Towards the end of last year, I spent quite a lot of time scrolling through Facebook looking for small charitable organisations to support as part of the upcoming Rescuemania venture. Specifically, independent charities which are run by people who have no government support or regular income to help them in their work.
That is when I came across a Facebook group called ‘Building a shelter’. Immediately this caught my eye – Rescuemania was founded on the belief that helping people to enable themselves is ultimately the best way to make long term change and this seemed like the kind of thing I’d been looking for us to get involved with. I contacted the administrator, Ewelina, who is a big rescue advocate, and she put me in touch with a woman who I came to realise was single handedly building her own shelter in Serbia.
I will always remember my first interaction with Tamara – her English was flawless, and she immediately sent me drawings, building plans and receipts for the work she was having done. She outlined her plans, to the minute detail of how many dog houses she wanted, what dimensions they would need to be, and how she envisioned the shelter to look. She wanted to achieve a safe haven for the stray dogs she cared for as soon as possible and was hoping to get all of this finished by December 2018.
As the months went on, Rescuemania was just getting started and only able to provide small amounts of money to fund a fence here or there or contribute to the ongoing pensions which she was still paying to keep some of the dogs safe in foster until she could complete their shelter. Tamara and I kept in touch, and as the Rescuemania team grew, we decided we’d like to visit Serbia to see her work firsthand and to support the finalisation of the shelter in whatever way we could. Our friends at R.A.L.F had also been in touch with Tamara and were keen to support her efforts, so come March 2019 three of the team packed up some of the donations we had collected and were on our way to Niš, the third largest city in Serbia.
Tamara herself is a force to be reckoned with. She has been rescuing dog for over 20 years, feeding the strays in the city, sending dogs for neutering and keeping almost 30 in her home with her. She has disabled dogs, playful dogs, scared dogs, shy dogs, abused dogs – including a pup who was raped by their owner. Tamara had been managing all this throughout the years alongside battling serious health problems and having limited money to feed herself, let alone her houseful of dependents.
Thankfully she is supported in Serbia by some great likeminded friends and her wonderful mother (whose cooking I still think about 1 month after our return to the UK!), as well as having virtual support from other dog lovers and rescuers in Europe and around the world. That said it is a lonely existence, to love and care daily in a harsh world which so often doesn’t understand.
We arrived in Serbia on a very sunny day and immediately were taken to meet Tamara’s dogs. We were all excited to be swamped by doggy kisses and we weren’t disappointed. We got kisses, we got hugs, we got shouted at too. It was wonderful to be back around so many rescued furbabies.
That evening we had a lovely chat, spent time learning about the dogs and Tamara’s plans for her shelter. 20 years of hard work has gone into learning how to rescue and care for the strays and this is the final piece of the puzzle.
We learnt that Tamara is one of the only rescuers in the area who has taken the exams and qualified for a licence to run a dog shelter and is in the process of registering as a charity. Each county is bound by law to ensure they make adequate provisions for their street dogs and this is for the safety of the residents as well as the dogs – countries which have laws governing animal welfare typically see less dog attacks, diseases and overpopulation. They also have better educated humans, children who grow to understand the importance of living as one with nature and treating other beings with kindness and compassion.
Day 1 ended sleepy and full of excitement for the week ahead.
The next day we headed into town and met some of the stray dogs which Tamara feeds and keeps a close eye on. These dogs seemed settled on their chosen street corners and all of them were so happy to see her. It was obvious that an amazing relationship had been built between them and their carer over the years.
The next step was shopping for the shelter and Tamara has put a lot of thought into how to make it secure and as private as possible for her and also for her surrounding neighbours. We bought trees to be planted and of course dog food, then headed off to get the all-important Charity registration completed. Shelter Zaza was becoming an official registered Serbian ‘Society’!
After the trip to town we visited Tamara’s dogs currently in foster care. Some were in homes and the foster families made us feel so welcome. Every home we went to in Serbia was so hospitable and nothing was too much trouble.
Tamara also has some dogs at a wonderful kennel called Pansion Veljkovic which we were able to spend the afternoon visiting.
The dogs seemed happy and the staff put so much time into making their surroundings clean, calming and comfortable. It is a family business and they have other animals here too which we briefly met. They also run a riding school.
It was great to meet the team and all the dogs, but we were aware it was a tense time for Tamara.
Finally, her dream was becoming a reality but she also knew she had a lot of opposition. Many people in parts of Eastern Europe don’t think street dogs should be helped or saved, and certainly don’t appreciate living alongside them. Although Niš itself has a reasonably good stray dog welfare policy and shelter (sponsored by a UK charity), the village where Tamara was building her shelter is no exception to the dismissive attitude towards strays.
Completing this registration pretty much alone, the tensions were high until she could safely get the dogs in their new home and once we’d finished visiting the lovely foster families, we all felt tired and more than ready for another wonderful meal made by Tamara’s Mum before bed!
Wednesday came and we began moving the dogs, 4 or 5 at a time. By the time we had moved the last dog, it was 8pm and they were all excitable, not to mention bewildered with their new location.
