Bosnia to Germany dog move: The second run to quarantine

This blog is the fifth in a series chronicling the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s transport of dogs from a shelter in Bosnia-Herzegovina to foster homes in Germany. Read the previous installment here; read from the start here.--The eds.

Two miles south of the town of Jajce in Bosnia & Herzegovina stands an old, abandoned military barracks. Numerous empty buildings, crumbling from disuse, are scattered along a road that winds from the main gates up into the forest.

It’s certainly unlike any dog shelter I’ve ever seen.

We make our way through a huge rusted metal gate, down the half-flooded road that turns left past an old wooden barn, long fallen into disrepair. Things are quieter this time, but as soon as we round the corner and make our way down the long stretch of road, past the huge rusted out Mack truck, I see them.

A slew of puppies – eleven to be exact – come running down the path to greet me. Amidst the leaping bodies and wildly wagging tails, I say hello to each one and toss out chunks of salami and handfuls of hearty dog food.

After a necessary several minutes of puppy-snuggling, we continue to make our way through the shelter to greet the other dogs. I kneel down next to Nina and coax her closer with some tasty chicken treats. She’s wary of the chain around her neck; she’s less than a year old and the heavy chain all but outweighs her. She jumps nervously from foot to foot, careful to avoid tripping over the chain. My heart breaks for her.

“Tomorrow,” I tell her, “tomorrow everything changes for you.”

Next, I visit Elsa. Just like the fierce Disney heroine after whom she’s named, Elsa sings to us. Simply starved for human affection, she cries her heart out until I am compelled to walk over and sit in the dirt with her, scratching her and feeding her cookies until she quiets. The ground around her doghouse is littered with trash, metal shards, and half-chewed cow bones. I notice that the tip of her tail has developed such bad mange that it’s raw and red. “Soon, I promise,” I tell her.

The next morning an eerie fog creeps over the castle ruins strewn about the town of Jajce. We beat the transport van to the shelter, and begin the time-consuming task of catching and collaring the puppies.

The van arrives just as the sun has risen high enough in the sky to chase away the morning chill. We begin with Alexander the Great. He eagerly leaps away from his rotting, decrepit doghouse without a backward glance, bounding along with Kati on the first walk he has had in what is maybe more than a year.

One by one, the dogs are locked and loaded. Before I know it, everyone is safely secured in the van, and we’re ready to leave this place and never return.

I look back on the closed metal gate, growing smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. I think with a smile about what the local veterinarian had shared with us over dinner the night before. He said that word is spreading within the town of Jajce; the place where people once could abandon an unwanted dog without looking back has officially closed its doors.

The three-hour journey north to the small town of Gradiska passes in the blink of an eye, and we arrive at the veterinary station in what seems like no time at all. Each dog is carefully examined by the local veterinarian. Passports are checked, notes are made about medical conditions, and schedules are set for upcoming sterilization surgeries.

At the quarantine shelter, we begin to unload the dogs into the indoor cages where they will spend the next three weeks of their lives, patiently awaiting the final leg of this journey to their new homes.

Early the next morning, we leave our hotel, turning left off the main road just past the big white church, and following a winding lane through miles of fields dotted with small family farms. The quarantine shelter was once such a farm, but has long since been converted into several small buildings of indoor dog housing, each lined with numerous outdoor runs.

Our job here is simple, yet critical. We are charged with the care of these 30 dogs. This means ensuring that they are fed, watered, and kept clean. But it also means assisting with post-operative care after their sterilization surgeries, monitoring any medical or behavioral conditions, providing exercise and playtime, and perhaps the most critical, providing affection.

Milla is among the first to be walked today. As I fuss with clipping on the leash and adjusting her collar to the perfect fit, she stands patiently waiting, looking up at me with her big brown eyes as if to say “look how patient I am, don’t I deserve a treat?” As soon as I stop fussing and stand up, she jumps up and puts her front paws on my leg, wagging her tail to let me know she’s ready to go outside. It strikes me again how different she is from the dog I had met in Jajce just three weeks ago.

