Hope for a Better Tomorrow: The Dogs of Post-War Bosnia Need our Help

Johnson is a career foreign service officer who loves animals and has been rescuing dogs and cats in many countries since the age of 12by Susan R. Johnson
(Johnson is a career foreign service officer who loves animals and has been rescuing dogs and cats in many countries since the age of 12.)

The Bosnian capital city of Sarajevo and a special unit of local self-government called Brčko District were both fought over fiercely during the Bosnian war from 1992 to 1995. During this time, the problem of stray dogs was severely aggravated because the civilian population was displaced. I know the situation in Brčko District well, having served from January 2004 to September 2006 as the US administrator for the Office of the High Representative, the civilian organization that is still overseeing implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords that followed the war.

I recently visited the country to get a firsthand reading of its stray dog crisis, as well as the immediate hardships facing BaZIL, a special model spay and neuter, no-kill dog shelter located in Brčko. Meanwhile, there were well-founded reports of a planned round of mass-killing of dogs in Bosnia. Working to save these dogs was a mission I had to undertake. The four strays I adopted while I was there in 2004 are now in the United States, and I could not fail to do something for those who are still in Bosnia.

BaZIL is the heart of a long-term project to promote responsible dog ownership and government-supported spay and neuter programs as the only effective and humane way to break the cycle of dog overpopulation. It was established by ARKA, a non-governmental organization founded by Branka and Pavel Pasko, after two years of preparatory work and initial support from the Brčko local government. Dedicated to the protection of animals, ARKA also operates out of Novi Sad, Serbia, where it runs a small but wonderful sanctuary for bears. With my encouragement and support, the Brčko District government made public land available for ARKA under a lease arrangement and several grants totaling about $300,000 Konvertible Marks (KM)—about $250,000 US—over a two-year period. In addition, a small number of local private businesses donated about $25,000 KM for the construction of housing using the communal Dedication & Everlasting Love to Animals (DELTA) system.

ARKA then began work in Brčko in 2005 with a door-to-door survey of about 2,500 households with pets, implanting microchips in dogs and registering and establishing a database of all "owned" animals, plus informing people about responsible ownership. It posted billboards advocating these practices and also completed the first humane collection of 100 stray dogs in Brc(ko in early 2007— then local government support wavered and stalled.

When funding ended, so did the public education campaign, the collection of dogs, and the spaying and neutering. This development was apparently at least partly the result of a small-but-vocal campaign against ARKA's spay and neuter, no-kill shelter project, aiming for a return to old methods of controlling the stray dog population via the periodic shooting of dogs for bounty payments, or collecting and killing them through a variety of cruel means. Sadly, on March 19, the Brc(ko Assembly approved a proposal to return to the old inhumane policy of "catch and kill."

The BaZIL shelter, however, remains open. The facility is located on public land leased to ARKA for 10 years, on the site of the former McGovern Base that housed US National Guard soldiers immediately after the Bosnian war, as part of the international commitment to oversee full implementation of the Dayton Accords.

BaZIL is surrounded by a high-quality fence and consists of 16 completed DELTA shelters and six partially finished shelters, each enclosed by its own fence. Three layers of fencing allow the shelter itself to be remarkably open. Dogs are not chained and have plenty of space and fresh air. The shelter's current capacity is about 100 dogs, but plans allow for expansion to hold 300. When dogs arrive at the facility, they are spayed or neutered, evaluated for compatibility and grouped into DELTA dog houses, then fed and cared for by two full-time staff employees. Adoptions are running at about 10 percent of the total dog population in the shelter and could be higher with proper media coverage. Just by existing, this model shelter demonstrates what can be achieved in the area.

Now, BaZIL must turn crisis into opportunity. It is working to stay open and to feed the dogs. It faces obstacles in the form of a local government that lacks understanding of the basic cause of the stray dog problem, and of the need for an effective and humane program to control reproduction and promote responsible dog ownership. Spay and neuter is not part of the cultural framework, although thoughtful citizens are quick to grasp the need for it.

