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Feature 17 Jul 16

A Helping Hand for Strays

Several volunteer groups are working to solve Belgrade’s stray animal problems, largely caused by ‘irresponsible ownership’.

Ivana Nikolic

Owners dump unsterilized dogs on the streets where they continue to reproduce, contributing to significant growth in the stray population. Photo: Beta.

Ana Kojic is an animal lover and a self-described ‘independent volunteer’, based in Belgrade. She has dedicated years of her life helping the dogs living on Belgrade’s streets, providing strays with food and shelters when she can and arranging to find them permanent homes through adoption.

Kojic has recently broadened her activism for stray animals by launching a food bank for animals. She told BIRN the idea came because of “the large number of abandoned animals,” that are hungry and desperate for someone’s help.

“We have donations from anyone who wants to help and then volunteers distribute food all over the city,“ she explains.

Much of her work happens on social media. She coordinates food donations and distribution through her own Facebook page; when donations are ready she finds a nearby volunteer to deliver them across Belgrade.

Progress has been quite slow and ’modest,’ Kojic admits, but she is happy that her idea has caught the media’s attention, which results in more people eager to help.

“For now, people are thrilled with the idea,“Kojic says.

But, however ‘thrilled’ people in Belgrade may be with what Kojić and her friends are doing, their enthusiasm alone will not solve Belgrade’s decadeslong problem with stray animals. It is an intractable problem, not just in Belgrade but across Serbia.

An issue of responsibility 

Walk the streets and parks in any Serbian city and you will easily spot at least one stray dog, and it’s not uncommon to see an entire pack. The exact number of stray dogs is difficult to obtain, but according to some estimates, there are several thousand of them.

While Belgrade has five state-sponsored and several privately-owned shelters, it is still not enough to host all the stray dogs. But authorities and activists alike agree that the main problem isn’t caring for strays but preventing dogs from becoming stray in the first place because of ‘irresponsible ownership’.

Some activists say that irresponsible ownership is not punished in Serbia despite the 2009 Animal Welfare Law, which calls for penalties for owners who do not properly care for their pets, including sterilisation, identification and proper care.

Jelena Veselinov, from Beta, a nonprofit animal rescue in Belgrade told BIRN that her organization often receives messages from dog owners, saying their dog has just had puppies that they plan on abandoning.

“The law envisages fines for irresponsible owners, but the law is not being enforced,” Veselinov said bitterly.

Kojic also pinpoints this as a huge problem. “Sterilisation prices are not high and at some places they are even free of charge. But for people it is easier to throw animals away when they give birth,” she argues.

Owners dumping unsterilized dogs on the streets, where they continue reproducing, significantly contributing to the stray population growth.

Local authorities

Budimir Grubic, director of the publicly-owned Veterinary Institution “Veterina Beograd” says that his institution has appealed to the Serbia’s Agriculture Ministry‘s vet departments, arguing that irresponsible ownership should be pun shed, because it is the main reason why there are so many stray dogs on streets.

“We sent them several suggestions how to deal with the irresponsible owners, saying that has to be solved. We told them that was a breach of the law [on animal welfare],” Grubic said.

Grubic claims the Ministry’s response was that they would deal with it but so far nothing has happened concerning the issue. The Ministry of Agriculture told BIRN that an irresponsible owner can be fined rsd5,000-50,000 (around €40-€405) according to the law, but failed to respond when asked if the fine has ever been applied.

However, there are several methods Veterina Beograd uses to deal with stray dogs, Grubic explains.

“One of them is that we catch a dog, chip it and put it back on streets. So far, we have sterilised several thousands of them,” he said, adding there is also an ambulance that helps stray animals on the ground.

While he also claims that irresponsible ownership is “the essential issue,” Grubic argues that the five existing shelters in Belgrade are not enough.

“We need more shelters to ensure welfare of the dogs,” he added.

But, as Grbic argues, for a lot of stray dogs “nature does it all – some [dogs] get ill and die, then some are ill-treated by people or they got hit by a car and die.”

Dog adoption

As a way of handling the problem and helping stray dogs, several animal associations organise dog adoption events.

Veselinov’s Beta is among them. Working completely on a volunteer basis for more than three years, they rescue the most threatened dogs from streets, feed them and sometimes even pay for their accommodation with their own money.

“After we rescue dogs, we take care of them and then we put them up for adoption,” Veselinov explains.

Like Kojic’s initiative, Beta’s work is also mostly done via Facebook. Veselinov – as well as several other organisations – post photos on their social media, asking people if they would like to adopt animals they rescued – cats or dogs.

That is what “Veterina Beograd” also does in a bid to decrease a number of stray dogs and to promote responsible ownership, Grubic said.

“So far, we have hosted 590 dogs and the action continues,” he said.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy. 

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