An alien concept to most developed countries, stray dogs are often associated with poor, far-away lands. However, walking through the city streets, or driving through the countryside of former Yugoslavian country, Bosnia-Herzegovina, our four-legged friends can often be seen scavenging and making lives for themselves, independent of humans. Generations removed from domesticated pets, semi-wild, semi-feral yet semi-tame, how has such a perceived problem not been eradicated in places so close to the doorsteps of countries whereby they are beloved and revered as ‘man’s best friend’?
In a land of wild bears, residual landmines, and whose own experience of war and ethnical cleansing is still fresh in the memory of most, and plain for all to see in the damaged infrastructure to others, perhaps the threat of a few stray dogs is an inconvenience at most. Our own first-hand experience saw both street dogs so friendly and wanting for both affection and food, and packs of seemingly domestic dogs circling and, at least appearing to plan attacking people. Some tagged and healthy outside town cafes, some dehydrated and suffering in the summer Balkan heat, others less fortunate on rural roadsides. It’s hard to see of an animal so commonly associated with an affluent family home, adored by the whole family.
Sanja, from Dogs Trust Sarajevo, who work to educate and lobby for changes in the way dogs are treated in the Balkan country, explains the need for such work in the country.
“Opinions are divided on whether the dogs are a problem, or if it is an animal welfare issue. There are different points of view, including animal lovers, activists (a portion of them are not too high on welfare, and some are money driven), local non-government organisations, some of which are rather well organised and have shelters, and those who simply do not care and just want the dogs removed.
“The dogs themselves are largely friendly and approachable, but is that the case with all the dogs or have some truly gone back to nature? No, most dogs living on the streets are domesticated. We cannot confirm with the certainty, but there have been reports on a few dogs living near or in the woods. We hear of cases of brutality against the dogs, especially in rural and suburban areas, but it is not a regular occurrence.”
Despite being a poor country by European standards, “there are many citizens who feed and care for their community dogs, and there are street dogs very much loved by everyone.
“There are so many healthy, highly-quality dogs who simply just wait to get a forever home, on our streets.”
Back in communist times, which ended with the breakup for Yugoslavia and the resulting wars in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, starting in 1991 and with tension continuing to this day, “Bosnia and Herzegovina used to have the legislation and system which was based on mass destruction of stray dogs, as the way to control dog population.”
Since then, as with many things in Bosnia-Herzegovina, politics has provided a challenge to progression. In part due to its complicated and unique political system, in-fighting and conflicting priorities among those in charge, but also due to other challenges. In a country reporting as high as 40% unemployment, among other pressing issues as it comes to terms with its post-war transition to an independent nation, addressing the issue has fallen down the list of priorities, and despite a new state Animal Protection and Welfare Act coming into force in 2009, designed to be progressive and humane, forbidding destruction of healthy dogs among other measures, Sanja explains, “unfortunately, the local authorities are often inert and the act has not been implemented consistently, and in some places not at all. Considering that this is the country in post war transition and that by itself it has many socio economic and political issues to be resolved, the authorities have been mostly doing their very minimum.
“Some local authorities have sporadically financed mass neutering, but nothing continuous or as significant as Dogs Trust has been doing since 2012. The Animal Protection and Welfare Act prescribes the establishment of the Dog Register on a national level, and that this has finally been implemented this year, 10 years after the act was adopted.
In speaking with locals, the challenge seems to be a historic one that was never addressed, worsened by dogs either being left without owners and homes, or freed by owners who couldn’t afford to feed them during the wars that gripped the Balkan region in the 1990s. The UN for their part, have introduced schemes for microchipping, neutering and vaccination of some dogs in areas such as Prizren in Kosovo. But, it is the current failure to enforce the act sooner is recognised by Sanja as a key factor in Bosnia’s stray dog problem.
“The reason why dogs are on the streets is not a direct consequence of the war, but the failure to implement the legislation, as without the system there are no sanctions for irresponsible dog ownership and treatment, such as abandonment, unregistered breeding and abuse.
“There has been a period about four years ago when it seemed that there was almost a political campaign run against dogs, which may sound ridiculous. Local authorities rejected new, progressive legislation and claimed that the old way, mass culling, was the best way to deal with stray dogs. There was also a media trend to report only about the negative incidents involving the dogs.”
However, through the work of Dogs Trust in Bosnia-Herzegovina, progress is being made.
“We raise awareness about the importance of a humane approach through many ways, including educating about the benefits of dogs, responsibility of people, the need for humane systems and correlation between the health of family relations and the treatment of animals.
“Our research also shows that the number of dogs in packs have reduced drastically, mostly packs are of two dogs now, especially in Sarajevo where the number of stray dogs also dropped by 63% between 2012 and 2018, due to mass neutering campaigns.
