BELGRADE – A video of a Bosnian girl tossing puppies into a fast-flowing river caused international outrage last month; earlier in the year there was the case of a dog found in Serbia with her paws cut off.
There are other incidents — from tails hacked off strays to bears being forced to dance — to illustrate startling cruelty towards animals in the Balkans, where having pets was frowned on in the Communist era.
The Balkans are “victims of a traditional primitivism”, said Velimir Ivanisevic of the Sarajevo-based Animal Protection group SOS, describing an “inappropriate attitude” towards animals in the region.
The footage of the teenage girl casually taking squealing puppies out of a bucket and hurling them one by one into the river was all over the internet. Authorities tracked her down but it is unclear if she will be charged.
The case of the one-year-old dog discovered terrified under a car in a Belgrade suburb in April with her paws sawn off caused similar outrage. The stray, later named Mila, became a cause celebre and local media and businesses rallied to raise money for her care. After months of treatment, she has started to walk on her bandaged stumps.
“Such blatant violence shocked even those who have never thought of animals and this is the only positive outcome from this disaster,” said psychologist Nadezda Markovic. Police opened an investigation but, almost six months later, no one has been made accountable.
“It is often said, not only in Serbia, that violence against animals is not a big problem as long as there are people who are hungry or mistreated,” said Markovic. “But the difference is that in Serbia, brutal torture and mistreatment of animals is socially acceptable.”
Belgrade Mayor Dragan Djilas has taken up Mila’s cause, and vowed strict monitoring of her future owner to be chosen by a panel of veterinarians, animal rights activists and city representatives. “We have no way of fighting against sick minds who cut off dogs’ paws … We also need to raise awareness among adults who must take part in preventing monstrous acts such as this one,” Djilas said.
Education is one way to confront cruelty to animals but so is cracking down with the full force of the law — something that is not happening, according to Ivanisevic, from Bosnia’s SOS rights group: “We have to raise younger generations with a right attitude, while with older ones … we can fight only with fines. ”
Bosnia adopted an animal protection law in 2009, allowing for fines for torturing animals from 15 to 5,000 euros (19 to 6,400 dollars) or prison terms of up to six months. But since then only one sentence has been delivered, said Ivanisevic, a 1,500-euro fine for a hunting association engaged by local authorities to kill stray dogs in a small town in Bosnia.
Officials said the men had overstepped their orders; unofficial reports said they had cut off the dogs’ tails to brag about their hunt.
In Serbia animal rights group Orka has pressured the authorities for years to become more involved in animal care, its campaign leading to strict protection laws in 2006 and the setting up of council-run shelters. Several dozen fines have been issued but only two jail terms: two men were sentenced to two months for torturing bears by chaining them and forcing them to dance, and a third was given three months for shooting dead a neighbour’s dog.
“But no one has served their terms yet,” Natasa Biorac of Orka said.
Serbian laws may be strict but they mean nothing without the will and manpower to enforce them, said activist Verica Mijic, who is pushing for the establishment of special animal police units within the police.
“We launched a petition on Facebook and in only one week, we had 12,000 people supporting our cause,” she said.
It is a similar story across the Balkans. “Most Balkan countries have introduced animal protection laws but they are largely just on paper only,” said Serbian activist Dragana Lucic.
Croatia has sentenced one man to jail for animal abuse — he beat his dog to death because it whined and was friendly to passers-by. In Montenegro an animal protection law was introduced in 2008 but no one has been charged under it. It is fairly common to find newborn puppies in bags, or thrown in the river, activists said. Macedonia has had legislation against animal cruelty since 2008, but there are still monthly cases of mass poisoning of strays in the capital Skopje. Albania is yet to adopt an animal protection law and veterinarian Ilir Kusi said that “without it, it is normal to abuse and mistreat the animals.”
But he noted that more and more families are keeping pets, especially in towns, a relatively new custom after the fall of communism in the early 1990s.
“Communist propaganda described keeping the pets in towns as a bourgeois habit, inappropriate with its ideology,” Tirana’s University professor Artan Ligori explained.