Kosovo, Dogs, the March Riots, and a Lesson From Puerto Rico (Or, WTF!?)

You are probably reading the above headline and wondering, “Cheeseburger, what the f#$k are you talking about?”  Cut me a little slack and read on.

Kosovo has a stray dog problem.  After the conflict in 1999, many dogs were abandoned. True to Darwin’s theory of evolution, mostly the strong survived, and many reproduced unchecked. When Kosovars returned, it didn’t take long for them to notice gangs of dogs walking around looking for some trouble and some food. It is thus not surprising that Kosovo dogs quickly took on a bad reputation . . . akin to the Shadowman or an evil monster that lives in your closet at night. images.jpegHow to convince a kid to eat his vegetables?  Tell him if he doesn’t, the “dogs” will get him.  You will have your kid eating his carrots and sprouts in no time.  Indeed, if you were to walk a dog with a leash in Kosovo — even now — you’d be looked at the same way that someone looks at a circus performer. In Kosovo, unlike the U.S., the dog is not king.

Unfortunately, the dog’s vile position in Kosovo’s social ladder made a sensational lie turn into an idiotic rumor that turned into a senseless and vile example of ethnic nationalism. Back in March 2004, a sensational lie was born by a young Albanian boy and his family. He said Serbians had chased his three friends into a water filled pit and that they had drowned.  Although the death was ruled accidental and that there was no Serbian involvement, the original lie was quickly picked up by the community and then by an irresponsible press. It turned into an idiotic rumor that Serbians with dogs had chased Albanian children into a water pit and the kids had drowned.  Dogs!  The lowest of the low.

What happened after that was despicable. Albanian mobs gathered, torched and pillaged Serbian villages and churches, and beat and killed several Serbians (at least 19 killed) who were too old to protect themselves. It took about 2 days for the U.N. and KFOR to get things under control. Even now, the United Nations is still investigating the March 2004 riots.

Surely, the sensational rumor was not helped at all by the addition of “dogs” to the equation. Dogs strike a bad chord with most of the Kosovar-Albanian population. The person or persons who added the dog element to the rumor certainly knew what they were doing. Fast forward to today. How are Kosovo’s homeless dogs treated? Well, ask the dogs . . . if you can approach one.  Most of them run away at the sight of a human.  Trying to find a vet in Kosovo?  There’s only one in Kosovo’s largest city, Pristina.  Trying to find a kennel? Good luck. There’s only 1 in all of Kosovo, near the airport. Dogs are not welcome in Kosovo.

What has Kosovo done to control the homeless dog population? Spaying or neutering? Capturing them and then euthanizing them? No, that is obviously too difficult and would show too much compassion.

About every month at around 2:00 a.m., you will hear gunshots. You may think there is a war or gang violence going on outside your house. But although those from Serbianna.com would have liked that to happen to support their view that Kosovo is one big gangland run by Muslim extremists, Serbianna is not so lucky, and neither are the dogs.  

Kosovo and KFOR have instituted an “official” dog eradication program, where about every month, several hundred dogs are summarily shot. They give a few euros to local hunters for every dog shot. This is certainly a gruesome policy, particularly when I am told that the United Nations Department of Administration proudly sends Mission-wide emails announcing how many dogs were “terminated” the night before.

There are numerous problems with this program. First, it’s brutal. Instead of focusing on birth control and humane ways of controlling the population, KFOR advertises a free for all turkey shoot for any knuckle-head with a gun.  Hey, you’ve got a licensed rifle? Come out Thursday night and shoot some dogs baby! We’ll give you a few euros, too, to top it off!  Indeed, similar to a Dostoyevsky quote, how a society treats its animals is a looking glass into how it treats its citizens. And, what kind of dogs are being shot?  I tell you its not the mean ones.  It’s the friendly ones that are going to approach a person at 2 am with a gun.  So what kind of dogs is Kosovo sustaining?  Mean dogs. Ironic.

Kosovo has a laundry list of issues it has to deal with as it makes its way forward as an independent country. The economy, good governance, quality of life, the justice system . . . to name a few. Dealing with the homeless “dog issue” is likely on the low end of the totem pole, if it’s even on there at all.  But, in the end, the homeless dog issue should be handled in a better way than it is now. Maybe the first thing Kosovo can do is take animal control out of the hands of KFOR.  

As it stands now, the “shoot the dog policy” is one that will likely bite Kosovo in the behind as its economy develops.

