Monday, October 6, 2008


This posting was contributed by a friend who just recently left Serbia.

I am not a dog person. I grew up in a pet-free household in a pet-free neighbourhood. When I was finally on my own, I adopted a cat. Not that I disliked dogs: but they seemed to me big, messy, and demanding, unsuitable to a career life in ever shifting identical one bedroom apartments.

For forty years, I lived with cats. When we left for Serbia it was with two cats in carry-ons.

It was not a love of dogs that got me involved in animal welfare in Belgrade: it was the sight of pregnant cats dragging their bellies across busy streets, of mangy dogs digging in garbage, of dead kittens in a garbage bin, blind old dogs abandoned to the mercies of wholly inadequate shelters. it was the sheer scale of the need, and the realization that I could do something, however small, to help the Serbs trying to meet that need.

One Sunday, early in my stay, a small group visited a local shelter known informally as The Concentration Camp for Dogs. Four hundred dogs with inadequate food, inadequate shelter, where puppies were born to succumb to parvo, where one third of the dogs died annually, often killed by the other dogs, and the rest ate the carcasses. This shelter was, in fact, richer than most: it had support from a foreign foundation. Somehow, the support did not translate into enough food, let alone sterilization and veterinary care. Fights were constant, and the two staff, poorly paid and overwhelmed, did what they could under the unfriendly eye of the shelter owner.

We went for no other reason than to pet dogs. One of the staff felt the dogs were in desperate need of attention that he and his colleague could never give. So we went, not knowing what to expect, but worried that we would get caught up in a massive melee of teeth and hunger if we dared to sit down.

But we did. For four hours, four people sat and stroked ears and repeated endlessly, "Dobar pas. Good dog."

And a miracle occurred. For four hours, four hundred dogs crowded around four strangers, with almost no fighting. Every one of them wanted his or her turn getting an ear rub, a muzzle scratch. Everyone of them wanted to hear those words, "Good dog. Good, good dog."

That is when it hit me. These are not wolves. They are not wild animals. The human race created the dog to serve and be a companion, and the dog needs us to be a dog. Without humans, the dog is nothing: it is not a wild thing that can live happy in its pack. It is a domestic animal that merely gets by when abandoned, living by laws of the jungle that it is no longer suited to, and that no longer suit it.

Let me stress that these dogs were killers. They killed puppies and weaker dogs to eat. They lived in a constant turmoil of dominance fights, often with severe consquences, because of the number of new dogs coming into the shelter every week. Some were insane with rage: still others were mad with terror.

You would never have known it on that Sunday. Every dog, of every size and temperament, came for those few seconds of affection and attention. Every dog was a Good Dog.

I realized then that every dog, every dog, is a good dog. It is people who are the problem. We are the ones that abuse and neglect these creatures, we are the ones who breed them for ridiculous charateristics, or aggression, or fast sale. We are the ones who adopt them without thought, without research into their needs as a species or a specific breed, tie them in yards and forget them, fail to give them adequate veterinary care, or abandon them when they get old, or perpetuate myths and stereotypes and pass them off as wisdom.

I'd like to be able to say that The Concentration Camp for Dogs is no longer in business. There was a strong move to force either an improvement in conditions or closure, but, because of local politics and its private ownership, all that happened was that the foundation modified the way it supported the shelter, and the local owners stopped allowing the public in a fit of pique.

Nonetheless, before that, we did rescue a few, including two fighting pit bulls that had been thrown in because they were not winning enough.

Every single rescue has been rehabilitated, every single one. The warrior dogs live with a husband, wife and small son in a tiny apartment, getting out for long runs for about four hours a day. They are marshmallows, devoted to their people, particularly the child. Even when attacked, they do not fight until their lives are on the line. We would often take these two ferocious-looking dogs to public events to show, live, that even killer dogs could be rehabilitated.

The terrified mother who came with demodectic mange over 80% of her body is now a happy, perfectly socialized dog living in Canada. All the puppies that were rescued in a midnight raid had parvo: all but two survived because they had rapid veterinary intervention. All the survivors were placed in good homes, and are still there. The aged German Shepherd is living out her few remaining years in dignity, in a yard with sunny patches, abundant fresh water and people to rub her ears and give her the brushings she so adores. The terrified mop that refused to come out of her hole for two years now dances happily around the feet of her family, begging for treats.

And I left Serbia, reluctantly, with two cats in fancy carry-ons, and two dogs in the live animal baggage area.

The dogs are works in progress: Jimmy has perpetual skin problems that require constant attention, is still timid of loud noises and strange people. Magic is the most defensively-aggressive dog you have ever met: she even barks and gets her hackles up at low flying airplanes. Many of the staff in the new place are scared of her, and if I didn't bend over backwards to keep her under control, we would have trouble.

But, you know what? They are good dogs! They have every reason to fear people, given what they were rescued from, every reason to expect nothing but pain from us.

And yet, they lay here at my feet in bliss just because they have me to look to for protection and guidance. They want to please me. Magic, when I bark at her to 'be good!' writhes with the conflict between her fear and her desire to please me by backing down, then comes running for a chin scratch and a 'Good dog!'

Good, good dogs...

No comments: