Opinion

Destination, Sarajevo IV: Goodbye to Sarajevo, a Sleepover in Germany, and Touching Down in the States

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. June 28, 2019. On Tuesday morning, Milena picked me up at the hotel at 5:30 a.m. with Elsie in tow. It was time to depart Sarajevo! We crammed my big suitcase into her station wagon already packed with the big airline-approved crate for flight and all 100-plus pounds of Elsie, and then I climbed into the front seat. Milena was understandably emotional this morning as she was saying goodbye to this beautiful dog that she rescued in the fall of 2018. While Milena routinely picks up street dogs—of which Sarajevo had plenty—Elsie had actually been somebody’s “pet.”

Facebook posts from Milena in the fall 2018, when she rescued Elsa

Elsie had lived on the property of an old man who resided on the mountaintop where Milena’s kennels were located. He had her chained for her entire life in the outdoors with no shelter of any kind and no food or clean water. Occasionally, he would toss her scraps of some sort, and she had a bucket of filthy, fly-infested water to drink. People consistently reach out to Milena with requests to save dogs living in filth or harmful conditions, and Elsie was one of those cases. Milena pleaded with the man to relinquish her, and after a bit of coaxing, he did so. Thank heavens!

Milena at the airport saying goodbye to us

Milena at the airport saying goodbye to us

Me putting the wheels on the kennel at the airport

Me putting the wheels on the kennel at the airport

At the airport, the Air Austria staff was wonderful and eager to get Elsie ready for flight. There were lots of photos being taken, oohing and aahing over her, and a tearful hug and goodbye with Milena. She had saved this dog’s life. I had the easy part of flying her home and loving her for the rest of her days.

An Air Austria staffer. Air Austria was wonderful!

An Air Austria staffer. Air Austria was wonderful!

Elsie and I had to fly from Sarajevo to Vienna, and then make a connection to Frankfurt. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t make a final connection to the U.S. in time, so I booked a night at a pet-friendly hotel. I had called them weeks ahead of time to be sure they knew I was traveling with a huge dog, and they were accepting.

Saving Suffering Sarajevo Strays

In Frankfurt, we took a shuttle bus to the NH Collection Hotel near the airport. This was the first time Elsie and I were alone, and to keep her calm, I took her out for seven walks that day. From my experience with big dogs—my husband, Jeff, and I have always adopted high-energy male labs and lab mixes—a tired dog is a well-behaved dog. If she were tired from walks, there would be much less opportunity to misbehave or feel stressed. It worked! Thankfully, she loves to walk, which is why we adopt big dogs in the first place. I love to exercise outside.

Elsa on the shuttle bus to the hotel. She was so well behaved!

Elsa on the shuttle bus to the hotel. She was so well behaved!

Elsa in the bathroom at the airport hotel. She loves cold tile floors and ice water. Toys? Not so much--yet.

Elsa in the bathroom at the airport hotel. She loves cold tile floors and ice water. Toys? Not so much–yet.

Somebody felt comfortable enough to jump up on the bed!

Somebody felt comfortable enough to jump up on the bed!

That night, she hopped up on the bed with me, another sign that she was comfortable. The next morning, we took three separate 20-minute walks before leaving for the airport. She was feeling calm and seemed happy, which was great, because the Lufthansa staff was about to eradicate my good mood.

At the Frankfurt airport, the staff couldn’t find my flight reservation. They said it had been canceled, even though I called and booked it over the phone—because you need to secure space for the dog to fly—and I even called them again to double verify that everything was set and there would be no issues on the day of flight. Wrong! The first Lufthansa staffer was kind, but the one she sent me to in ticketing was bad-tempered and uncaring, delivering blunt responses with not a shred of empathy. And I wasn’t unpleasant!! After that ordeal, which finally resulted in a new ticket for me and Elsie, I returned to address the dog’s kennel and get my boarding pass. A new Lufthansa staffer was assisting us, and she told me my kennel was not big enough for flight. Wait, what?

“I just two flew Air Austria planes and they had no issue with this kennel,” I said. The woman’s reply: “That was for an hour apiece, but this flight is much longer. The dog needs to be able to stand up completely to stretch. The dog’s head exceeds the height of the kennel.”

I stood in disbelief, muttering to myself, “This can’t be happening.” Yet it was, and what the heck was I supposed to do?

The employee directed me to a Lufthansa office where I could buy luggage and dog kennels. I had just spent over $100 on the kennel she flew to Germany in, and now I had to drop another $100-plus? There was nothing I could do, I had to get her home, and this lady was dictating how I would do so. I had to buy the bigger kennel. Great. This was turning into an expensive volunteer vacation.