“Public opinion has also evolved since we started with public campaigns. We have spread the word on the necessity of humane approach and systematic solutions. The attitude towards dog neutering at the beginning of our engagement, when the majority of dog owners rejected it ad hoc, only to have them calling us when there is a pause in the free neutering campaign to ask when it is going to start again.”
Karen Reed, who is Head of Dogs Trust Worldwide, says of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s dog problem, “It is not unique sadly, but replicated in many countries in Europe and wider.
“The challenges vary from country to country in terms of people’s acceptance and treatment of dogs on the street, the source of those dogs and the solution in each country. I believe we have been doing a very good job in Bosnia-Herzegovina, working through local people towards a solution. Similar interventions may well work in the wider Balkans, and even parts of Eastern Europe where problems may be similar.
“But, we have to really look deep into the source of problems in each country and not just look at managing the “symptoms”. One challenge in my personal view is educating those of us dog lovers in Western Europe on the wider ways around the world in which dogs live, not all of which are bad!”
Karen adds that her experience of supporting the dogs of the Balkans goes beyond Bosnia,
“I was based in Kosovo back in 2002 when the UN peacekeepers were heavily present and I was working for an animal welfare charity helping out with emergency support to local organisations who were helping farm animals and the sudden increase in street dogs, both of which were left abandoned as people had fled fighting.
“Of course, it is understandable that post-conflict countries have many other issues to contend with, often over several decades, though it was interesting that our initial foray into Bosnia was as a result of the UN asking communities what their biggest problems were, expecting them to say rebuilding houses, stable government etcetera, and one of the most frequent requests was to do something about all the street dogs!”
Since beginning operations in 2012, Dogs Trust in Bosnia-Herzegovina have neutered over 70,000 dogs (52,000 of which were strays), provided thousands of workshops for local schools and supported the rehoming, fostering and training of dogs. This on top of their campaigns and lobbying for, and against, legislation changes for animal welfare in the country.
Sanja explains, “since we started with our programmes, which include education, as well as mass neutering campaigns based on the principle ‘catch-neuter-vaccinate-release’, all individually harvesting great results, there has been a noticeable change, especially in Sarajevo where we have been working the longest.
“There is so much more important work, including lobbying of local authorities, in order to reach our goals.”
“Education of school children is another valuable programme which runs in about 66% of the country in elementary schools for ages 7 to 11. These workshops are conducted by the trained educators and they teach children about safety principles in contact with, and around dogs, about their needs and the importance of responsible dog ownership. This is the investment in the future and a sustainable solution, with direct help for the most vulnerable group of the society. At the same time, this is making sure that dog welfare is going to be assured in the future, since children who are taught early about this topic will grow up to be responsible dog owners and citizens.”
A veterinary training programme, run in partnership with the University of Sarajevo and the Veterinary Chambers, has also been launched, in order to train experts who will later help to deliver the catch-neuter-vaccinate-release prorgamme, which has allowed Dogs Trust to ensure the mass neutering of stray and free neutering of all dogs, as well as the tagging and monitoring of strays.
“This has not only helped to reduce the number of dogs that would be born only to end up on the street, but also for the dogs to be healthier, and the community to be safer. This has helped local authorities with the monitoring of healthy and socialised dogs who live on the streets. This programme helps the dogs to stay healthy longer and also helps owners to have fewer costs for their medical care, and for the owners to be more responsible and manage their dogs better.”
Whilst the work done in the last few years is significant, Sanja doesn’t underestimated how much remains to be done.
“Bosnia and Herzegovina is an economically challenged country, being in transition to European integrations after being torn by the war 1992 to 1995 which is why funds for these projects are not raised here. We involve audiences in raising awareness and as volunteers to help reach our common goal. Our work and its continuation is very important, particularly as Dogs Trust is the only international charity that has recognised the need and the potential for the dogs in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“The Dogs Trust team in Bosnia and Herzegovina has achieved so much and it is crucial to continue with this important work until the country is ready to run a humane system. This is not a short or an easy process, but it is so rewarding when we see the results!”
Karen adds how people in the UK can help to support the dogs of Bosnia, and worldwide.
“There is an opportunity for the veterinary profession in the UK, and elsewhere, to get involved as volunteers. The main way I am going to suggest people get involved is by fundraising for us! Although Dogs Trust is a large UK charity, Dogs Trust Worldwide is currently a very small arm of the work.”
You can learn more about Dogs Trust’s work in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and find ways to support them, by visiting their website: www.dogstrust.ba/en and Dogs Trust World Wide at: www.dogstrustworldwide.com.
by Tom McBeth