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Marie Barski


Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/haven-signage-Bhe0nfvnGgw) 13.1.2024.


Dog Days of Montenegro


For Milica every day begins the same way, cleaning up the overnight’s accumulation of urine and feces from 17 puppies she keeps in her one-bedroom apartment, a job that takes over an hour each morning. There are no days off. Milica is not a hoarder. She provides a lifeline to puppies born on the streets or abandoned in various locations around town, frequently at the local dump. Left to fend for themselves, many are too young to survive without their mother's milk and warmth. The youngest ones require round-the-clock bottle feeding. Some survive. All are too young to be house broken, not that she would have the time to train them as she runs her family’s hotel and restaurant in Sutomore, a tourist hotspot on the Montenegrin Riviera. 

When we meet, Milica greets me like an old friend, with a hug. Her casual attire and bleached blond undercut hairstyle give her a trendy look. We have been corresponding for over three years. My dog Bella is one of the many puppies she rescued and fostered for months in 2020, until we managed to arrange transport to Canada during the pandemic. The conversation flows with stray and abandoned dogs in Montenegro as the main topic. In addition to the puppies in her apartment, she does daily rounds of feeding numerous strays around town. Eager to meet some of the dogs, particularly the ones whose stories I follow on social media, I ask if I may accompany her and she graciously agrees. Our first stop is an abandoned building with expansive grounds adjacent to the restaurant where she works. Bubica lives here, Milica says. Bubica, meaning "little bug," was abandoned by her owner three years ago and has been surviving on food left by the staff at the restaurant's backdoor. We stop by a tall cast iron fence and Milica points towards the building in the back on the property. There she is, she says. I see a small, caramel coloured dog in the distance, lying on the stairs. Milica calls her and she makes her way through the tall grass. A mix of Pekingese and Kokoni (a Greek breed), Bubica is a sweet and trusting little dog with large eyes and long hair. She lets me pet her through the fence and I feel the urge to take her with me. I wonder out loud if she is small enough to fit in the cabin of an airplane. We linger for a few moments but we need to go feed the strays. Bubica saunters back to her stairs and Milica goes into the restaurant’s kitchen to fetch two large white plastic buckets, filled with a mixture of bread and meat. I want to help but she relegates me to spectator. She loads the buckets in the back of her SUV and tells me to wait until she can spread large plastic bags over the passenger seat. Many a dog vomited or bled on that seat she says and she doesn’t want my clothes to get dirty. There is an undeniable putrid smell in the vehicle and we drive with the windows partly open. We take a left turn off the main road down a steep residential street. Milica parks and honks the horn. A pair of Kokonis, a white and a black one, like chess pieces, dart out to greet her. They know the sound of her car. In the summer months, the family who vacations in one of the houses feeds them, but during the winter months Milica takes over. They live on the steps of the house year round. Next we stop by a small stone church with a gated yard. Milica ladles two mounds of food on the paved ground from one of the buckets and two dogs emerge to eat. The priests allow them make the yard their home. It is a relatively safe place. We leave while they are busy eating. Our next stop is a low but wide dilapidated building. Milica informs me that this is where she took my Bella from when, as a small puppy, she was mauled by rats. She still bears the scars of that rough start in life. The fur never grew back over the scar tissue and the thick, rough pink skin on her left cheek and shoulder is still exposed. Shockingly, a Roma family squats there. They keep their distance but half a dozen dogs come running for their daily meal. The dogs know Milica. She creates several mounds of food on the cracked concrete and they eat hungrily and orderly. There is no fighting over food.

On our way to the next site, Milica gets a call about a Doberman. While the majority of street dogs are mixed breed, purebred strays are not uncommon. Milica is renowned in the small coastal town of Sutomore as a dog rescuer, and people reach out to her at all hours. This time, frustration gets the better of her, and she wonders aloud why the people who found the dog don't simply feed it and adopt it. However, without hesitation, she changes direction, and we head towards the backyard car mechanic who reported the dog.  A young worker kindly kept the dog with him long enough for Milica to arrive rather than risk another casualty of the busy road nearby. The Doberman is an emaciated female with a distended belly. This could mean bad news. She may have leishmaniasis, and she may be pregnant Milica fears. Leishmaniasis is a vicious disease prevalent in regions of the Mediterranean and other warm climates. If left untreated it will likely kill a dog within 12 months. With expensive medication it usually goes into remission but can never be cured. Another vehicle parks next to us and an attractive blond woman steps out. While we were driving, Milica phoned Mona, a young German woman with a soft spot for Dobermans. Mona moved to Montenegro with her husband and is part of a network of rescuers and volunteers, a dozen or so women, including several foreigners residing in the area, who banded together for a common cause. I learn that Mona already has three rescued dogs at home along with a donkey she found wandering in the streets. She volunteers to take the Doberman to the vet and with a bit of coaxing the dog enters her SUV and she drives away. Milica and I continue to our original destination. The next group, about a dozen dogs, survives in a large field outside of town. They are wary of all humans, even Milica who comes by daily. They wait for her to be at a safe distance before accepting the food. 

