After a year in Dhaka, I went back to Beograd, to stay with Daniela Đeorđević of the Animal Rescue Center. Nela is the smartest and most organized of the Beograd animal welfare leaders, and a new mother.
Nela runs two businesses, rescues dogs, looks after her daughter arranges sterilizations and veterinary care, organizes the transportation of adoptable dogs to a partner in Germany, deals with the people who care for street animals and the lunatics in the animal welfare community, helps get visiting vets to Srbija for sterilization programs, travels to the kennel where she pays for rescue boarding, deals with her workers, her husband, her mother, and a houseful of animals that are either unadoptable or being treated for diseases that stand between them and a good home.
Beograd has changed in the year since I left. It's cleaner. People look less stressed, perhaps because, with the capture of Radovan Karadić, the EU has moved forward on Srbija's membership. While the world is in the economic doldrums, Srbija is no worse off than it was. For Srbijans, that is cause for rejoicing.
There are fewer street dogs. The majority wear the red collar that says they have been through the municipal Capture, Sterilize, Return program. Nela tells me that the number is now about 5,000, down from 20,000 plus in 2005.
Not that everything is rosy. Street cats are as numerous and as badly off as ever. There is a large pool of unsterilized dogs, whose fear of humans makes them wily, and fast. Nela, Jelena, Stanko and I spent two days trying to capture two females in a pack fed by one woman too poor to pay for the surgery. These dogs live under constant threat from hostile neighbours. They were too fast for us: we managed to catch only one.
THE WILY FEMALES: they adore their protector, but no amount of sedative could make them too sleepy to elude us.
Most people resist the idea of sterilization, preferring to dump unwanted litters on the street or the garbage. While I was there, eight puppies appeared in the park across from Nela's house. Nela rescued them, but thousands of unwanted animals die every year in Srbija.
The city, under its new mayor, Dragan Đilas, promised no more slaughter of street animals. It continued the CSR program of Đilas' predecessor, appointed a veterinarian to oversee animal control, and is almost finished building the first of three adoption centers for the rehoming of street animals captured by the animal control officers.
This is not the end of the problem: dogs not adopted in a short period will be euthanized. The animal welfare activists, still fighting the brutality of much of the public, are now also trying to get the period extended, or to figure out a way to 'adopt' unadopted dogs – all this without co-operating or, if possible, even speaking to each other.
The Srbijan penchant for internecine warfare has not changed at all.
Since I have left, ARC no longer has space to keep their rescues: either they stay in Nela's house, which is also the office of her bookkeeping business and her hair salon, or they must be boarded. Nela pays the full costs for every rescue out of her own pocket. The only assistance she gets is one moderate monthly donation from a supporter abroad.
Nela has also connected with Claudia in Germany. Between them, they have a regular schedule of transportation for dogs likely to find homes in Germany. Like Nela in Srbija, Claudia does all the work on the German end, keeping in touch with a number of no-kill rescue and shelter groups, finding spots for Srbijan dogs, getting the pictures and stories from Nela, meeting the transport, and ferrying the dogs either to the shelters or, if we are all lucky, right to their new homes.
Staying with Nela is like living in a zoo. Every area in the house is someone's territory. The front hall belongs to Nela's old German Shepherds: they need to be close to the door because getting out to do their business is not as easy as it used to be. The kitchen belongs to Maggie, the cat, who defends it against all comers. The living room-bookkeeping business belongs to Simon, a very defensive little dog even less stranger friendly than my own Magic. Piaf, a cat, sticks to the stairs and the master bedroom upstairs, but she shares these with Snuggles, a lab cross waiting to have a benign tumour removed from her front leg. Snuggles had another name, but I rechristened her after the first night: no doubt about it, Snuggles lives for love! There are two ferrets and an aquarium on the upstairs landing, and another aquarium in the kitchen. The bathroom was the refuge of Đoia (Joia), a terrified refugee from abuse who is now in a special foster home in Germany, where she is making great strides in recovery.
Not all were so lucky. There was a small terrace outside my room. On it, we kept Babydoll. Babydoll was known to ARC: we'd done her sterilization, and, last we had seen, she was back in her neighbourhood, doing fine. But she got sick, and the vet her caretaker took her to misdiagnosed her. She got treatment, but did not improve. We took her in and started IV treatment – Nela is as good or better at standard veterinary treatments as any vet tech in North America – but Babydoll still did not get better. We went for a second opinion to vets I knew and trusted. The blood tests came back screaming distemper.
By that time it was too late. Within 24 hours, Babydoll was dead. Anđelko, Nela's husband, buried her in the front yard. We ranted. We wept. We got up and went back to work.
Two days later, we received a ten day old kitten, thrown into the garbage in a sealed plastic bag. Despite love, cuddles and milk substitute every two hours, he could not recover from that casual cruelty. Anđelko buried him in the front yard. We ranted. We wept. We got up and went back to work.
Next year, I plan to go again, for twice as long. Despite the visible progress, there is still a lot to do. Too much for the few and tireless volunteers. Too much for the mother of a baby girl. Despite the losses and the pain, it is worth it, every second of it. Because the victories mean another life saved.
Like Lilly. Lilly is at present being boarded, waiting her turn to go to a good home, in Srbija or in Germany. When she was captured, she was so terrified of people that she would try to dig through the crate to escape. She cringed if anyone looked at her: touching her was out of the question.
But the folk at the boarding kennel put a lot of time into Lilly, well beyond what they were being paid for. And she came around. When Nela took me to the kennel, there she was, leaping happily around her protectors, getting her ears rubbed, smiling and wiggling and, finally, collapsing into a happy heap of exhaustion beside us.
We are working up a new website for ARC. Guess who is our poster dog for rehabilitation?