I purchased the kennel and brought it back upstairs with the assistance of a kind man who only spoke German. In that time, the difficult lady had softened her tone and seemed to adjust her attitude; I understand that people have jobs to do, but you have to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Would you like it if someone delivered unpleasant news to you in an aggressive manner? No, you would not, and it’s not necessary.

Saving Suffering Sarajevo Strays helps street dogs

So, with the dog finally ready for flight, I jetted off myself to my gate. The plane was boarding.

The flight was uneventful—thank God—and we landed without incident in Philadelphia, where Jeff and I live. I hired a driver with a large SUV to pick us up. Oh, and now I had two—not one—airline kennels to cram into the car. Lufthansa shipped my “smaller one” home at no charge.

Doesn't everyone have two massive airline kennels for dogs?

Doesn’t everyone have two massive airline kennels for dogs?

At home, a neighbor came over to assist my mother-in-law and me with the introduction of Elsie—who we will now call Elsa—to our golden retriever, named Emma. There was some initial growling, but I know that will dissipate with time and training (we have an appointment with a dog trainer next week). Elsa seemed in awe of her new yard and her new big house, and she loves all the people in her new pack. Oh, and she’s a super big fan of central air and ice water!

She doesn’t completely understand dog toys yet, but within a day, she had picked up several Nylabones and started chewing! I want to encourage this budding behavior because it really does keep a dog’s teeth clean. Hers are a mess from years of neglect, poor nutrition, and fighting off wolves. Really. There were wolves looking for easy prey where she lived, and she has scars to prove she valiantly fought them off. Crazy to think about now, given how cushy her new life will be, but that’s one of the sad realities of a neglected dog in Sarajevo. I’ve been sending Milena updates about Elsa, and every day she gets more comfortable with Emma and settles more into her new routine. It includes twice-a-day walks and feedings, unlimited snuggles, a mountain of toys to choose from, a dog-approved sofa in the den to lounge on, and a massive orthopedic dog bed to sleep on at night. For sure, the Heebner house is a great place for a dog to live.

Emma, our golden retriever, and Elsa in our yard at home.

Emma, our golden retriever, and Elsa in our yard at home.

My husband, Jeff, and mother-in-law, Gretchen

My husband, Jeff, and mother-in-law, Gretchen

Elsa relaxing on the kitchen floor on her first night in her new home

Elsa relaxing on the kitchen floor on her first night in her new home

If you have questions about how you, too, can adopt a dog from Sarajevo or participate in your own volunteer vacation, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at Jennifer@jenniferheebner.com. You can also adopt a dog from Sarajevo without traveling there; again, please reach out with any questions. Meanwhile, my fundraiser for Milena’s efforts continues through early July. Click here or on any of the banner ads in this post to make a donation.

Thank you for reading along in this departure from regularly scheduled jewelry posts! My goal was to do a good deed for someone who always chooses to do the right thing when no one is looking and to cast awareness on a sad part of the world, in addition to adopting a new family dog. What do you think—goals accomplished?


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Opinion

Destination, Sarajevo III: Scooping Poop and Securing Paperwork and a Dog Passport

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. June 26, 2019. The next day, I got a late start and Milena was visibly displeased. (I work best with deadlines, and since one had not been established, I didn’t think there was a definitive start time.) Anyway, we got past that hiccup, though it did mean that I wouldn’t be able to meet the other dog I was considering for adoption. For space reasons, Ivo was located in a friend’s kennel that was some distance away. But after meeting Elsie and knowing how important it was to Milena that we take her, I had pretty much decided that Elsie was our new dog.

Saving Suffering Sarajevo Strays

So, we had to go to the pet store to buy her airline kennel. The biggest one lacked wheels so we went down a size and she fit fine. Success! Then we had to return to the kennels. I never scooped so much poop in my life! Hopefully that made up for oversleeping that morning. I shoveled three mighty bags of poop while Milena fed the dogs. Then it started to rain. No problem—I keep working. Then thunder with a touch of lightning arrives. I keep working, it’s a brief storm, I tell myself. Then Hershey’s Kisses-size hail starts falling. This volunteer vacation is turning into a dark comedy. “Oh, Lord,” I mutter, “please just let the hail stop.” Within a second it does. Not kidding. It was kind of amazing.