The doghouse to which Milla had been tethered was located in the muddiest section of the shelter. The house itself had begun to rot and grow mold. The surrounding terrain was a complete mess of slick earth and pooled muddy water. Living in such conditions had caused Milla to develop an infection on her feet. The tissue between each of her toes was red, raw and swollen. Rather than placing her feet down to walk normally, she would pick them up in a sort of high-stepping way, which told us plainly that she was in pain.

During this quarantine period, Milla will finally visit a veterinarian. She’ll get a diagnosis, and we will begin treating the infection between her toes. But after just a few days of living in a dry, indoor space, we noticed a change in Milla’s paws. The swelling had dissipated and the redness had faded to an almost-normal light pink. She bounces along happily on her walk, no longer visibly in pain, soaking up the sunshine and constantly looking back at me to ask for treats.

Around midday, we take a break from walking adult dogs to let the puppies romp. They’re a rambunctious crew, completely different from the skinny, terrified creatures that we met when we first arrived in Jajce. Our first day there, we had counted about four or five puppies. As the day went on we kept spotting more of them, peering at us from around one of the empty barrack buildings, or cowering underneath the abandoned truck. They were starving, skinny, filled with worms, and of course, afraid of people. One puppy, who we later named Ilya, had been sharing some of the adult dogs’ doghouses. He kept himself well hidden, and was so scared of us that it took nearly three days to gain his trust enough to catch him.

Now in Gradiska, all eleven puppies are happy, healthy, and highly sociable. Even the most timid, Ilya, Lola and Charlotte, are coming out of their shells more and more every day. We spend a large portion of each day making sure they get lots of playtime. We have also started teaching them how to walk on a leash.

Day one was tough. Ilya and Lola made it about 50 yards away from the shelter, where they proceeded to flop down in the grass and refused to move. On day two, we enlisted some help. We started taking the puppies out in smaller groups with one of the adult males, to show them how it’s done. In no time at all they were all trotting along proudly behind Nelson, Bolli, and Picco, racing to catch up when they fell behind, and bravely passing by chickens, cows, and fierce kitty cats.

At the very end of the day, after everyone has been walked, I turn my attention to Helmut. Helmut is a special case. This second round of dogs contained a few who were so frightened of people that we almost never saw them out of their doghouses. One of these dogs was Helmut. We were told by the security guards in Jajce that he had been attacked by a pack of roaming dogs that sometimes visit the shelter. But he was also terrified of people. Whenever we would approach to try and feed him a treat and coax him out, Helmut sat in the farthest corner of his house, frozen still, and completely consumed by fear. He’d all but given up on life, and had certainly given up on people.

The move from Jajce to the quarantine shelter was tough, and Helmut arrived feeling terrified and untrusting of us. But veterinarian Kati Loeffler had been slowly building a relationship with him; she was the only one who could approach his cage and not send him fleeing to hide. Even still, we knew it was going to take time, effort, and a lot of dog treats, to gain Helmut’s trust.

And so we work with him every day, sitting next to his cage, feeding him treats and scratching his neck, and eventually sitting in his cage with him.

On walks, he went from nervously shuffling from one hedge to the next, sticking to the sides of the road with his tail tucked and his belly close to the ground, to confidently strutting down the middle of the road, fervently seeking out the next spot to sniff. In just a few days, he was eagerly awaiting his walk, and would trot out the door and into the afternoon sunshine, ears perked forward and tail held high. By the one week mark, he was standing at the front of his cage to greet us and ask for treats. By two weeks, he was as affectionate with us as the young puppies are. We gained his trust, and he stopped believing that the world was a scary place.

And now, he’s on his way to a new home and a new life. We safely saw a total of 65 dogs all the way to Germany, to their new and loving families, who will take over what we started in giving these dogs a wonderful new life.

Next: Bosnia to Germany dog move: The final rehoming

--EM

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