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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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