Elsa's airline kennel for flight

Elsa’s airline kennel for flight

Then Milena and I both finished our chores and headed back to the car—which had a flat tire. Really? Yes, a flat. Thank God the employee of an adjacent kennel was present; normally, no one else is out there in the middle of the forest. And it was a Sunday in Sarajevo—ain’t no AAA or Just Tires open for service. A young man named Roky fixed the flat, which was caused, ironically, by a rock. Amazingly, we made it back to Sarajevo without incident.

We got a flat at the kennels! Thank heavens Roky was there to help.

We got a flat at the kennels! Thank heavens Roky was there to help.

The next day we secured Elsie’s flight documents and dog passport and got a document of permission from the local government to let me adopt her. It was finalized! On paper, I was her new owner. In real life, it will take some time for her to recognize me as her new mum. She knows Milena took her in—Elsie doesn’t let Milena out of her sight! And Elsie likes to plant her tush on the ground in defiance when I want to continue walking away from Milena. Yeah, as loving as she is, this will be a process with her. And for Milena.

Saving Suffering Sarajevo Strays helps street dogs

Every time we talk about me adopting her, Milena tears up. She really loves this dog. Milena also knows that the dog has no life here in her flat, and that Jeff and I will put her at the center of our human-child-free world. Now I just have to get Elsie on the plane—three planes, actually. We must take two flights to reach Frankfurt, from where our plane to the U.S. departs. We also can’t make all of our connections in one day, so Elsie and I are staying overnight in an airport hotel in Germany. Fingers crossed she’s a willing participant in this big international adventure.

The author and her giant new baby

The author and her giant new baby

Stop back tomorrow for Part IV.


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Opinion

Destination, Sarajevo II: Petting Puppies, Meeting Elsie, and Feeding Sanctuary Dogs

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. June 25, 2019. When I landed on Saturday, Milena picked me up at the airport. I recognized her closely cropped red hair and tired smile from Facebook photos. After six years of watching her efforts, I felt like I knew her well enough to give her a hug and did. She reciprocated and offered to take my suitcase.

“No way!” I said. “I’m here to help you!” I told her I was already dressed in my ready-to-get-dirty duds so we could dive right into whatever she wanted me to do.

She drove us back to her flat on the 12th floor of an old gray concrete building. As she opened the door, I could hear the howl of the puppies—about 12 of them. Really. I was not prepared for all of them crammed into the one-bedroom unit along with 112-pound Elsie, a dog I was considering for adoption, and another small, older rescue named Doris. Let’s just say I was overwhelmed.

Some of the puppies in Milena's flat

Some of the puppies in Milena’s flat

Apparently, there are always dogs in transition in her flat. She had just rescued six 10-week-old caramel-colored pups, placed in a box on a roadside, and they wouldn’t be old enough to travel for another couple of weeks. Six more pups—a five-month-old black lab, a four-month-old lab mix, three shaggy multicolored pups (some missing clumps of fur from demodex), and another tiny black-and-brown mutt, along with Doris—would be flying to the U.K. midweek. My big girl was at Milena’s flat instead of her countryside kennels so I could spend some time with her.

Elsa the street dog from Sarajevo

Elsa the street dog from Sarajevo

We took Elsie outside for a walk. She is a love of a dog! In our communications, Milena had been borderline pleading with me to take her because of her personality. In person, I see why. She’s the massive size I want—she’s what I believe to be a Caucasian shepherd or Russian bear dog, a guard dog commonly found in the mountains of Eastern Europe—with the sweet, gentle personality of a golden retriever. Elsie immediately lay on her back so I could rub her belly, and when she tried to pick up a piece of discarded food, I instinctively and without hesitation took it out of her mouth; she was unfazed.

After the introduction, we returned Elsie to the flat, where puppies climbed all over her. Elsie was obviously uncomfortable but didn’t snap. We separated the pups from her, and she reclined in a corner of a room that was puppy free. Milena instructed me to pick up a heavy bag of dog food and carry it to the car. We then drove off to see her legendary kennels or sanctuary in the countryside. I’ve seen photos of them online for years, so I was particularly excited to see them and the other dogs in person.

Elsa in a puppy-free zone

Elsa in a puppy-free zone

The kennels are a 45-minute drive outside of Sarajevo. Once off the highway, the roads become increasingly countrified—unpaved, winding, gravelly, and finally single lane and somewhat treacherous. The scarier the roads got, the more they reminded me of country roads in Ireland, where I had driven two months ago and nearly tacoed the rim of a tire. (Not my finest hour, but you try driving back from the Cliffs of Moher in the early evening and let me know how you fare.) To make matters more dramatic, Milena prayed as we sped up hills so we wouldn’t stall out or crash as other cars nonchalantly sped around corners like they were expecting empty roads.