As expected, the people in the village did not welcome us with open arms and there was a lot of hostility. Tamara wouldn’t even translate what was shouted to her by one of the men, but she had the foresight to know she needed cameras and netting over the shelter to ensure no one could throw anything over the wall at her dogs.
Whilst she hadn’t had the time or money to get all of that in place before the moving in date, she was able to hire a night guard to watch over the dogs while we slept. Sadly, after night one he called to say the commute was too much and he wouldn’t be able to maintain the job.
The first night was indeed hard, the dogs barked most of the way through and although no one could have expected them to settle on day one, we could hear the neighbours hunting dogs roaming freely outside the gates all night, baiting our strays inside. We knew the next day would be difficult and awaited the arrival of the inspectors.
Day two at the shelter was sunny and much calmer. We cleaned, fixed sheets to the fencing to provide extra security and collected additional hay for the dog beds. The second night was much better as well and only one dog barked, the gorgeous Haidi, as it was her first night outside. Haidi was an absolutely beautiful girl who we had spent the night inside the home with when we first arrived; happy, playful, affectionate – we knew immediately that she deserved a loving home and hoped we could make that happen in the UK.
On day 3 at the shelter – Friday, our leaving day, the inspectors arrived. The neighbours had complained from the moment we moved in, which was unsurprising given a petition had been started a few weeks prior to our arrival with the dogs, simply at the idea of the shelter.
The dogs themselves were settling in remarkably well. One of the home owners near Tamara’s house (who doesn’t use his Village house as his main residence) visited his property simply to stand out on his balcony riling the dogs whilst filming on his phone, but once he left they were silent and happy again throughout the day and Tamara worked hard to make them comfortable and calm. They began to adapt, and it was lovely to see them playing together and finding their own spots to lay in the sun. Even the inspectors noted how quiet and well managed the shelter was. Although we couldn’t understand what was being said, it seemed to be going well.
Then Tamara returned to the house and delivered the bad news; she and her dogs faced a 15-day eviction order, unless she could successfully appeal to the council.
We were shocked and speechless – all of the hard work; the fundraising by supporters and of course Tamara’s dedication in studying for the licences, organising the build and getting everything in place, how could she now be evicted by a handful of complaints after 3 days? None of this was fair, but we had a plane to catch and so we hugged Tamara tightly and told her to stay strong, then started our journey home with a plan to help her appeal this awful decision.
We wrote a petition at our layover in Bratislava and began sharing, getting international support for Tamara’s shelter. We got almost 1000 signatures in 48 hours which, although left with a long way to go, hopefully gave her some hope that she could fight the council and have support from many fellow dog lovers around the world.
As Tamara continued to work at the shelter and move some of the more excitable dogs into foster, we continued to work on the admin side to gather support. One morning she told us that someone had thrown a chicken with a rope around its neck over her fence and she feared for her dogs. We too feared for them all.
Over the next couple of weeks, between R.A.L.F and Rescuemania we were able to do some fundraising to ensure she had some money as a backup plan should she need to urgently move her dogs. Tamara told us that the neighbours continued to shout threats and they had called a news crew to come and film. However during the filming, the neighbours became so agitated they threw stones at Tamara and the crew, hitting a cameraman.
At this point we began to wonder how much she could take and how it could get worse. This didn’t prepare us for the awful news the following morning however – poison had been thrown over the fence during the night and 3 of the dogs were dead, with 2 more severely ill. Gorgeous, innocent and loving girls Bella and Debbie, as well as our beautiful girl who we had so much hope for, Haidi, had eaten the poison and passed away in the night. Pufta and Loki were sick, but the vet was able to give them treatment and they were still holding on.
For me, no matter how much I see of what happens in the world, it is very difficult to comprehend when we hear that humans have poisoned cats and dogs. Of course, atrocities against animals exist everywhere and the realisation of how sentient pets, wildlife and farming animals are is a key driver for why more and more people are turning to a vegan lifestyle. But still, there is still something incomprehensibly evil about being able to casually poison man’s best friend out of ignorance and spite.
Maybe selfishly, it felt worse still to know it had been dogs I had spent time with and cared for, if only for one week. I can’t imagine how Tamara felt having cared for these dogs since they were pups and having put so much on the line for them, her beloved fur family.
Certainly, there is a personal connection for all of us at Rescuemania and R.A.L.F and we can’t scroll past or push this to one side. While Tamara continues to fight the council for a safe space for her dogs and sees through the process of establishing what happened to her dogs that night, some of her UK and European supporters have set up a gofundme for her and I know she will be feeling the love from all of the people who believe in what she is doing.
UPDATE: On the day of publishing this blog, Tamara told us that her home itself had been vandalised, with stones being thrown through her window, smashing the glass.
If you haven’t yet signed, you can find here petition here:
We will continue to fight for her in the only way we know how – by making our voices heard and raising awareness, funds and as much moral support as we can for an amazing lady, doing an amazing job against all the odds.