunt started Sept. 28, at least 40 dogs have died from eating meat morsels that were laced with strychnine or weedkiller and dropped in the woods, according to dog owners, veterinarians and forestry service workers in this corner of Umbria 110 miles north of Rome.

No killer has been caught or accused. But everyone in these woods, which cover 1,000 square miles and are the public property of eight hill towns, believes that the dogs have been victims of an undeclared war among some of the valley's 1,833 licensed truffle hunters.

"The more truffles you can find, the richer you're going to get, so if your dog is better than my dog at finding truffles, then let's get rid of your dog," said Dr. Malcolm Holliday, president of the Anglo-Italian Society for the Protection of Animals. "This is exactly what's behind it--this mentality."

Malicious poisoning in the pursuit of truffles is not new in rural Italy, but Holliday and other veterinarians here said never have so many dogs died in one season.

Dog poisonings are not officially recorded, but no one in authority can recall more than 20 in an entire year in this valley, and many of those deaths were attributed to venom laid down by pheasant hunters each spring to kill foxes that compete for their prey.

What appears to be happening now is a cruel twist of the law of supply and demand: An unusually dry summer stretched into October, shriveling Italy's normal crop of white truffles by about half and doubling their price, to as high as $70 an ounce on the wholesale market; this stiffened competition to find them, raising the peril for the dogs.

"When the price goes this high, war breaks out," said Dr. Luigi Bigi, a veterinarian who has seen much of the slaughter. "The dogs lose."

Italy is the only major producer of white truffles, which are being hunted in Umbria, Tuscany and Piedmont until mid-December. The white truffle, or Tuber magnatum pico, is even rarer and more pungent than the precious black truffle, Tuber melanosporum, that is harvested in the spring in France, Spain and the same parts of Italy.

Truffles' versatility and value to the regional economy are on display this time each year under a sprawling white tent in the center of this ancient and prosperous town. The Truffle Fair features more than 30 varieties of truffle-seasoned oils, cheeses, sauces and dried pasta--as well as whole truffles the size of golf balls.

Truffle hunters, mostly farmers and retired people with the time to search, earn up to 70% of the wholesale price for their musky, nugget-like discoveries.

"Depending on how much time you invest, how much you know and how good your dog is, you can make as much as 10 million lire [about $6,000] in a season," said Fabrizio Gragnoli, a garbage collector who stretches his income by truffle hunting on weekends with Camillo.

Camillo--half pointer, half setter--was one of the first to taste poison this fall. As he sniffed the woods in early October, his legs wobbled and then folded under him. Gragnoli rushed him to Bigi, who pumped out Camillo's stomach and saved his life.

Most poisoned dogs die in agony before they reach Bigi, whose office has become a trading post of information about the slaughter.

Some victims have ingested poison laid near their rural homes--evidence that the killer knew exactly which dogs he wanted to eliminate. Others, like Kimba, Giuliano Borghini's black English setter, were hunting game and ate poisoned bait apparently meant for truffle dogs. Kimba died on the spot.

Any kind of dog can hunt truffles. But proper training, which includes feeding a puppy bits of the fungus until it acquires a taste and then burying other bits ever deeper underground, takes three to four years. That makes a fully trained truffler's death a huge setback.

Most truffle hunters train two dogs. Some have lost both this season.

Elio Vanoni, who organized the Truffle Fair for the Upper Tiber Mountain Communities Assn., said large swaths of the forest have become like minefields.

"Let's say you have 30 competitors in this part of the woods," he explained. "So you 'mine' the area with poison. Sooner or later, a competitor's dog will die, and everyone else will flee. Then you remove the 'mines,' and the area is all yours."

Some truffle hunters have reacted by muzzling their dogs, only to realize that this makes them sniff less effectively.

The Upper Tiber communities have started training 50 "Guardian Angels" to help roughly the same number of policemen patrol the woods round the clock. These unarmed volunteers, mostly truffle hunters themselves, will have power to make arrests. But most hunters are skeptical that one guard per 10 square miles is enough.

Most hunters, in fact, are skeptical of everything and everyone. Their own cult of secrecy may compound the problem, other townspeople say, by discouraging wider collective action to stop the killer.

Loners by nature, the hunters have a union, but fewer than one in 10 belongs. Regional production statistics are vague because the hunters are loath to share information that might interest a curious neighbor or a probing tax inspector.

Nearly all the hunters are men--men of few words, who talk mainly to their dogs. They rarely welcome other company in the forest.

Lazzaro Frattini, 63, a legendary hunter who once unearthed a 1-pound, 14-ounce truffle, is more open than most. But on a Sunday hike through the woods, he showed how carefully he protects his turf--and his dog Leo.

Lumbering after Leo each time the mongrel scented a truffle and pawed the ground, the hefty, asthmatic hunter dug up a dozen in about two hours. His breathless pursuit had three explanations: to keep Leo from eating poison; to keep Leo from eating the truffle (he got biscuits instead); and to extract the truffle and cover the hole quickly, without being seen.

A tree whose roots sprout a truffle one year will keep sprouting, Frattini explained. After 45 years in these woods, he knows many such trees and wants to keep their identities to himself. Last week, he had one close call; he covered a truffle hole and resumed a nonchalant hiking pose just before another hunter passed.

A retired school custodian, Fratini believes that the killer may be someone with a day job who resents the decade-old regional ban on truffle hunting after dark. He also believes that the ba should be lifted so everyone gets a fair chance.

"There's too much fanaticism in this business today," he said. "When prices were low, it wasn't like this. Truffle hunters would at least stop and say hello to each other. Now there are too many interests, too much jealousy and not enough pity for these dogs."

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