The next stop is only about a hundred metres away, another field, but this area is fenced off and contains an unfinished concrete structure. Milica informs me that this is private property but the owner permits her to house a few large dogs in makeshift enclosures. Locals fear large dogs and will often poison or kill them. This arrangement, far from ideal, keeps them relatively safe. They are kept apart from one another in separate, improvised spaces. I count four dogs. Among them is a Malinois and a German Shepherd with an injured leg. The leg will never get better Milica says, it’s an old fracture that healed improperly. I inquire about the possibility of surgery, but Milica doesn't believe it would be effective. Additionally, the local veterinarian lacks the necessary expertise for such a procedure, and the cost far exceeds the amount of donations the rescuers manage to gather. The dogs, hungry for food and human contact, eagerly greet Milica. She places food on the ground and pours water into large stainless steel bowls. She spends a few minutes with each, and it is time to continue our journey. 

We meet dogs at every stop and every dog has a story. Young hunting dogs are discarded after the hunting season, pets become a burden, while others belong to generations born on the street. Most dog owners in the area keep their pets outdoors, often neglecting to provide proper care and shelter. Spaying and neutering is relatively inexpensive yet many owners refuse this procedure citing that it goes against nature. Consequently, when females give birth to mixed breed puppies, they are often taken from their mothers and left in fields or public areas, including the city dump. The survival of these puppies is uncertain, and if they manage to survive, they continue the cycle by producing more unwanted litters. The community's opinion on how to address the problem varies greatly. The approaches range from catching, spaying or neutering and releasing the dogs, to confining them in the newly constructed municipal dog pound. Milica firmly believes that sterilization is crucial, and if a home cannot be found for a dog, it should be returned to the exact spot it was taken from. She opposes the idea of locking up dogs unless they are sick and in need of treatment or facing imminent danger. Foster care is often out of reach. There are few spaces and the price tag of 50 euros per dog per month makes it impossible to raise enough funds to provide long-term care for all dogs in need, even with international donations tricking in. As a result, many only stay in foster care temporarily, just long enough to recuperate from illness or surgery. Some dogs are either lucky or simply more adaptable to coexisting with humans within an urban environment. They form individual territories or live in packs, scavenge for food and find shelter in green spaces around town. Yet the lifespan for a stray average about four years, less than half that of dogs with responsible owners. Danger is ever present as they face abuse, speeding vehicles on busy roads, or are poisoned leading to a slow and agonizing death. This often occurs just before the busy tourist season. Many tourists are upset by the sight of strays and local hotel and restaurant owners want to eliminate them by any means necessary. Nevertheless, there are also stories of hope and happy endings. Milica has facilitated several hundred adoptions over the years, with many dogs finding loving homes abroad, in countries such as Germany, the UK, Belgium, the USA, and Canada. 

We drive back to Milica’s apartment to pick up one of the puppies who has stopped eating and has watery diarrhea. “Grace” who looks like a black lab, has long limbs and a graceful walk, which inspired her name.  She needs to go to the vet to be checked and to get her next round of vaccines. Puppies greet us at the gate at the bottom of the stairs. Milica apologizes for not inviting me upstairs. She doesn’t want to expose me to the mess the puppies created while she was out. She picks up Grace from the bunch and places her in a kennel in the back of her vehicle. We now drive east to the town of Bar to the vet Milica trusts explicitly and who often donates her time and supplies for unhoused dogs and cats. We find doctor Liljana busy neutering a cat whose owner is in the minority who believe that this is the right thing to do. While we wait, we encounter a young woman who brought in a puppy she found, seeking a health check before attempting to find it a new home. Although she wishes to keep the puppy, her landlord does not permit pets. When our turn comes, the vet has good news; Grace is healthy. She gets a shot into her hip. Milica thanks the vet and we leave. The charge goes onto the running tab with the clinic. As the afternoon turns to dusk Milica drops me off at my hotel and we agree to meet the following day. She will bring Bubica and together we will take her to the vet to have her checked and weighed. Reception confirms that the hotel doesn’t allow pets dashing my hope of keeping Bubica with me overnight. 