With the continued operation of BaZIL at stake due to Bosnia's current political climate, completion of the physical infrastructure of the shelter has been suspended. The immediate priority is to use the shelter, with its environmental and dog-friendly DELTA houses, as a platform for a more effective public education campaign to promote spaying and neutering as the most important element of a sustainable and humane animal control program.

The future is uncertain for now. This is an election year for Brčko District and other municipalities in Bosnia. On March 13, a new dog control proposal was put on the agenda of the local assembly. Little information was publicly available about its authorship, though it proposes the "catching, keeping for 30 days and killing" of dogs who are not claimed by their owners. It seems to call for construction of a city pound, but no details are provided about the specifications. Many practical details are not addressed. Those familiar with the situation in Brčko foresee a brutal mess in the coming months, whether or not the proposal is adopted.

With the right help, little Brčko can implement a spay and neuter policy, with all that this implies, and can maintain no-kill shelters, as well as fund a public education campaign. This would be easiest to achieve if Sarajevo also adopted spay and neuter and no kill policies, but Brčko can take the lead either way. Its small size makes problems endemic to Bosnia less difficult to resolve. While other non-fiscally self-sustaining municipalities may need altered approaches, Brčko is a multi ethnic microcosm of Bosnia that can set an example for innovative solutions.

On this trip, I also met with people in Sarajevo who are directly involved in animal protection efforts. Several Americans assigned to the US Embassy have adopted local strays and fostered dogs waiting for their turn to be taken out on the "underground railway" to Austria and Germany. This railway is the initiative of a group of local and international dedicated defenders of Bosnian dogs who live in Sarajevo and organize these convoys. These good souls have saved hundreds of dogs from being killed by finding them homes outside Bosnia, mostly in the aforementioned countries.

This active group of individuals in Sarajevo is doing heroic work, but so far, it has not influenced public policy. The Sarajevo dog shelter has been struggling. While it is slowly improving with some international support, it is not able to accommodate more than a small fraction of the stray dog population.

According to local activists, the Sarajevo Cantonal Government 2008 budget includes $850,000 KM, about $750,000 US, for the stray dog line item. Unfortunately, unless things change, this money is more likely to be spent on killing dogs than on anything else. Owned dogs and strays will continue to reproduce, and the cycle will continue.

So what else can be done? The dogs and the people of Bosnia need reinforced support, new energy, and more voices dedicated to this cause, including groups with a background in establishing successful no-kill communities. Bosnian animal activists need help to organize for more effective advocacy to reject the entrenched approach of catching and killing dogs on a mass scale. They need partnership with international organizations for better credibility and access to the media.

We can launch a counter campaign that calls for spaying and neutering as the way to manage dog populations. BaZIL's spay and neuter, no-kill model shelter, preceded by its door-to-door survey of dog owners in the town—as well as both the positive and negative publicity surrounding Brčko's stray dogs—has put the issue before the public, front and center.

An innovative and humane shelter representing a huge investment of time, effort and money is an asset not to be wasted. BaZIL can serve as an important public education and advocacy tool for the practice of spaying and neutering as the central pillar of a successful animal control policy.

To survive until next year after the elections and carry out a spay and neuter campaign in the meantime, however, the shelter needs private monetary and political support. If you are able to help, financial donations can be made to the BaZIL Model Shelter Project, care of the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), and will be matched by AWI through the end of the 2008-2009 fiscal year. If you would like to contribute to this effort in some other way, please contact me, Susan Johnson, at srj4dgs@yahoo.com, or write ARKA at ARKA@EUnet.yu.

Delta houses: The DELTA housing system was developed by Leo Grillo, owner of a large animal rescue organization in California. Constructed of straw bales over a plywood dog house (1), the entire structure is covered with chicken wire and concrete (2, 3). These relatively low-cost shelters are durable, easy to build, and friendly to the environment and the dogs who inhabit them—providing animals comfort with shade in the summer and warmth in winter (4,5).