Bosnia to Germany dog move: To new homes, lives

This blog is the fourth 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.

“I am bringing home the loveliest dog.”

The woman knelt beside a red-gold dog and spoke softly into her telephone. Lady’s tail fanned gently. She stood tall, sniffing the cool air of an autumn morning in Munich.

It was Lady’s first day of a life she could not have imagined, rescued from a chain in the Balkan mud.

All around us, similar meetings were taking place. Tails flying everywhere, human voices squeaking, calling, trembling with excitement, arms enfolding wriggling bodies, faces being licked soggy.

We had arrived at our first stop in Germany with half of the dogs whom we had rescued three weeks before from a dire dog shelter in Bosnia. I spent those three weeks with them, getting to know them, coaxing the timid ones into life, helping their bodies and minds to begin to heal, introducing them to unconditional love.

* * *

On Friday evening, Rado the driver and I set out for the Bosnian border with 27 dogs in the back of the van. A couple of hours and lots of paperwork and stamping later, we crossed into Croatia. The veterinarian on the Bosnian side had spent entire days preparing the necessary paperwork to allow the dogs to leave the country, and to cross into the European Union. Rado protected these documents in plastic sheaths as though they were his own children and put them all in an enormous folder.

The Croatian veterinary officer examined each passport and the heap of customs papers that Rado presented to her as one presents an offering to a king. She sharpened a bright pink pencil and set to work, checking microchip numbers, rabies vaccination dates, stamps, lists, signatures. She emerged from the paper heap to announce the absence of a form that had accidentally been sent as the copy rather than in its original. We would have to return to the Bosnian side to pick it up from the veterinarian there. Rado and I stood in front of the customs office and looked at the line of cars queued for the border. It was at least a two-hour queue. Well, it would have to be the shoe leather route.

It was a scene out of a John Le Carré novel. Dark of night, mist, crossing a bridge over a Balkan border on foot in the shadows, the wide, silent river far below, meeting our agent on a street corner for handover of an official document. The border guard in the cubicle waived us through on the way back, not bothering to check our passports again. He recognized the huge, gentle Bosnian and the woman in the blue scrub top with its IFAW logo and muddy dog prints who had walked through just a moment before. Okay, so that part wasn’t really Le Carré. Nor were the doggie kisses that glowed on my face from the day’s work.

The Croatian veterinary officer wanted to scan the microchips of a random sample of the dogs. In the frosty air beneath a flood light, we drew open the van doors. Whimpers and scratching sounds emerged from the darkness inside. “I’m sorry, sweetpeas,” I whispered. “We have to wake up for a moment. I know, this light is very rude.”

“Puppi,” the officer announced. I found Puppi’s little black nose and fuzzy ears, and she was happy to leap into my arms and get a break from the crate for a minute. I straightened her quilt and kissed her and assured her that the trip would be finished before she knew it, and she would wake up a German citizen and want for nothing ever again.

“Lucy,” the veterinary officer barked. Extracting Lucy from her sister Emma was tricky, and both of them had to be snuggled in turn. I felt somewhat peeved that the veterinary officer didn’t melt over their wriggly adorableness as everyone ought to, right? “Anooka.” Anooka is shy when new and scary things are happening, and I coaxed her from the back of her crate. I felt a nervous little lick on my wrist, and returned in kind with a big smooch on her muzzle. The veterinary officer smiled. But then she held her nose and pronounced Anooka smelly. I was a little affronted, but held my professional cool. Croatia will never know that it nearly suffered an international incident over a dog being called smelly.

We drove. And drove and drove. Around us was pitch black, and our world existed of the mesmerizing column of headlights and flickering road lines. Rado smoked one cigarette after the next to keep awake. We knew only that we were passing through countries by the changes in the radio’s emissions from the wail of Balkan love songs to crisp news announcers pronouncing the world’s events first in Slovenian and then in the gentle Austrian German. The love songs became perky, even when they mourned lost Liebe.

In the darkest hours before dawn, fatigue overcame Rado at last, and we stopped for a nap. He was asleep instantly, sitting upright in the driver’s seat. I stepped into the chilly night and quietly opened the sliding door to the truck. A few eyes glowed at me, and I heard tails whapping against the crates. “Shhhh,” I whispered. “Are you doing okay, sweetheart? Lucky, my love, it’ll be okay. I know, Sarabi, this is stressful, I know, honey. It will be alright soon.”

