Flooded with stray dogs, Serbia struggles to cope

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 24, 2011; 5:35 AM

BELGRADE, Serbia -- Small and cuddly or looking like wolves, curled in filthy makeshift cages or roaming the streets in packs: Stray dogs are everywhere in Serbia, a country where even people struggle with hunger and have little sympathy for animals.

The numbers are staggering, fueled by years of war, poverty and the lack of any government strategy to neuter or control strays.

In the capital Belgrade, strays have doubled in recent years to about 15,000, according to government estimates - a huge burden for a city of only 2 million. In contrast, Moscow has five times more people and about 26,000 stray dogs.

"There are more and more dogs out there every day," says Jelena Jankovic, whose Center for Mixed Dogs group has run a small shelter in Belgrade since 1996.

While there are no exact figures for the rest of Serbia, officials estimate there could be around 50,000 dogs out there, many facing hunger, cold, diseases, harassment and sometimes unimaginable cruelties.

Officials who had been preoccupied with postwar and global economic issues have been forced to announce urgent measures to try to deal with the problem of strays.

"We must attack this from all sides," said Predrag Petrovic, who heads the newly formed special commission addressing the issue in Belgrade. "We have a difficult task ahead of us."

"We are all responsible for such an immense number of abandoned animals," says Budimir Plavsic, senior official at Serbia's agriculture ministry.

The scope of the problem was highlighted by a tragedy earlier this month, when a woman who single-handedly ran a makeshift dog shelter in northern Serbia died in a fire. She left behind about 500 dogs and 60 cats who are now in the hands of local authorities.

At the shelter, 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Belgrade, hundreds of dogs are fenced off amid debris and mud, chewing at raw meat leftovers provided by food factories. Local officials and animal rights activists said it could take months before the dogs are resettled.

"They have no one now to take care of them," gasped Kristina Paskaljevic, an animal protection activist whose SOS Animals group has helped many of Serbia's strays.

Serbia - like the rest of the Balkans - has a poor history of animal welfare and protection, and over the years reports have emerged of dogs being brutally executed.

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