Love trumps everything: the duo bridge the ethnic divide with a shelter for stray dogs

Is there anything in the world that transcends the boundaries of ethnicities, nations and cultures? Well, yes, there is, namely: Love. This fact was proven once again as the unlikely duo of an Albanian and a Serb teamed up in Kosovo in their love for dogs as they began to run a shelter for abandoned dogs, linking two ethnic groups in a country that has always been cruelly divided. since a devastating war two decades ago.

Mistrust still undermines relations between the Albanian and Serbian communities, with no common language and ethnic tensions never very apparent.

But lingering mistrust did little to separate Mentor Hoxha, 55, the Albanian founder of the Pristina Dog Shelter, and Slavisa Stojanovic, his 57-year-old Serbian counterpart.

Their operation provides shelter for around 40 dogs in a handful of kennels sitting near farmland in Gracanica, a Serb-majority town near Kosovo’s capital Pristina.

“We are bound by our love of dogs,” Hoxha told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

The two have helped over 1,000 dogs since joining forces in 2010.

Typically, dogs are vaccinated and neutered before being released onto the streets, while puppies and other more vulnerable dogs stay at the shelter.

Hoxha and Stojanovic manage to place around 80 dogs a year with families across Western Europe.

Slavisa Stojanovic kisses a dog at the Prishtina dog shelter near the town of Gracanica, Kosovo, on November 12, 2021. (AFP photo)

The War on the Wanderers

Animal shelters are rare in this impoverished corner of southeastern Europe, where stray dogs have long plagued Kosovo’s towns and villages.

The numbers soared after the conflict between Serbian forces and Albanian guerrillas in the late 1990s saw abandoned pets spilling onto the streets as infighting displaced their owners.

To combat the problem, authorities in Kosovo offered hunters bounties to cull them – until a public outcry sparked by celebrities including French actress Brigitte Bardot stopped the culling.

But abandoned dogs still roam the streets of Kosovo, lounging near roundabouts and sleeping in public parks.

Following a series of dog attacks on children in 2017, the Kosovo government invested 1.3 million euros ($1.5 million) in a four-year sterilization program.

But around 10,000 dogs have yet to be neutered, leaving a lingering population of dogs on the streets.

Unwilling to help strays, Hoxha and Stojanovic channeled their love of dogs into creating one of the few shelters working with street dogs – and strangers marveled at their ability to overcome their ethnic differences.

“I find it strange when people ask about us. It’s completely normal for people to socialize. The war ended 20 years ago,” laughs Hoxha.

An estimated 13,000 people were killed in the 1998-99 war, which ended after a three-month NATO bombing campaign forced Belgrade to withdraw its troops and leave governance of the region at the United Nations.

Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, with around 100 countries recognizing it as a sovereign state, except for Serbia and its allies Russia and China.

A dog looks out from behind the fence of the Prishtina dog shelter near the town of Gracanica, Kosovo, on November 12, 2021. (AFP photo)
A dog looks out from behind the fence of the Prishtina dog shelter near the town of Gracanica, Kosovo, on November 12, 2021. (AFP photo)

puppy love

Hoxha suggested starting the shelter after a chance encounter with Stojanovic on the street, discovering that they shared a passion for helping abandoned dogs in their area.

“Mentor and I are alike in heart and soul, and in our love of animals,” Stojanovic says.

The shelter relies primarily on donations and an army of volunteers, with the lion’s share of their funds helping to cover vaccination and sterilization costs.

“Our project had a lot of impact on the situation, as well as on society’s awareness and attitude towards abandoned dogs – mainly the importance of sterilization,” says Hoxha.

Kosovo filmmaker and animal rights activist Hana Noka said more needs to be done in the country to raise awareness of the stray animal problem.

“There are stray dogs that live in horrible conditions and are left alone on the streets all year round. Most passers-by don’t even look at them,” Noka says.

Despite the difficulties and the permanent lack of funding, Stojanovic says he does not regret dedicating himself to stray dogs.

“If I did it again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I feel at home with the animals. I’m with the dogs all the time,” he says. “They show great love – they just don’t talk.”

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