Dawn unveiled the rolling forests and picture-post card villages of Austria and Bavaria. Seven o’clock saw us queued among Turkish lorry drivers at the German customs office. An efficient customs officer got us through in just half an hour. Another two hours in spitting rain through Bavarian hills, past tidy villages and farms brought us at last into the parking lot of a church in Munich.

It was a beautiful autumn Saturday morning, and people were gathered already, awaiting the big van with the green paw prints; awaiting, more accurately, the darlings inside.

Here also I was able to meet at last a few of the remarkable people who run Streunerglück, the dog rescue and rehoming organization with which IFAW has partnered for this Bosnian dog rescue.

Streunerglück is a team of the most positive, efficient and tireless people that I have ever met. It is as thoroughly committed to the welfare of animals and the ethical standards of animal rescue as any group with which one might ever have to privilege to work. Being able to share a big hug with some of the team members in person, after so many weeks of intensive daily communication to organize this dog rehoming was a great joy in and of itself.

We parted with 11 of our darlings in Munich. Although I had to keep moving and focused on the thousand details at hand, my eyes still stung as I watched the dogs disappear into the vehicles. They were not disappearing anywhere, I reminded myself. They were entering homes and hearts. They were joining families, at long last, after having suffered such an awful start in life. I suddenly developed a fierce cold or allergies or something, sniffing and honking into tissues.

Streunerglück’s byline reads, “One cannot save every dog in the whole world. But one can save the whole world for a dog.” Lady’s red-gold tail brushed the back window as her person’s car pulled away. She was standing on the seat, looking forward. Lady’s world, I thought as I watched them go, was saved indeed. And for all I knew, so was her new human’s. 

Rado and I drove on, north and west. We stopped at pre-appointed meeting spots to introduce dogs one by one to the wonderful people whom Streunerglück had screened, interviewed, visited, and at last selected as the best match for each dog. People waited for us with coffee and sandwiches, hand-painted signs and smiles. They had eyes, however, only for the beautiful animals.   

It was past midnight when we reached Hamburg, our final destination. Rado and I had been on the road for 30 hours, as had the remaining seven dogs. Exhaustion had come and gone hours ago. The weather had turned stormy. Branches thrashed overhead, leaves swirled, lightning flashed, the wind snatched away our words. One didn’t need to understand words, however, to know the joy that was taking place as dog met human, and dog was embraced in warmth, love, and joy.

Lady is, well, a lady. Elegant, poised, the pride of the human walking down the street with her. Emma is a great fluff ball of cuteness and joy who makes everyone, even grumpy old doggies, smile.

And then there is Flora.

People’s response when seeing Flora for the first time is invariably a hand to the mouth, eyes large as saucers, and only the most articulate manage to string actual words together: “Oh, how precious!”

And so it was when I lifted Flora from her transport crate on that stormy midnight in Hamburg, kissed her, and called out for her for new family. Heads appeared in the truck door, silhouetted against the street lights. Hands went to mouths, eyes grew enormous, and a collective squeak flew into the north German wind.

Flora had come home. Another world had been saved.

Emma was among these last few dogs, who had endured such a long journey. She had started life in the mud and stench of a tragic place, born to a mother whose life was chained to a heap of broken boards and nails. Soon she had begun her own life on the end of a chain. The chain became too small around her neck as she grew, and cut into her skin. We had found her with the chain embedded in the flesh of her neck, terrified of everything, half starved, her body and mind shattered by misery.

The three weeks with us in quarantine had helped Emma to begin to find her puppy soul again, and to heal her little body. She learned to bounce and play, to trot beautifully on a leash for long walks in the countryside, and what being snuggled and kissed to pieces felt like.  But that was only the beginning.

The couple who picked her up hadn’t imagined someone as endearing and perfect as the fluffy dog they took from my arms on that morning in Hamburg. “Emma,” I thought as I saw her being brought into a warm and loving home, “Emma, here is your world, saved.”

Next: Bosnia to Germany dog move: The second run to quarantine


You can help the Bosnian dogs, and animals around the world, find new homes.


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Senior Program Advisor
Senior Program Advisor
Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
IFAW Veterinarian
Katie Moore, Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Loïs Lelanchon, Animal Rescue Program Officer
Animal Rescue Program Officer
Shannon Walajtys
Manager, Animal Rescue-Disasters
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy