by Francesco Cortonesi

I feel that I’m one of the lucky ones who do have a goal:
to give my contribution to make the world a better place!

“Once I used to fish octopuses underwater, then one day, during a fishing trip, I met and caught an octopus that changed me. The moment I got it ashore to kill it and eat it, I didn’t feel like it anymore. I talked to him while getting ashore, I even gave him a common name, Gino or Gigi… I can’t explain it. And I brought him back to his hole.
I’ve always loved animals since I was a kid, yet I’ve also eaten and hunted them without hesitation. I think that belongs to human contradictions. I come from a family where my grandfather was a hunter, but he also loved living animals. My grandparents would probably tend to compartmentalize their thinking, because it was at my grandparents’ house that I’ve learned to love animals.
Quite a long time passed after the octopus thing, and even though I had stated I don’t want to fish anymore, I kept on eating meat. But then, thanks to my work and writing, I went to examine this relationship in a deeper way. Indeed, one of my stories was about a little mouse subject to animal testing, and it was quite similar to Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon (1959), which I consider one of the best sci-fi stories about the human-animal relationship. This story brought me to a deeper thought and then I said Enough! I’m not going to eat meat anymore. I went vegetarian for a very short time and then I went vegan and became an activist too.
I was already a follower of Sea Shepherd in 2008, even though it wasn’t as famous as now, social networks were just born and almost nobody had a Facebook account. I used to follow some web pages, there were some forums about cinema and comics… And in one of these forums I found the news about the Academy Award to Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove. Then, in 2010, Sea Shepherd Italy was born and I began to practice activism with them, but not only, because I live in the middle of Tuscany, quite far from the sea.
My main aim has always been communicating, because I really like writing and talking about the issues related to reclusion and animals. “Reclusion” is one of my key words, my recurring topic, and by coincidence I made a news report about a sectioned patient of a mental hospital in Volterra, Nannetti Oreste Fernando, known as NOF4*. This was eventually turned into a photo exhibition and a video reading, both dedicated to his story: a man who spent his whole life in a mental hospital, after having been locked up because he insulted a public officer. A man abandoned by everyone, who carved a 180-metre-graffiti on the outer wall of the hospital to tell incredible stories which even foresaw the Moon landing*.
However, this report led me to interview old sectioned patients who told me that they were treated like animals, and this led me to the story of Cavriglia’s zoo. This used to be a typical zoo in Tuscany in the ’80s and ’90s, then it was abandoned. Yet, they told me that the zoo was still open and there were animals left to themselves too. I got into the car and drove there. It was a day in September or October, the atmosphere was like in Silent Hill, there was just me, nobody else, nobody buying tickets, and then all these animals that looked like ghosts… There were dozens of monkeys, a concrete ditch with a bear in it, an American bison, some enclosures with farm animals in them, llamas, an ostrich… I started taking pictures. I got back home with so many shots and I asked myself some questions. I found out that the municipality had charged a cooperative with feeding these animals. I talked about it with two friends of mine and I decided to create a Facebook page where I started publishing the pictures and telling the stories of these animals (especially the one of the bear), as if animals themselves were telling them. The bear was given by the Soviet Union to the city of Cavriglia in the ’70s; it probably was the oldest bear in Europe, the newspaper Repubblica called it “the last communist bear”*… Finally, the municipality gave up and decided to entrust me and the LEAL with the task of finding them a home, so I lived in there for two years. I got to know more and more about monkeys, bears… I had to contact specialised veterinarians and, little by little, we began to empty the zoo.
Thanks to the story of Cavriglia’s zoo I got loads of contacts and started my collaboration with the Sanctuary Network, first with Essere Animali and then with several activist groups as a volunteer. My main job is teaching, I teach Italian and History in a night school and in a prison. It was all right for me to work in “morning schools” too, but I feel more useful in border zones such as night schools and prisons. My goal is to convey messages to my students and encourage their reflexions to develop a concept. Well, of course then you can’t expect them to go out and help old ladies cross the road, but in these four years I have noticed the great benefits of these projects, also because prisons would be dead spots otherwise. The classes are not mandatory, but the inmates know that their participation provides them with credits for good behaviour, and also, any activity is better than boredom and nothing. When you’re in prison, your life ends up going around two or three things, it becomes a loop.
When I was a child, I wanted to be a writer, I used to read much, classic Mickey Mouse comics and so on, and then I got into sci-fi and horror literature. I have always been very fond of reading and writing, so I’ve always tried to make a job out of them. From a didactic point of view, I find that writing is the most effective weapon we have: on the one hand, social medias have made us lose some of our abilities in reading, but on the other hand they have increased our will to communicate, finding a gap between what we mean and what we actually say. With creative writing you can translate some concepts into a written text, even a short one… So, at school we face some topics starting from a really short text and then we follow a line of reasoning.
In my opinion, schools should convey strong social messages, but unfortunately we teachers are tied to national curricula; schools are getting more and more like business companies and we must stick to the results. You could have been the best teacher in the world, you could have given advice and even saved desperate students, but nobody cares, the only thing that matters is that your students acquire the required knowledge. This is a limitation, because students have become numbers and you just have to “fill” them with pre-set notions.
Most of my colleagues are always well prepared and really care about their students, but you have to complete these programmes. Why hasn’t the teacher done that? Maybe they didn’t want to? No! Because during 200 school days a million situations occur that could divert you from the national curriculum. Just considering the span of time from January until now, there were several topics that I felt like I wanted to deal with: I had to talk about coronavirus and the racism against Chinese people which came from it. What should I have done? Should I avoid talking about it because I have to stick to the programme? And how many situations like these are likely to arise during 200 school days?  If you work at such a fast pace and you don’t save some time for reflections about contemporary society, the result is that you provide so many notions, but you cut off so many principles which we should rediscover instead. We need to do it. Well, of course we cannot skip Pascoli, Pascoli must be studied and that’s all right, but everything must be connected to our times, otherwise that Pascoli will be just left there, and who is going to remember him in three months? No one. What was the point? Who knows! You cannot reduce everything to notions, I don’t think our level has raised that much. Through the years I’ve noticed something that quite scares me: among twenty people you can find just two talented individuals, people who are naturally gifted, both intellectually and manually, who manage and will manage to do everything; and then you have a heap of mediocrity, a pile which will form “the masses” beneath the two talented ones. We tend to flatten people downwards.
I want to carry on practicing activism, writing and communicating in favour of animals, conveying the anti-speciesist message. I hope to continue working in prisons, because it is highly satisfying, and I also hope to keep on working in night schools, because working with adults is always interesting. This is what I feel like doing. More difficult challenges await us, but this is part of the story of humankind.
Is this the best of all possible worlds? Sometimes I think so and I tell myself we could make it even better; but sometimes I fear a comeback in Italy, which I already perceive as a rehash of racism and nearly the return of the right wing to power… This scares me a lot. Maybe it has been the best of all possible worlds until recently and now we are facing a downward trend? And so, I tell myself that we must go back to fighting.
I feel that I’m one of the lucky ones who do have a goal: to give my contribution to make the world a better place.”

* “I viaggi telepatici del Colonnello Astrale NOF4”, 22th September 2015
* “Addio all’ex zoo comunista”, la Repubblica Firenze, 1st February 2016