We were up with the lark again and left Claudia's house at 7am. It is around a three hour drive from Bucharest to Craiova and we needed to be there by 11.... it takes us forty minutes to get from Claudias through Bucharests heavy traffic. 40km out of Bucharest we stopped for snacks... again a move that stood to change some of the course of our trip, and in particular our 'dog free' Thursday!
As we drove into the gas station there was two little dogs on the forecourt, a black and a black and tan. As we parked and walked towards the shop there was a battered looking white dog curled up on the right hand side of the doorway. We bought food for us and sandwiches for the dogs and fed them outside. When the white dog stood up it was very apparent that her state of health was poor. Her coat was dull and filthy and she had large bald and sore patches... she was not a young dog. Claudia spoke to the gas station staff and asked if it would be acceptable for us to return for them the next day and was told that they would be very happy for us to do that, as they are forbidden from feeding them and could be fined for doing so. In the meantime we were finding that the black dog was a boy and a proper clown, he jumped from one of us to the other delighted to be cuddled and carried... the black and tan one stayed out of reach and we knew catching her the following day would be tricky but we were determined that nobody would get left behind. We were told to ignore them as we walked away and got back in the car because we didn't want them following us into the heavy traffic.
Our journey continued uneventfully to Craiova. We arrived at the apartment of Ali, a rescuer in Romania that works very closely with Maxine. It's hard to explain how we feel about these connections. In many cases they are people we have never met but working with them for months and even years leaves us feeling like they are as close to us as immediate family. When we do finally meet them it doesn't feel like a first encounter at all, our lives are so entwined and the work we do so highly charged with emotion that its almost like we can read each others thoughts. There is much hugging and happy tears and we are welcomed into Ali's apartment where she feeds us cakes and drinks and we wait for Alina to arrive. In the apartment there are two dogs that need to come to the UK at some point, both very shy. We have to be at the public shelter shortly as we are aware it closes at 2pm, so we leave shortly after.
Before arriving at the public shelter we stop to feed a mum with a litter of pups that look about 6 weeks old. The pups are delighted to see Ali and Alina as she empties out a bag of food for them... the mother dog is suspicious and barks at us furiously but keeps a safe distance away. The area is wasteland, there is a derelict building that provides shelter when needed, they are safe here but it is still very strange to walk away from the family and leave them there, it doesn't feel right at all. We stop again to check on another small dog that Alina has placed in the yard of a second hand car sale lot. The gate is closed but when the site is open she is free to run into a very busy road..... I hate that thought and ask Alina if she can be moved onto another site that is safer and holds three bonded small dogs, she says she will try. It does not go unnoticed that Alina is spreading herself thin and has dogs all over the place, most of which she has to pay to keep out of her own salary. I can completely understand why at times the Romanian rescuers feel such despair.
We pull up outside the public shelter and I feel my breath catch. When we visited this place in 2013, it was a horrendous scene of skeletal dogs in their hundreds. It is an ordeal we all felt we had to put ourselves through, in order to highlight the suffering but also we have the ability to save some lives here. A lot has happened in this place since we were last here. The euthanasia law is in practise here and regularly dogs are put to sleep in huge quantities. As we entered the site we were told that over a hundred dogs had been put to sleep the previous night. Ali was informed one of her dogs had died and she fought to hold herself together as we did a tour of the dogs left there. The argument for euthanasia is that when the shelter is full it is necessary.... and yet here we stood before many completely empty cages which, on our last visit, had held around twelve to fourteen dogs each.
We were aware that we could not save too many here as there was nowhere for them to go on their release. We picked out six dogs... as I was taking pictures of them to show later on, a seventh one made eye contact with me like she knew exacly how to play this game and she too was added to our list. There was a small shy dog that was in a kennel on her own trembling, a dog with a severely broken leg that hung limp and untreated..... nobody was starved this time, just an eery feeling of dogs missing, like we could sense their presence from the day before. There were other rescuers there that followed us around too so that they knew who we reserved so that they could save as many as possible of the ones left.
