Animals are integral to the Albanian way of life. Cows, donkeys, horses, pigs, goats, turkeys and sheep are everywhere and not just in rural areas.
Donkeys and horses are used in place of tractors and trucks can be seen working in paddocks or pulling carts of crops, machinery, rubbish or people through the streets. In smaller towns and country areas I often saw people sitting in a paddock keeping watch on their sheep, goats, turkeys or pigs and most families have at least one cow to supply the household with milk.
But these animals have value. They are important in a country where most people can’t afford machinery and transport. Households make their meager incomes stretch by being as self-sufficient as possible and something as simple as home-made cheese helps.
Dogs, unfortunately, do not.
I’d heard about the poor treatment of dogs in Albania before I saw it. I mentioned how some of the dogs I’d come across seemed scared of people and was told that it wasn’t uncommon for people to entice a dog close with food and then kick it in the stomach. Anyone who has lived in Albania will have a horror story you don’t want to hear.
On the bus ride from Sarandë to Vlorë I saw a man on the road pelt bricks at three dogs. The dogs ran away, but the man followed them throwing more things at them.
It’s rare for Albanians to keep dogs as pets, or keep any pets at all. It’s partly because most families don’t have money or food to spare, but it’s also cultural. Many Albanians feel about dogs and cats the way most people in more developed countries feel about rats and mice. Dogs are considered dirty, disease-ridden and are treated accordingly.
This is one of the reasons the work done at Protect Me Organisation for Animal Protection in Albania is so impressive.
“A dog shelter? In Albania?” was a common reply when I told other people in Albania where I’d been. The concept is quite literally unheard of here.
When my CouchSurfing hosts in Vlorë, Shira and Assaf, told me they volunteered at a dog shelter I asked if I could visit.
The number of stray dogs I’d seen in Albania was depressing. In Theth a very skinny dog often hung around at meal times, but it was terrified of humans and took a lot of coaxing to come close enough so I could slip it some of my dinner. I hated thinking about what had made that dog so afraid of people. I’ve grown up with pets and animals as part of my family and it broke my heart to see so many hungry, hurt and scared dogs. If there was something positive being done about this, I wanted to see it.
It was a stray dog called Johnny that motivated founder Liljana to open the shelter. Johnny started following Liljana when she was taking her dog for a walk in June 2012. She fed him and gave him a new home on a block of land owned by her husband’s construction company. Protect Me Organisation for Animal Protection in Albania was born.
The shelter now has pens, kennels and a building with examination and treatment rooms. When I visited about 30 dogs were calling it home. It’s probably the first any of them have had. Liljana knows of only two similar shelters in Albania, both of which are in the capital, Tiranë.
Most of the dogs here were found on the street by Liljana or her friends. A few weeks ago a box with six puppies was left outside the shelter, which is both sad and encouraging. It is astonishing that someone thought to bring the litter there. The puppies were three weeks old when I visited, although only three had made it that far.
I had a cuddle, which was going very well until one of them peed on me before my three-hour bus ride to Elbasan. The puppies were lying together in a basket when I picked one up. She was so lively and curious – licking my face, sucking my fingers and burying herself into me. So desperate for love.
Can something break your heart and warm it at the same time?
They are too young to be without a mum and while Liljana is doing everything she can, she’s worried the milk she feeds them isn’t a good enough substitute. It’s still early days.
I just kept thinking how the puppies deserved a family that will love them and care for them, just like my dogs had.
There were four other dogs inside, including a recent addition that was still very shy around people. The Tiranë shelter, which can only take 25 dogs at a time, sent Liljana a dog whose bones are so weak it can barely stand. It was curled up in an armchair in the sun.
Liljana has vets come to the shelter to treat the dogs, but the vets in Albania are not really at the standard I’d expect or hope for. I doubt they’d be interested in doing pro-bono work and the shelter relies on donations. Everything else comes from Liljana’s pocket.
Most of the dogs live outside where the well-behaved “grown ups” are separated from the more rowdy, younger dogs. A couple of them are known to get a bit aggressive and are kept tied up most of the time, but the rest have a lot of space to run around.
They love people and were jumping all over us when we arrived. It was such a contrast to the timid, scared dogs I’d seen in Albania so far. It’s amazing what a bit of love and attention (and food) can do.
Liljana is at the shelter full time and helped by volunteers. They are currently building more kennels and hoping to have them finished before winter. Liljana’s ultimate goal is for the dogs to be adopted and she’s had a lot of success, but the shelter is a teeny tiny step in addressing a country-wide problem. There are so many obstacles and the biggest of all is the attitude of many Albanians. The adoptions and the fact the puppies were brought here show that something is changing, but it will be a long road.
I don’t know how many dogs have passed through Liljana’s shelter, but I have no doubt that most of them wouldn’t be alive now without it.