The 45-minute drive to the kennels is gorgeous!

The 45-minute drive to the kennels is gorgeous!

As we drove, she unloaded frustrations about locals who were not sympathetic to the stray dog cause. Apparently, she’s been harassed for years over her efforts—which she carried on anyway, ultimately shipping hundreds of dogs out of Sarajevo for adoption in the U.K., Italy, Germany, and the U.S. Milena has a team of helpers all over the world who update her adoption pages and social media and help handle incoming donations and orders for supplies like food and medicine.

Saving Suffering Sarajevo Strays helps street dogs

As I listened to her, she was understandably emotional, crying at times over the stress of being a solo rescuer in a country that didn’t care much for the stray dog crisis. She lived in Sarajevo through the mid-90s, and I wondered how much of her stress was post-traumatic from war and how much resulted from present-day tragedies of abuse around her. I think she’s the victim of a healthy dose of both, at times expressing paranoia, but whether it was rational or unfounded I couldn’t decide, given that we had just met. What I know for certain is that she has nothing of value or luxury in her flat; all her money goes to dog care.

In her flat, Milena has no sofa; a table with chipped white paint sits in a would-be living room with several dog crates folded on top. Her dated circa 1970s-blue tile bathroom is full of cleaning supplies, a back porch is loaded with bags of dog food, and her bedroom has a paper-thin twin mattress on a simple frame with a small desk and another tiny bedside table. Rooms have white walls—scuffed by dogs—and no décor. Shelves in her foyer are packed with dog medicines. Her most prized possession is likely the single photo of her granddaughter that sits on a shelf near the kitchen. Nothing else—not a knick-knack or portrait or ornament—that could be viewed as comfortable or charming is visible. Talk about spartan living accommodations; this lady puts clergy I know to shame.

There are no comforts in Milena's flat. Every square inch is devoted to dog care.

There are no comforts in Milena’s flat. Every square inch is devoted to dog care.

The kennels are another story. They’re gorgeous and glorious for dogs! They comprise six pens of varying sizes, each area securely fenced and complete with well-constructed and roomy dog houses elevated from the ground for warmth in winter and coolness in the summer. Mature trees tower over each section, and the grounds are an obstacle course of sorts with tree stumps, burrows, dens, and various other topographical features customized by the pooches. I remember how my Beasty loved to dig! I joked that he had various excavation projects happening all over our yard. He also had several dens built into bushes on the side of our driveway. (When our Golden Retriever joined the family, Beasty put an addition on the den structure so she could have her own. Seriously. It was hysterical.)

Milena's kennels are beautiful and set back deep into a forest so there are few neighbors to disturb.

Milena’s kennels are beautiful and set back deep into a forest so there are few neighbors to disturb.

Milena giving fresh water to the dogs. That black dog has a fantastic personality and is available for adoption!

I helped Milena haul bags of food to various feeding troughs, and she also had a massive cook pot set up over a makeshift fire pit. She had cooked rice and chicken the day before and allowed it to cool overnight. She mixed kibble into it in buckets and distributed it to all the pens. Then we changed water from massive plastic containers that have to be filled offsite and carried in. After that, we called it a day—but not before stopping at a rustic farmhouse in the area to visit with a nearby family who helps Milena care for the dogs, since they live on the mountain. The family served coffee and beer and cooked sausages. The hospitality was lovely, and though I couldn’t understand a word of Croat, I enjoyed listening to them chat for an hour. I love the unifying factor of laughter with knowing looks and smiles, communicating in broken English over the same scenarios every community worldwide finds amusing—the man of the house told his wife that maybe he would go to the U.S. With a grunt and dismissive wave of her hand, she encouraged him to do so. A neighbor who also stopped by asked me to adopt her along with a dog. We all laughed, and I said, “My plane is starting to get pretty crowded.”

Cottage of locals who shared coffee, beer, and sausages.

Cottage of locals who shared coffee, beer, and sausages.

Stop back tomorrow for Part III.


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Opinion

Destination, Sarajevo: A Volunteer Vacation Culminating in a Dog Adoption

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. June 24, 2019. If this idea of me doing a volunteer vacation sounds familiar, it’s likely because you’ve seen me mention it on social media or in my spring editor’s letter for The Jewelry Book magazine.

I've landed in Sarajevo!! The countryside is so pretty.

I’ve landed in Sarajevo!! The countryside is so pretty.

