I was woken up by insistent, unending crying outside of my window one morning earlier this month. The sun was just beginning to rise, and I was still clinging to sleep. There are occasional dog and cat fights during the night in my neighborhood due to the large population of stray animals, and as I lay in bed – resisting waking up – I thought of all the possibilities that could be waiting for me outside. What if there was an injured animal? What would I do? After determining that the idea of staying inside simply because I was afraid of what I might find outside was ridiculous, I kicked off my blankets and made my way outside. The first thing that I saw was an adult dog and her puppy. The mother seemed beaten down, cowering away from me. The crying continued, but seemed to be coming from my neighbor’s yard. As I leaned over the fence, I realized that the crying was coming from a concrete hole, about 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep. I approached cautiously, watching the mother carefully to see if she became aggressive, and peered into the hole. Inside were two small, furry puppies – exhausted and deeply offended by their current situation.
I reached down cautiously (the puppies seemed too young to be aggressive) and I scooped one up easily, and deposited it near the mother and the other puppy. The next puppy, while unhappy in the hole, did not like the idea of being scooped up, and burrowed into the least accessible corner. Fifteen minutes of huffing, puffing and contorting myself into a myriad of uncomfortable poses was rewarded, when I succeeded in using a hose to pry the puppy up and to place it near the rest of its family. I felt like a super hero – the puppies and their mother were reunited and happy, and through a simple act, I had been able to help them.
The next few days were spent taking care of the puppies – I felt as though the mother and I were sharing custody. She would leave them during the day to join her pack and to rummage through dumpsters for food. I would bring them water and milk, and play with them after work. At first, I minimized contact, worried that she might abandon the puppies or become aggressive toward me. As the days passed, we came to have a tacit agreement – she tolerated (and dare I say, appreciated) my presence and help, and I loved seeing the three little furry bodies that would come hurtling toward whenever I brought water or food for them. I deluded myself into thinking that this would continue – that I would be able to help protect and care for these three little lives.
I grew up around dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, goats, chickens, horses, etc. I love animals, and it is very natural for me to surround myself with them, and to care for them. However, in Debar people rarely keep pets and stray dogs are treated with fear and revulsion. It was also explained to me that in Islam, dogs are considered to be ritually unclean, and are to be avoided. As the majority of the residents in Debar are Muslim, it is very unusual for dogs to be kept as pets.
After work one day, I went to the pharmacy to pick up flea shampoo for the puppies – they would whine out of pure frustration from itchiness. I returned home to find that the puppies had disappeared. They were always in one area of our neighborhood – mostly in the next door neighbor’s yard – a neighbor who lived in Italy most of the year. I looked and looked for them. I told myself that they would probably show up – they could not have wandered far. My biggest fear was that they had been dumped somewhere; they had not been a popular addition to the neighborhood, but had been mostly tolerated by my family and our neighbors.
Two days later, when I was walking home, I heard a familiar whining. I realized that the puppies were living in the trash dump area close to the main road. I saw that one puppy had an eye infection that had worsened, and that it could no longer move one of its back legs. I felt so sad and helpless. I brought them food, which they gobbled up. That night, I skyped with my family, as soon as my father asked me how I was, I lost it. I had not cried since I left America for Macedonia, and my walls came crashing down. Everything that had been building up – issues around of gender equality, the overwhelming feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, exhaustion from always being “on” – bubbled up from from the anger and sorrow that I felt about the puppies. I turned into a blubbering mess. After the conversation, in which my father and stepmom were amazingly supportive and kind about my sudden emotional meltdown, I looked up a prayer written by Albert Schweitzer for animals (I have included the prayer at the end of this post). I do not often pray, but I found comfort in saying the words and resolved that I would do what I could to help these animals, with or without support from anyone else.
The next morning, I spoke with my coworker to ask if she could show me where the veterinary hospital is located. She responded that her cousin is a veterinarian, and she offered to call him to explain the situation. He said that he would be happy to meet us after work to see the puppy with the eye infection and injured leg. My coworker and I waited by the trash dump for him to arrive, drawing curious stares from passersby. He arrived, and and while gently examining the puppy, explained that he and some of his colleagues from Switzerland (where he had attended school) had implemented a program to vaccinate and fix the street dogs in Debar a number of years ago, but without new funding and support, it was not possible to sustain such a program. He said that he could help to wash the puppy to get rid of its skin infection, provide eye drops for the eye infection and provide vaccinations, but that it ultimately needed an owner. I so badly wanted to be able to say that I would keep it, but I live with a host family, and keeping the dog was out of the question. We agreed to meet the next day to take care of the puppy. The next day arrived, and the puppies had again disappeared. I saw the mother, and I tried to follow her to find the puppies, but they were nowhere to be found.
The next few days were filled with puppy sightings – of every puppy except those I was looking to find. While walking to the grocery store, I saw a dead puppy on the sidewalk, with flies hovering over it. While looking around my neighborhood in search of the puppies, I saw a white, Labrador-looking puppy, being tossed out of a yard and landing with a yelp on the ground outside.
When I described everything that I had seen to my coworker, she suggested that I put forward an idea for a project on the street dog issue at a meeting we were having later that afternoon with members a local associations and NGOs. I doubted that the idea would be taken seriously and was surprised when members indicated that they supported the idea. Out of twelve ideas put forward, it was agreed that the street dog project would be the first project that the group would collaborate on – it would not only affect the lives and health of the dogs, but also of the community. We are currently looking at similar projects that have been executed in Macedonia to put together a project plan that would be appealing to funders.
You can access more information on street dogs in the Balkans (it is a region-wide problem), via the following links:
A Prayer for Animals (Albert Schweitzer)
Hear our humble prayer, O God,
for our friends the animals,
especially for animals who are suffering;
for animals that are overworked,
underfed and cruelly treated;
for all wistful creatures in captivity
that beat their wings against bars;
for any that are hunted or lost or deserted
or frightened or hungry;
for all that must be put death.
We entreat for them all Thy mercy and pity,
and for those who deal with them
we ask a heart of compassion
and gentle hands and kindly words.
Make us, ourselves, to be true friends to animals,
and so to share the blessings of the merciful.