I am the new canine Angel of Romania: Appalled by the treatment of Romania's three MILLION stray dogs, LIZ JONES sets off on an extraordinary rescue mission
The smell is almost indescribable, assaulting the nostrils like acid. The noise is deafening. Numerous black noses are pressed up against wire.
There is no bedding on the concrete floor. I’m reminded of the film Midnight Express, given that it’s so dark, dank and unjust.
Up to eight dogs are in each cage – labradors, chihuahuas, alsatians, Border collies, mongrels – and I notice one small grey dog, obviously ancient, is very, very still. She is lying in cold water with a vivid wound from being spayed. At her age!
Savior: Liz Jones and K9Angel's Victoria Eisermann with Hilda, the dog she rescued and is set to adopt, in a state dog pound in Craiova, Romania
I summon the vet on duty at this state pound in the town of Craiova in deepest Romania. He is a hulk of a man – known locally as The Butcher – who has been trying to avoid having his photo taken, turning his back on us every time we attempt to get a shot of his blood-stained white coat. He picks up the small grey dog – who I can see by her cataracts must be blind – by one etiolated leg, and carts her off like a carcass.
I’m so worried he will put her down I chase after them into an even darker room.
She is shoved into a cage where she slumps, alone, dejected and humiliated, without bedding, water or food.
I tell the three women from Britain with whom I have travelled here – the three founders of the charity K-9 Angels – that we can’t possibly leave this little grey dog to her fate. I open her cage and scoop her up, wrapping her in a hoodie, thinking we might be able to smuggle her out.
I try to warm the little dog I’ve already named Hilda, while our interpreter – a 30-year-old local student called Madalina Nanu – haggles with the pound’s manager for my chosen dog’s liberation.
Hilda is just one of the three million stray dogs in Romania, turfed out of homes after the fall of the Iron Curtain and Ceausescu in 1989, when millions of people were relocated into high-rise flats.
This is a country that at the end of this year will enjoy full rights as a member of the European Union, its citizens able to travel freely to work in the UK.
I have never voted for UKIP – in fact I married a second-generation immigrant – but I find it puzzling a nation that clearly has no respect for animals is about to be welcomed with open arms.
K-9 Angels was set up in 2011 to help stray dogs in Eastern Europe, and dogs bred for meat in Thailand. It was founded by three determined women. One is Victoria Eisermann – a 42-year-old model most famous for her numerous, scantily clad demonstrations on behalf of People For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals and a brief, vegan appearance on Big Brother.
Then there are Anneka Tanaka-Svenska, a 39-year-old TV presenter, and Pola Pospieszalska, 32, a singer.
The trio, who live in the Home Counties, founded a wonderful charity that has rehomed 250 dogs to the UK and neutered another 300. It has also attracted a celebrity following, with Simon Cowell and Micky Rourke speaking up for it.
Canine care: Liz with K9 Angels Pola Pospieszalska, Victoria Eisermann, Namu Madalima and Anekka Svenska, holding dogs they rescued in Craiova
Romanian dog rescue volunteer Madalina Nanu is a law graduate who is now retraining as a pharmacist – as she has been unable to find a job. Madalina tells me she thinks Romania ‘does not deserve to be a member of the EU’.
‘There is so much corruption here,’ she says. ‘The way we treat animals is medieval. They are stoned in the street, people throw the puppies out, the dogs are beaten. I am ashamed’.
She is right: at a zebra crossing, a pregnant bitch crosses the road and a car swerves to deliberately try to hit her. I meet a black labrador, Blackie – housed temporarily in a K-9 foster home until she can be adopted in the UK – who was picked up after being beaten with an iron pole in the street. She is so traumatised, she has lost her bark.
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What does Madalina feel about the fact Romanians will be able to work in the UK?
‘The best people – vets, doctors, graduates – will leave, which means things will get worse.’
Will she leave, too? ‘I can’t leave the dogs, but I feel my life is already wasted.
‘The average wage here is €300 a month. I know I will never be able to own a home, or buy a car. A lot of my friends are depressed, stressed. Of course, most of them will go to the UK.’
Why the UK and not Spain, France or Germany?
‘We think the UK is civilised, it has culture. It’s where we all dream to live.’
I ask why conditions at the state pound we visit are so bad. She tells me it’s not the worst in the country. That, at another pound in the capital of Bucharest – which we were not allowed permission to even glimpse inside – dogs were so hungry they began to eat each other. Each town has a pound, but many dogs are simply pole-axed by wardens before they get there. Anything to get the problem off the streets. It would cost €11million to house Romania’s strays – money that is simply not available.
The Romanian press publishes propaganda, saying dogs taken to the UK are sold for meat.
All of which means the hostility we face as we cross the country in our mini van – and the Angels are nothing if not distinctive, with long blonde hair, spangled T-shirts and heels – borders on the combative.
As we stop for petrol, the girls spy a small black bitch and her three pups being hosed off the forecourt by a petrol pump attendant. He brandishes poles to hit them, causing the pups to flee dangerously near to a busy road.
run over to pick up the little family, screaming, hair extensions
flying, scooping them up despite the terrified puppies shredding their
hands – while the Romanian men stand around, spitting. These women are
nothing if not brave. ‘Oh, go and have a shower and a shave!’ Pola
screams at the men, clutching a squirming pup to her bosom, and for
once, I’m very glad the locals speak so little English.