Just ask Puerto Rico.    

This much seems certain about the events of last October at three housing projects in this town near Puerto Rico’s northern coast: Men working for the municipality entered the projects, rounded up dozens of dogs and cats that they said violated the housing authority’s no-pets policy and took them away. What happened next is less clear, but a lawsuit filed on behalf of 33 families claims that city employees and contractors drugged and brutalized dozens of animals and then flung them from a 50-foot-tall highway bridge into a weed-choked ravine and left them to die.

Witnesses say they found a pile of dog corpses and skeletons beneath the bridge, but the contractors have denied wrongdoing and city officials have denied responsibility. News of the event became an international embarrassment for Puerto Rico and something of a vindication for animal rights advocates here and on the United States mainland who had long tried to draw attention to the plight of animals on the island. Animal rights advocates contend that the inhumane disposal of animals was routine, with unwanted dogs, cats and even farm animals hurled from bridges, intentionally crushed by vehicles or butchered with machetes. Government nonchalance, they say, has allowed this to go on.

But only with the Barceloneta case, they say, did anything start to happen. It spurred threats of a tourism boycott, inspired the government to begin addressing more forcefully the issue of animal welfare and precipitated soul-searching among the Puerto Rican people. “In our culture we have not addressed these issues because, probably, we did not think they were important,” said Carlos M. Carazo, director of the animal disease division of Puerto Rico’s State Office for Animal Control, in an interview in San Juan last month. “In Puerto Rico, we have so many issues to address, we haven’t had the leisure time to think about animals. But this is probably the time to start thinking about it.”

Puerto Rico, among United States territories, has long had a poor international reputation for the treatment of animals. There is no government program for mass sterilization or registration of pets and little animal welfare education in the schools. The island has only about a half-dozen animal shelters, and while municipalities are charged with rounding up strays, that duty has largely been ignored, government officials and animal advocates say. Puerto Rican pet owners will often dump unwanted animals along roads or on beaches, animal advocates say. Roaming packs of mangy dogs are common in many towns.

One of the most notorious dumping grounds is a spit of land on the southeastern coast near the town of Yabucoa. It is known as Dead Dog Beach. According to animal welfare advocates, thousands of dogs have wound up there in the last decade. “I’ve found dogs poisoned in the bushes,” said Sandra Cintron, 37, an animal rescuer who lives in Yabucoa and drives to the beach every morning with a sack of dry food and jugs of fresh water for the shifting population of abandoned animals. “Sometimes they put them in bags and toss them in the jungle.”

Ms. Cintron, whose volunteer work is supported by several Puerto Rican and international animal welfare groups, has been tending to the stray dogs at Dead Dog Beach since 2001. She has taken hundreds to be neutered and has found homes for dozens. She has named them all and keeps photographs of them in albums. Animal rights groups say that over the years they have been inundated with letters and e-mail messages from tourists offended by the stray dog problem. A 2002 study by the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association estimated that the stray animal problem was costing the commonwealth about $5 million a year in lost tourism. “Numerous groups and conventions have canceled plans to hold meetings in Puerto Rico after observing the stray dog and cat situation,” the report said. Still, it was five years before the government acted.<

“In Puerto Rico, nobody has taught our culture animal control and protection concepts,” said Mr. Carazo of the animal control office, which was formed last year. “We are now beginning to address those issues.” Since the Barceloneta case, the animal control office has accelerated new regulations and guidelines for animal control specialists, shelters and law enforcement agencies on how to manage strays, adoptions, spay clinics and licensing. Completion of the guidelines will result in the disbursement of $1.5 million in seed money to establish animal shelters in each of the commonwealth’s 78 municipalities, said Wilma Rivera, executive director of the office.  The government has also created a program to educate two police coordinators in every region, who will train the rest of the police force in the proper handling of pet cruelty cases. 

The commonwealth’s tourism agency has also formed a committee to push for more government action, complementing an animal welfare committee that operates under the auspices of the hotel and tourism board. Meanwhile, a group of lawyers is drafting more comprehensive animal protection legislation with stiffer penalties. Still, animal welfare advocates are concerned that as the Barceloneta case wanes, the government’s interest may flag. But Edilia Vazquez, director of the Save a Sato Foundation, said the Barceloneta case has unified the once-fractured animal welfare community

“We realize we need to work with each other and keep the finger in the side of the government,” Ms. Vazquez said.

The above-quoted article was published by the New York Times and can be found here.