Animal Spay and Neuter International travelled to south Bulgaria for their next campaign. Joining forces with Castaway Lucy of Dogs Of the Ghetto:
“Before hearing about ASNI, my tiny outfit, Dogs Of the Ghetto had arranged 50 spay/neuters, over the course of a year. D.O.G helps people with little themselves to care for their dogs, providing food, kennels and medicine. Education about what dogs need to be healthy and happy, is also offered. But puppies are often dumped among the Roma, – children as young as two given them like sweets. Those which survive, go on to breed. Alone, we could not keep up. Then, thanks to friend’s tip, I contacted Nancy Janes, and suddenly, ASNI was coming!”
“I’m a travel writer, specializing in remote islands and a hermit-lifestyle. I’d never organized a big event. All at once, it seemed, I must find a venue where up to 150 animals could be spay/neutered; find hundreds of blankets for them and organize a tombola to encourage people to bring their pets. There were posters to design and print; babywipes, basins, buckets and brooms to buy. Plus, accommodation for ASNI needed to be found. My brain fizzed. What would the team eat? How could funds be raised to pay a translator? What if the Bulgarian authorities baulked”
“I flew around in an ancient car driven by a shepherd to meet village Mayors, and took my horse and cart to reach off road parts of ghettos, handing out flyers and – with help from D.O.G.’s Roma helper, Tosho – explaining why spay/neuter is a good thing. There were hungry dogs in bad condition everywhere, with enlarged teats suggesting recent litters. There was skepticism (‘Why not just throw puppies away?’) but there was also curiosity.”
“Support for ASNI’s visit from local leaders varied, at first, from shrugs to tepid interest. So I was thrilled when the Mayor of an ideally located village not only offered a venue for the Spayathon, but also said he’d bring his own dog for an op., to set an example, and send people house to house drumming up interest.
“The venue was a challenge; a co-operative built during the communist years, currently used to house tractors. It was vast and airy, but far from a sterile environment. Unemployed men and women from my local ghetto, however, leapt at the chance to transform the place. Sheets were hung on damp-stained walls and the floor of the room to be used for surgery swept, scrubbed and sealed with polythene. Basins blackened with sludge from engine oil were scoured almost white by Roma ladies, while their men-folk shifted barrow-loads of trash and cleared a space outside, where owners could wait under a parasol. A fridge for donated vaccines was found, and a cart crammed with every loose table and chair I could commandeer. Roma friends provided colorful rugs for an improvised dining area for ASNI, and, magically, the friendly Mayor produced six enormous screens to demarcate operating areas.”
“In the ghetto where D.O.G works, Tosho went from one humble dwelling to the next, urging owners to prepare clean quarters for their pets post-surgery, and instructing them not to feed them on the day. We engaged horses and carts to bring outlying patients to a central area where they could be picked up by our ‘fleet’ of two cars (lined with polythene and cotton sheets) for onward transportation to the Spayathon village. Tosho and I had long lists of which dogs could travel with which other dogs; which might fight; which might need a muzzle and which had been vaccinated. We prepared 60 dogs and puppies we knew well, having worked with many from birth.”
“The 3 short days of the Spayathon passed in a whirl. As the team left Romania at 5 a.m on the first day, I was starting my daily routine of feeding, exercising and cleaning-up-after the 37 dogs and cats on my home patch. Tosho was active by 6.00 in the ghetto, checking that every dog there had access to clean water and that horses were harnessed and car drivers had remembered this was the big day.
ASNI needs ‘taxis’at Spayathons – people to carry patients for shaving, onto the operating table, and then to the recovery room. Tosho’s kindly father fitted this role, as did Kolyo, a formerly homeless man who’d built himself a one-roomed shack and close by, a dog shelter where he looks after pups for D.O.G. Tosho’s mother was employed to cut up blankets, mop up doggy pees and wash surgical instruments.”
“Had an arial shot been taken of the scene in the Spayathon village when everyone arrived at the Mayorial buildings at 8.30 a.m. – ASNI in their signature red van; our translator, the Mayor, the Roma team and, finally, me with the first 3 patients – the co-ordination would have looked impressive. But only minutes before, there’d been no electricity to the operations venue. And no water. Welcome to the Balkans!
There was still no water when the team started setting up, but they carried on unfazed and there was a wonderful moment, for me, when the electrifying Dr Aurelian Stefan, who’d been shocked by a photo I’d sent him of the proposed operating theater in its original grim condition, stated decisively that he liked the place and that the – transformed – room for surgery was (emphatically) OK.
I don’t recall the precise time the first patient was anaestheticized, but I do know it was Darling – a Karakachan-cross adolescent rescued from a yard where the bodies of her siblings had been left to rot. Then there was Chorap, a grown pup who’d been crippled with Rickets when small, and Chance and Hope, whom D.O.G. had taken from their owner as he was about to put them in a cart, to ‘throw them away’. ”
“The two drivers I’d commissioned from the ghetto were sent out like missiles, targeted on the next patients to bring to the Spayathon. We expected patients from elsewhere too, and a rickety table covered with a sheet was set up as a desk to receive them, a lady from my village manning it. Each dog was given a wool collar with a punched card bearing his patient number, which was also the owner’s tombola ticket.
On the first two days, few came from other villages, but Tosho and I kept ASNI busy with ghetto dogs. There were hiccups: a dog due for spay vanished with a herd of cows; others couldn’t be caught; I checkéd that all dogs in the ghetto not due for an op. had drinking water, but failed to top up the Dr A and his team’s supply. Then puppies climbed into my lap when I was bringing lunch (and more water), by car, sending Bulgarian pastries flying. More seriously, a puppy so dehydrated was brought in for spay, that Dr A. suspected Parvo Virus. My Bulgarian vets provided a Parvo test, (thankfully, negative) and two of their colleagues arrived to lend a hand – and witness the impressive sight of ASNI at work.”
“I was proud of my own small team, too, who learned fast what was required of them. But it became noticeable that, when Tosho and I were not supplying patients, there was never a queue from elsewhere. During the 3 days, only a handful came, and most of those only after a car was sent out scouting. This was disappointing, but Bulgarian villagers won’t change their attitudes to cats and dogs overnight. The history of the country – 500 years under Ottoman rule, then the communist years during which pets were actively discouraged – has left Bulgarians with more respect for working animals than domestic ones. And it should be remembered that Bulgaria is the poorest of all the countries in the EU. Few can afford spays and neuters, so the habit hasn’t caught on. With ASNI now helping for free, there’s no excuse, but patience will be needed to bring Bulgaria fully on board.”
“In terms of a dent made in the future population of dogs in my immediate area, the Spayathon was immensely helpful. There were key canine players I’d have liked to bring from yards producing scores of puppies, many only to starve, but I’ll just keep working on the owners, until next time ASNI comes. Because, heroically, they’ve offered to return.
But the most exciting development, in my view, to emerge from ASNI’s first visit, is the possibility of seminar being set up, where Bulgarian vets could learn the team’s state-of-the-art spay/neuter techniques. ASNI can’t be everywhere all the time. But if seeds of change are sewn among Bulgarian vets, many more animals could be helped in the future.”
“Thank you, faithful facebook friends of Castaway Lucy and Dogs Of the Ghetto, for providing the means to welcome ASNI. And thank you, ASNI, for not only performing your wonders in our particular situation so efficiently and endearingly – but also leaving hope for real change in the bigger picture, over time.”
Castaway Lucy of Dogs Of the Ghetto