As we stood outside the kennel blocks waiting for Ali to clarify who we wanted the shelter staff came past in their truck. They were trying to intimidate us by laughing and chanting Kill kill kill... probably the only English word they knew. They had used these tactics on us last year... did it make us hate them a little more? of course it did, but we were not about to let them see that they caused any reaction in us.... I believe in karma, I believe they will get whats coming to them. There is a special corner in hell reserved for people who take pleasure in the suffering of others.
There was a little bit of drama surrounding who could book the dogs in their name as the rule is that one person can only have six on their name and cannot take any more until they prove those have been legally adopted.... Ali already had six on her name and Alina had gone back to work at this stage. We asked if Claudia could book them but as hers is not a registered shelter she was unable to do so..... it was complicated but we found a way round it using the shelter from the day before... paperwork would have to be dealt with overnight, we just had to hope that noody decided to kill them before then...it was unlikely but not impossible.
We left the shelter feeling despondent, as we had expected to. Fifty yards up the road we pulled over again to feed dogs that live in a pack in a layby by the side of the busy road. Again the dogs looked unkempt and in dire need of a bath and groom but they were a decent weight. Only one dog igored the food and came waddling over on her belly for a fuss. Jokingly Zoe said "aww can't we just bundle her in the car?" and Claudia said "sure". We all looked at her to see if she was serious. "Really?"...... "yes of course".
Next thing we know a slip lead is found in the boot of the car... the little dog crawls over to Claudia and lays on her back in submission with all four feet in the air. Just like that a slip lead is put over her head and Claudia lifts her from the ground. She is not used to being picked up and she panics and screams like she is being strangled..... hastily it is decided that Alis car has less people in it so she is bundled in the back with Maxine and just like that, in those few seconds, her life is changed forever.
Looking back I do not think that moment was about saving that particular dog. I believe for all of us, it was what we needed to do because we had been forced to walk helplessly away from the public shelter and leave those dogs all behind. Saving this dog instantly made us smile again..... nobody thought it through, nobody rationalised about what we would do with her for the rest of the day..... she was in the car before any of that was discussed... but this one dog was safe now and thats all we cared about. We named her after Ali...... I do not expect that when she awoke that morning she expected the day to hold instore for her a virtual kidnap by a bunch of crazy dog ladies.... at that time I do not think in her mind she was thanking us for it but as I type this she is an ecstatically happy little dog at how events turned out!
We continued our day with a visit to a yard that held some of Alina's dogs. The yard was at the end of a dirt track that had turned to mud, after watching Ali's car get stuck Claudia refused to take her car up it so we all bundled into Alis small car..... six rescuers and a small dog...it was not a comfortable ride and with two in the passenger seat by the time we reached the yard we were in deep fits of giggles. We pulled up outside the yard and Ali was passed to Claudia who stayed in the car with her.
Alina and I entered the gate and were greeted by a pack of dogs that were ridiculously happy to see us... we called them away from the gate so that everyone else could get in safely. I would say there was maybe fifteen dogs here, all saved previously from the public shelter. I fell hook line and sinker for a dog called Billy who seemed very well aware that I am responsible for booking all the Safe Rescue dogs and made an absolute beeline for me. He is a beautiful strawberry blonde lurcherish type and he gives the best cuddles a dog ever gave. He actually wraps his arms around your neck... again I feel miffed that when he comes I will probably not get to foster him as he could go anywhere...I feel a pang of envy for whoever gets him. We chat here for a while and fuss and play with the dogs, many here will come to us at some point and all are highly adoptable.
It is getting late and we are taken to another shelter. Poor Ali is now getting used to being shuffled around and no longer screams when picked up. We carry her in and put her in the bathroom with some water while we accept yet more Romanian hospitality and food and drink. There are a small number of dogs in the house but we are told there are over 80 for us to see outside. Nobody is promoting these dogs, nobody knows about them so they have no chance of adoption. We talk and laugh and eat... little do we know that what we are about to be shown is going to knock all the wind we have left from our sails.