The K-9 Angels charity contributed towards food at the pound in Craiova over this last harsh winter – when temperatures plummeted to minus 40C. The food undoubtedly kept many dogs alive but Madalina tells me much of it was sold by pound workers on the black market.
In this pound, dogs are spayed and neutered, then tossed back on to the street, still groggy and bleeding – they are not kept the required 11 days to recover. And why would Hilda, who is 12 years old and near death, have been spayed, too?
It transpires The Butcher, whose name is Dr Avram, is paid €4 per dog, so operates on as many as he can fit in a day – sometimes using dirty wire to secure wounds, turfing the dogs out without antibiotics or even proper sutures.
The day before I met Hilda, I had travelled with the Angels to see the conditions under which the street dogs of Bucharest live.
Homeless Hilda: Soon-to-be cared for by Liz Jones herself, Hilda is pictured in her cage as the girls from K9Angels found her
We went to a rubbish tip next to a railway line just outside Bucharest, where another volunteer, 24-year-old philosophy student Laura Fincu, lugs bags of dry food each evening.
She tries to stay with the packs of dogs as they eat, otherwise local residents emerge to shovel up the food to sell in markets.
The dogs are in various stages of decrepitude – many of the females have tumours emerging from their rear ends, caused by a sexually transmitted disease.
All are thin. Life expectancy is two to three years, as many get run over by cars or trains.
The K-9 Angels recently rescued one dog, Daisy, blinded when she was run over by a car causing her eyes to explode. She had also been set on fire at some point, leaving a scar on her back.
But now she is living happily in London.
One dog on the margins took my fancy: a gorgeous golden retriever who was too nervous to come over for food. He had a large wound on his neck, and not for the first time did I wonder why people in the UK buy pedigree dogs from breeders.
We telephoned for a vet, who offered to shoot the lab with a tranquilliser dart. He got very close, like David Attenborough stalking a leopard, but the dart fell out so the dog ran off, never to be seen again.
Every dog we fail to catch, or are forced to leave behind to its fate, feels like a tragedy.
But the street dogs at least have freedom, the chance to bask in the sun. Far worse was the private pound we entered on the pretext of wanting to buy a dog.
The pound was in a village called Chitila, in Bucharest’s Sector 1 district. Chitila is not a poor area by Romanian standards, but a wasteland of partly constructed buildings, slums and dirt roads.
TV star: Victoria Eisermann strikes a pose during her brief stint in Big Brother 2012
The pound is run by a Romany gipsy, an ethnic minority much discriminated against and despised. She showed us round in an almost proud manner, which made me wonder about her sanity.
The conditions were worse than at the state pound, with rampant parvovirus and distemper. The woman showed me inside one shed, which was completely boarded up.
At first, stooping to get through the hatch, I couldn’t see a thing. But as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, I could see eight large dogs hiding in the corner.
FOR two years they have been in the dark, in this stench. It was very hard to leave without them. But at least we saved Hilda. From the same pen, we also liberated Spotty Dog, a nervous bitch a few months old who reminded me of my four black and white rescued collies back home.
We also rescued a beautiful golden girl called Mabel, a dachshund-basset cross called Bobby – with an open wound where his testicles used to be – and Sad Eyes Angel, a nervous brown dog with a soft disposition and beautiful pointed face. Running from the state pound before the manager changed his mind, we bundled our five dogs into our waiting taxi – adding to the haul a litter of puppies who all clearly have parvovirus – and took them to the nearest vet.
I now know why these three women, with ordinary lives and families and rescued dogs of their own, are so passionate about what they do.
In a world where we all feel powerless to make a change, our small victory against the bullies and the greedy, against red tape and cruelty, is exhilarating.
Hilda is found to be suffering from hypothermia and polycystic ovaries – as well as being severely emaciated – and is immediately placed on a drip and heated pad.
The lovely private vet thinks Hilda would not have survived another night. Spotty has distemper, an infection and a raging temperature, but is otherwise OK.
Later that day, we go to the town hall to see the deputy mayor, Gheorghe Nedelescu.
As the Angels enter his office, all Vuitton handbags and eyelash extensions, he visibly swallows with trepidation. They really are a force to be reckoned with.
We tell him our findings. He promises to sack the Butcher vet within the month and to commit €1 million to building a new shelter. We shall see.
We tell him we’ll be back. If Hilda survives – and as I write this it’s touch and go as she is so depressed she is refusing to eat – she and Spotty will be coming to live with me in the Yorkshire Dales.
Mabel, Sad Eyes and Bobby will travel to the UK with them in a van in June – when they will all have a clean bill of health and doggy passports. Hopefully, they will be accompanied by a pair of hitchhiking baby goats who were about to be ritually slaughtered.
Mabel, Sad Eyes and Bobby, genuine asylum seekers all, desperately need new, loving, understanding homes.
But we cannot bring every one of the three million dogs to the UK, one by one. We need to force Romania out of the dark ages with new legislation encompassing animal rights.
If Romanians truly want to join Europe, they need to see the light. And bring those eight dogs out of the darkness, too.
lTo offer a home to Bobby, Mabel or Sad Eyes Angel – or to donate money to fund a neutering programme and to build a new sanctuary enabling the Dogs in the Dark to be liberated – visit www.k-9angels.org. You will also find a link to a petition, urging David Cameron to demand animal rights in Romania.
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