Opinion

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

Elsa the rescued Sarajevo street dog

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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