I’ve not yet told my (albeit, long) Albanian rescue dog story, and the month of Valentine’s feels like the perfect time to share. This is not just a ‘girl finds perfect pup’ love story. The number of loving humans who made this story possible is remarkable – I hope you’ll find it as uplifting as I do!
I’m an US expat, fortunate to have a job that allowed me to work remotely long before COVID19. During my travels, I met and fell in love with a Sardinian. I would spend 90 days in Sardinia, then travel to non-Schengen countries before returning to Italy. In early 2020, I decided to try Albania. It was close to Italy, affordable, and warmer than many other non-Schengen options. It seemed like a great choice and without much thought, I booked an Airbnb in Durrës, cried my goodbyes in Italy, and left for my 90-day stay.
I must confess I regretted choosing Albania almost immediately. Only now can I see it changed my life, for the better. Without my experience in Albania, I’m not sure I would have adopted Honey nor would I have (re-)found the animal rights activist sleeping inside of me.
But back to February 2020! Alone in Durrës, I would venture out and return, distraught. The number of miserable stray dogs was overwhelming. I felt helpless, hopeless, and I started staying in to avoid seeing them. This, of course, only made me feel worse. I’d explain the situation to friends. They would concur it was terrible and offer the typical response of “it’s because they are a poor country”. I’d reply, “But I’ve been to ‘poor’ countries, and they don’t speed up their cars to hit a dog; they don’t poison or kick them, at least not in plain sight. It’s different here. And, furthermore and more importantly, being poor doesn’t mean you need to be cruel.” But talking didn’t solve any of the problems I was seeing daily.
One day, I’d (finally) had enough. One of my favorite strays seemed worse than usual. I returned to my apartment and googled veterinarians and animal rights groups. I’d seen little ear tags on some of the strays so knew there was someone doing something in Albania. When I found JETA: Tier und Mensch on Facebook, I received an immediate response from the President, Jenny Hasanaj-Müller. I felt Jenny’s support and love as I relayed the dilemma, and instantly felt relief in her camaraderie. Next time I saw the dog, I should take a video and send it to her immediately so she could ascertain if they could assist. I promised to pay all medical costs.
And, so I did. Jenny sent a volunteer and the local vet partner to help transport the (pregnant!) dog to the vet since I had no car. This was the first time I met the great Elca Godina, a local animal activist and volunteer with one of the kindest hearts in Durrës, and Eror Zylyftari, a veterinarian who works countless hours to help the animals in Durrës.
Lady, as we started to call her, got the abortion and help she needed, and I pledged to go to the JTUM shelter in Durrës to volunteer. It was the least I could do.
When I went to the shelter, Sam Lopez, a fellow American expat and animal lover, showed me the facility and all the wonderful dogs. Sam went daily to feed the dogs at the shelter. Such commitment and generosity of spirit is surely special.
I went home that night after a long – but satisfying – day of scooping poop, picking up garbage, giving love and attention to 30+ dogs who needed it, and taking videos (the more people who see the situation via social media, the more likely we find homes, donors, and volunteers). I was exhausted but I knew I could do more. I’d wanted a dog for years but always had an excuse. “It’s not the right time.” “I travel too much.” “I work too much.” But I realized two things: (1) if you have love to give and are a committed, decent person, you’re far better than what these dogs have now (2) if we all did just a little bit more, the situation would be infinitely better. And I could do a little bit more.
I talked to my boyfriend, who had just lost his dog of 18 years, and asked what he thought about adopting. He immediately agreed (one of many moments that confirmed he was the right human for me!), but asked that it be a smaller one since his mom was scared of big dogs.
But…Lady was a big dog. How could I leave her? The unfortunate truth was I had no home. Though we had plans to live together, I was not legally able to stay in Italy. At the shelter, I met four smaller dogs. How can you possibly make that choice?
To be continued…