In the greater animal kingdom, the plight of the little goldfish is especially harsh. The tiny creatures are scooped into plastic bags and awarded at carnivals and fairs. They are confined to bowls where they can do nothing but swim around and around. Some (it has been claimed) go blind.
No more. The municipal government of Rome has entered waters where few city halls dare tread. Under a new ordinance, the city's goldfish are entitled to a proper, full-sized aquarium, and they can no longer be given out as contest prizes.
The rules were drafted by the city of Rome's Office for Animal Rights. The 59-point statute ordering better treatment for all pets, from cats and dogs to birds and lizards, was approved by the City Council last month and will go into effect today.
The unusually strict measure is winning plaudits from animal rights activists, snarls from pet shop owners and puzzlement from all quarters about whether it can be enforced. City officials, though, said it was time to take a stand.
"We needed to send a strong message: Pets are not objects," said Cristina Bedini, an 11-year veteran of the animal rights office. "We are saying that owning a pet is a joy, but it is also a duty. Responsible ownership is the only way to fight cruelty."
The fish-bowl rule may win Rome a humanitarian award from the Fish Empathy Project of PETA, the international animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"Rome has gone above and beyond anything we've seen anywhere else," spokeswoman Karin Robertson said in a telephone interview. For all animals, the Italian capital's new ordinance is more restrictive than anything in the United States, PETA said in a statement.
In addition to affording protection for fish, the measure requires dog owners to walk their canines daily or face a $625 fine. It also bans the display of pets for sale in store windows, and gives legal recognition to Rome's famous gattare, the "cat ladies" who feed an army of strays.
Also forbidden: choke and electrical collars and, for dogs and cats, declawing and the clipping of tails and ears for cosmetic reasons.
"Rome has taken a historic step for animal rights," said Gianluca Felicetti, an activist with one of Italy's main animal-welfare organizations. "It will help people to know that animals have a right to respect and to their ethological necessities."
Bedini and city officials met with police to discuss the ordinance and how to see that it is obeyed, and a team of street cops will undergo specialized training to better understand the needs of animals. Even police officers frequently don't recognize animal abuse, Bedini said, and they must be taught what constitutes mistreatment.
But Italy is a land of many laws and its own form of lawlessness. Can police really know whether someone has given proper living quarters to his goldfish? And how can the frequency of dog-walking actually be monitored?
"We have the most beautiful laws in the world, and nobody enforces them," said Silvia Viviani, a retired opera soprano who co-founded the Torre Argentina cat sanctuary, a home for some 250 strays. It is one of an estimated 800 cat "colonies" in Rome that the new measure aims to protect by forbidding construction projects from displacing their feline residents.
Despite her reservations about enforcement, Viviani praised the statute. She only wished it went further, to include mandatory sterilization of cats and dogs -- something, she says, that is still resisted in Italy because of machismo.
Bedini said enforcement will rely more on education than police action. To catch fish-bowl violators, for example, "I don't think police will be going door to door."
Pet awareness is an evolving culture in Italy, she said, adding that the ordinance reflects a growing sensitivity among Roman citizens to the plight of their four-legged -- and un-legged, finned, winged and otherwise evolved -- friends.
Bedini proudly notes that shelters here no longer euthanize animals. A national law exists that criminalizes the abandoning of pets, and many cities have their own animal-welfare regulations and officials to enforce them.
Despite all this, many Italians who tire of pets will not hesitate to dump them on a roadside. Animal rights groups estimate that abandoned pets in Italy include 150,000 dogs and 200,000 cats.
Better care for goldfish, Bedini said, will require a change in mentality. Many parents like their children to play the carnival games that offer pets as prizes, which in turn teach them to care for living creatures. But the conditions are often less than desirable and the mortality rate high.
Enza Trapani, a manicurist and mother, knows the difficulties. She bought a goldfish for her 8-year-old son, Valerio, but it died after a couple of weeks. A second one died after about six months. She gave up and now has a turtle and a cat.