Immediately outside the back door is a kind of conservatory/carport area. Here there are some very highly adoptable dogs. All small, a pedigree dachshund and lots of very very cute crossbreeds. The sort that people here would literally queue up to adopt. The area is ok, the dogs seem friendly, well fed and happy. Outside into the yard and the picture begins to change. There is a small pen immediately outside with thirty cats in it, all screaming and falling over each other for attention. The other side of the house is a pen with a chained dog inside... she is some kind of curly haired dog and she is matted with her own dirt. We hear the barking from down the bottom of the yard but still we do not suspect anything too wrong. Chains are not uncommon here... and grooming is non existant. We are not overly uncomfortable by anything we have seen so far.
As we start down the path to the bottom of the yard I begin to film on my phone.... what we see as we round the corner reduced us all to stunned silence.I do not know if my descriptive skills can do justice to this scene. There are rows of pens made of wire fencing, in each pen are varying amounts of dogs and some shabby looking wooden huts. The floor of each pen is almost all filthy puddle water or thick mud. The dogs are soaked and caked in layers of the filth. Some look miserable, others are frantic to get to us for attention. I feel sick, my instinct is to get the hell out of there.... this is a scene I cannot fix and yet I know it will remain in my mind forever. It is overwhelming, the sheer number of dogs and the need to get them out right now! I look anxiously around for Claudia as I know that she will find this even harder than me. I cannot read what she is thinking on her face but I know anyway. None of the safe rescue girls are speaking, nobody says anything, we are all struggling to come to terms with the scene.
I hone in on one dog. I know exactly why, in all of those desolate faces his was the one I focussed on. He is old and he has an undershot jaw and he reminds me of a dog that was at the Glina shelter when we visited in 2013. I ask Alina to ask about him for me. She tells me he has been here for ten years and I want so badly to cry. Ten years here is worse than any death as far as I can see. I know at that moment he is coming to us first, at this point I do not know we can fix the rest. Many of the dogs look like they have been literally rolled in the mud...perhaps through fighting, I do not know. None of the dogs are thin so clearly a good job is being done of feeding them. They just look either desperate or helpless.
We need to get away now, we have one more place to visit before we have to go home to Bucharest. I fetch a bemused Ali from the bathroom and Claudia corners the owner of the yard for a chat... then we leave. As we drive away Zoe points to a house over the road and tells me that when we entered the shelter there was a man across the road holding a chicken and a knife and he slaughtered it right there in the street...I am happy I was spared seeing that, I was not coping so well at that moment.
As we drive away I ask Claudia what she was saying to the woman. She tells us that she told her that the conditions the dogs were kept in was unacceptable. She told her she would pay to shingle the pens to soak up all the water and make life bearable for them until we can get them all moved. There are other steps in motion to 'fix' this situation that I won't go into as I do not want to jeopardise the rescue of these dogs. Hand on my broken heart I believe we were meant to go here. This was the place that our trip was destined to show us. We are told that there are many private shelters like this, where good intentions and good hearted people become overwhelmed and the dogs suffer horrendous hardships as a result. I cannot wait to see the dogs start to filter out of here and have asked Claudia to video them the first time they are out on grass and sniff fresh clean air. I can only repeat that these are not bad people, they are not deliberately making dogs suffer... they are just so desperate to save lives at any cost that they are losing their way. It shouldn't be this way.
Its funny because even writing this I can feel the same mental tiredness as we felt on the day. The shame of this was that we still had a lady to visit that was desperate to meet us and show us her dogs and we were already mentally shutting down. We did go though and she did show us some beautiful dogs. Conditions here were better, I remember a few of the dogs but not in any great detail I'm sorry to say. I really do think we were all suffering from shock.
We made the long trip back to Claudias with Ali, who was becoming restless by now as it was 9 hours since we bundled her into the car by the time we got home. It was late when we got in. Ali was fed and watered and bedded down for the night in Claudias bathroom where she slept quietly most of the night. Here ended our day three..... which frankly felt more like a week!