One week at Animal Rescue Sofia
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
I entered Bulgaria on August 29th and spent a week discovering the beauty of this country. The variety of landscape (hills, plains & fields, beaches and even mountains) is stunning. I spent most time relaxing near the beaches of Varna & Burgas. These are popular with Bulgarians but also with Eastern Europeans and Ukrainian tourists. I finally can say that I swam in the Black Sea! The neoclassical architecture is also omnipresent throughout the country. I let you appreciate a few pictures of Bulgaria beauty - a hidden gem you should add to your travel list if you haven't visited yet.
Now there has been some changes in my initial plans as I wanted to spend the entire month of September at one shelter in the countryside. However they had more volunteers than expected the last few weeks (a rare luxury issue to have in the animal shelter world). So I went volunteering in the meantime for one week to another place that was recommended to me: Animal Rescue Sofia (ARS).
The ARS fondation exists for 11 years and is run by 2 passionate souls Sveto & Nadia, alongside a staff team of 7 persons + 4 vets. The shelter grew over time, and albeit the focus is mainly on dogs, they also have a small cat area, and support injured or abandoned farm animals (eight goats, two pigs, a cow and a buffalo, a few donkeys and a dozen horses). Most of the latter are hosted in a work-in-progress ranch sanctuary, located on a hill in the middle of the nature, away from the main shelter/clinic. I had the chance to visit the sanctuary with Sveto first when I arrived last Saturday and the area and space is breathtaking. You can appreciate below some photos from the sanctuary area.
About the shelter & clinic
The shelter set-up is fairly similar to the one where I was in Galati, Romania (you can read about it in this blog post): the dogs building & enclosures enable them to have both interior and exterior space, and there is a limited number of dogs per enclosure (usually 3 maximum) to ensure adequate welfare. The clinic has dedicated space for injured/quarantined animals too, and there is a surgery room in addition to the examination one; I didn't witness any surgery as the head vet was on holidays this week and two other vets were on maternity leave. So there was only 1 vet and 1 vet assistant working at the moment.
I spent my time mostly around the clinic and caring for the injured/quarantined animals. One thing that I particularly enjoyed and hopefully the animals did to, was the daily walk. Each dog staying at the clinic is walked at least twice per day (unless unfit). I definitely reached my daily 10'000 steps - and probably beyond! For the dogs staying in the shelter area, there are 4 larger outdoor enclosures (yards) where they can be left off the leash and play with one another in small groups.
During two days I also played the vet assistant as the assigned person was away. It consisted mainly in me holding animals during procedures such as injections or micro-chipping, or when a wound had to be cleaned or a bandage done. I'm quite proud to report I didn't fail or faint; even when a stray dog was admitted with a wound on the chin, infected with maggots and so forth...
There are sad cases like this mama dog, who was brought by kind individuals noticing she was dragging herself around town and seemed in pain. She was most likely hit by a car. After a X-ray, it has been confirmed her spine is sectioned and her back legs are paralyzed, besides the fact she had some infected wounds. In addition to that, she had 4 puppies that she was feeding and taking care of (around 4 weeks old). Needless to say that without being admitted to the clinic, her chance of survival on the streets would have been very slim, and this would most likely have been a death sentence for her pups too. She's been named Rupita and is proudly standing below.
The shelter here focus a lot on adoptions and re-homing. The goal is that if a dog is adopted, it gives him or her a chance for a second life in loving conditions, and it creates a space for another abandoned one that needs help. And trust me, I saw a lot of puppies! The shelter is currently home to 160 dogs, and I'd estimate a quarter of them are puppies or dogs less than 1 year old.
Hence the shelter also has a full-fledged office with a dedicated person who manages the adoption requests & process. They re-home dogs within Bulgaria (mainly Sofia area) but also abroad, in Germany and the Netherlands, where they have partner associations. The process is not complicated per se, however they adhere to high standards and principles to enable a successful adoption on the long term, and prevent the dog from ending up again in a shelter. This means that potential adopters are subject to in-depth background checks, and there is long term contact with them too.
About the long term vision
I had the chance to discuss more with Sveto on my last day. His passion and engagement is palpable. In the early years of 2000, there was an estimated population of 25'000 stray dogs roaming around Sofia. The government in place was practicing culling methods (e.g. mass killing/euthanasia) but this number was only decreasing marginally. Since the ARS fondation creation, and with the support of other private shelters/clinics practicing spay & neuter campaigns, the total number of stray dogs has been drastically reduced, and lays now around 3'500 (in 2017). This is a concrete example of why spay & neuter is the major long term, sustainable solution to control stray animals population.
But Sveto doesn't want to stop here! There is still work to do and one of his long-term projects is to focus on education, and opening a training center. Education is already part of the key aspects when running spay & neuter campaigns in the communities. This consists among others, on educational sessions at local schools - children are the adults of tomorrow! Imagine a world where no pet gets abandoned or mistreated...
The next steps is to ensure appropriate education including the latest animal welfare standards are taught to all relevant staff working in public and private shelters around the country. Sveto is engaging with the relevant stakeholders also at the government level (ministry of agriculture). This multi-angled approach is key to ensure no one is left behind and the high level of welfare standards are becoming the norm across Bulgaria. A bold vision which I fully support & admire!
If you wish to support the Animal Rescue Sofia mission in Bulgaria, you can visit their donation page here.
So where will I be next week?
As I write these words, I'm in the bus to go volunteer at Street Hearts BG shelter on the municipality of Dryanovo, which is a small rural village located in the middle of the country. I'll be back with a post next weekend to tell you more about it.
You may remember in a previous post that I mentioned One Health, I'm excited that I will study One Health as a postgrad diploma; the semester at the University of Edinburgh is about to start on Monday 14th of September. What an amazing opportunity to learn part-time from one of the leading universities in the world when it comes to veterinary science & animal welfare in parallel of my volunteering experience.
I can't believe I'm about to be a student again 13 years after my first graduation - wish me luck!
Thanks for reading!