I landed in Sarajevo on Saturday morning after a decadent week of vacation in Naxos, Greece. I’m here in the former war-torn country to work; I’m helping Milena Malesevich, the founder of Saving Suffering Sarajevo Strays (SSSS), with some of the hands-on rescue work she does with the many street dogs that proliferate in the country. Most will remember that it experienced a brutal war in the mid-90s. It’s still mind-boggling to realize that a genocide occurred here not too long ago. In the aftermath, pets were, understandably, left to fend for themselves, as the people struggled—and still struggle—to rebuild their lives.

Milena Malesevic the Sarajevo street dog rescuer. Milena is the founder of Saving Suffering Sarajevo Stray.

Milena Malesevic the Sarajevo street dog rescuer. Milena is the founder of Saving Suffering Sarajevo Strays.

Local government is unable to properly manage the strays or their care, so this is why Milena stepped up to help 30 years ago. She also never left Sarajevo during the war, and evidence of that riddles the side of her apartment building in the form of bullet holes. She and the dogs had each other for comfort while unspeakable tragedies occurred around them.

This is why I’m here—the situation is dire still. There are no networks to help like there are in the U.S. Plus, our last dog, Beasty, was a street dog from West Virginia. Milena is one woman operating on donations for three decades, saving dogs that look exactly like the type my husband and I love: big shepherd mixes. Taking one dog from her will make a difference in her life in ways that we can’t begin to understand. I hope that this modest little spotlight cast on her from my position as a jewelry journalist can help lead to more resources and awareness for the situation.

A common sight in Sarajevo: abandoned puppies.

A common sight in Sarajevo: abandoned puppies.

Same puppies now in Milena's flat. They must remain here until they are big enough to be flown to the United Kingdom or elsewhere for adoption.

Same puppies now in Milena’s flat. They must remain here until they are big enough to be flown to the United Kingdom or elsewhere for adoption.

I became aware of Milena through Facebook (Facebook page Saving Suffering Sarajevo Strays Facebook page ) about six years ago. From a distance, I’ve watched her feed many a stray dog, take injured dogs to the vet, post receipts for dog food purchases and veterinary care, pack her flat full of dogs plucked from certain death on the streets, build dog sanctuaries in the countryside. I’ve watched as her volunteer network of helpers grew alongside of her on-the-ground efforts. Several documentaries (here and here) have been made about Milena, another one  features her, she’s been written up in numerous media outlets (here and here ), and her efforts have garnered the fundraising support of English actor Peter Egan. Yes, I’m aware of scammers abroad who play on the emotions of others, but this lady is not one of them. 

Peter Egan with Milena Malesevic

Peter Egan with Milena Malesevic


I’ve also watched as individuals from all over the world participated in volunteer vacations with her. Now it’s my privilege to be among them. By the time you read this, I’ll have spent the weekend doing heavy lifting at her kennels, feeding street dogs, scooping poop, and anything else that she asks me to do. I’ll also be choosing our next family dog. We’re seriously considering an oversize female (51 kilos!) or a sweet male who’s a bit smaller at about 30 kilos. Milena says the female’s personality is amazing, so we’re leaning towards her. Please check in with me on Instagram stories to see the work and the dogs. Click on my Sarajevo Stories Highlight to see the experience unfold.

Ivo is a male we're considering for adoption.

Ivo is a male we’re considering for adoption.

Elsie is a massive female we're considering for adoption.

Elsie is a massive female we’re considering for adoption.

Look who got a summer hair cut. I barely recognize her!!

This girl is BIG and sweet!!


Interested in helping? I hope so!!! The easiest way is to donate to a fundraiser that Jeff and I have organized for Milena. Find it on GoFundMe by clicking here. ANY AMOUNT DONATED is greatly appreciated. These funds are just for Milena’s rescue work, including food and veterinary care. She’s also in the early stages of planning to build a more formal kennel structure to house the dogs in inclement weather. Right now, the kennels are all outdoors with simple housing.
Interested in adopting a dog? You don’t have to fly here to get one. Milena and her helpers ship dogs all over the world. See the entire list of dogs available for adoption online.

Saving Suffering Sarajevo Strays helps street dogs

If you’ve read here to the end, thank you. Dog rescue and helping others who choose to do what is right when no one is looking are are two moves I’m passionate about. And while a three-day poop-scooping holiday is an unlikely way for powerful change to occur, who knows? I’ll chalk up this adventure to a baby step in Milena’s bigger picture of saving lives that are truly suffering in Sarajevo.


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