The next day Milica arrives at 11 AM as agreed, with Bubica in the carrier at the back of the vehicle. I want the vet to examine Bubica’s teeth. She has wide gaps and I worry that some teeth may be missing or loose. While she is on the examination table, we discover a golf ball-size, hard lump on her left hip. Dr. Liljana assures us that it is likely nothing to worry about, however, she doesn’t have the equipment to do a biopsy. Additionally, Bubica exceeds the weight limit for a pet in cabin by two pounds, and the allowable carrier is too small for her to comfortably turn around. We discuss the option of taking her with me regarless but neither of us have any ideas of what to do if the airlines refuse to board her. My trip home involves four flights with different airlines. We conclude that Bubica is better off where she is rather than ending up at a shelter in an unfamiliar city. With Bubica back in the carrier we go feed more of Milica’s charges. I see more makeshift enclosures, this time, in the yard of her brother’s trucking company. The first fenced off area has a small, wooden dog house, and two curious puppies stand at the opening. Milica says there is one more inside, too shy to show herself. They are sisters found just a couple of days ago. I follow Milica’s lead and climb onto a chair next to the fence and over into the enclosure. I can’t resist picking up one of the tiny puppies. She relaxes in my arms as I cradle her and stroke her fur. Her little black eyes focus on mine, and we share a quiet moment while everything else around us melts away. Reluctantly I put her down asking for forgiveness that I cannot take her with me. She is too young to travel and has yet to receive the mandatory vaccines. The next enclosure houses Zucka and Loretta. These two females have names. Most strays do not. Both are suffering from leishmaniasis. The disease presents itself in various ways. Zucka’s tear ducts are irritated, and her face is wet from a constant stream of tears. Loretta’s skin hugs her ribs. As thin as she is, she is beautiful and reminds me of hunting dogs I’ve seen in paintings. I have been in love with her for months, since I first saw her on Facebook. Rescuers and volunteers occasionally post photos of dogs soliciting donations for vet bills, medicine and food. Both dogs crowd the fence offering their heads for petting. I touch them as much as possible, pushing my hand through the wires. They can’t seem to get enough, particularly Zucka who pushes Loretta out of the way. Milica says that Loretta will never be adopted. Locals do not adopt dogs with leishmaniasis as treatment is expensive, costing as much as half a month’s salary. She cannot be adopted abroad because in her condition the stress of travel would kill her. She will live her remaining days in the makeshift enclosure, without a blade of grass or room run, and with minimal human contact. She will never have a ball thrown or own a squeaky toy. Yet Loretta is luckier than most. She has daily meals, protection from busy roads and would be dog killers. I promise her that if I ever relocate to Montenegro she will come live with me. Milica smiles knowing how very unlikely that is. 

We return to Sutomore with Bubica still in the back of the vehicle. Milica parks next to the abandoned property. I take Bubica from the carrier and hold her for a few moments. I put her down reluctantly, and she takes a few steps but turns around to look at me. Milica encourages her to leave and after hesitating for a moment she wanders off and I lose sight of her. It is dark by the time I return to the hotel. I am tired but cannot sleep thinking of Bubica, Loretta and the many dogs I met. The magnitude of the problem is crushing, the need for help is constant, and the potential for heartbreak endless. I marvel at Milica’s courage and tenacity. Many puppies died in her arms, many others she took to be euthanized following severe injuries or sickness. Milica has dedicated the past six years of her life to caring for unwanted dogs, ever since a Finnish organization initiated and funded a catch-and-release spay program. Perhaps her commitment grew from an intimate knowledge of life on the streets. Having grown up without a father and with an absentee mother, as a young girl, Milica sold trinkets on the beach to make ends meet.

In the week following my departure, the dilapidated building where the Roma family lived surrounded by dogs caught fire. Although the humans managed to escape, one dog perished in the flames. Another was killed by a vehicle the following day. Four young puppies were found in a cardboard box. The new municipal animal shelter is awaiting connection to the town's water supply and has not yet opened its doors. The female Doberman was malnourished but otherwise healthy and has a promising lead for adoption. Despite medication Loretta succumbed to leishmaniasis. Thanks to a donor, Bubica found herself in foster care. She adapted to living in a house instantly and is described by her foster as the sweetest dog she has ever cared for. The lump on her hip is benign. 

*****

Situated in the heart of the Balkans, Montenegro is a small country of great natural beauty but few resources, and shares the region’s turbulent history. Deeply patriarchal and plagued by corruption and nepotism, the country's accession to the EU remains on the backburner of Europe's priorities. The inability to effectively address the stray dog problem is just one of the many challenges faced by Montenegro. While laws protecting animals have been enacted, they are poorly enforced. When dogs are poisoned or shot, the police show little interest in investigating, and even when the perpetrators are known, charges are rarely filed. Thanks to the dedication of Milica and a small number of rescuers and volunteers, hundreds of dog have found happy homes. The work continues.


About the Author: When Marie is not travelling, she is plotting her next adventure from her home base in Victoria, British Columbia, where she lives with her husband and their dogs. She holds a BA in History of Art. Besides travelling, her interests include writing, painting, photography, and animal rights. 


 

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