When animal lovers Fiona and Dave Sawney, newly arrived in Montenegro from England, heard a pitiful mewing coming from a dumpster, they didn’t turn a blind eye or walk away. Instead, they reached into the dumpster and rescued from a plastic bag two tiny kittens that had been callously discarded by their owners.
The kittens survived their terrible ordeal and still live with Fiona and Dave in Tivat, Montenegro, but in the 12 years since their rescue, Fiona has become deeply involved in animal welfare in the small Balkan nation. Three years ago she established a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Friends of Dogs Montenegro. The NGO has formalized the animal welfare work she has been doing ever since her arrival in Montenegro and provided her with a vehicle through which she can raise funds and work constructively with other animal welfare organizations to improve the plight of dogs.
Recently, Friends of Dogs Montenegro and other NGOs have taken a number of small but important steps towards resolving the unrelenting problem of street dogs and stray animals, says Fiona:
“We are lobbying for a comprehensive trap, neuter and release program so that we can stop the source of the dogs,” she explains. “We are working more closely with the Ministry of Agriculture which is reviewing the National Animal Welfare Strategy for Montenegro. We hope to be able to positively influence the strategy.”
Although Fiona is a full-time student working towards a Masters degree in global health policy, she spends every spare moment helping animals. She and Dave currently provide a loving home for seven rescue dogs, their two cats and whatever animals are in need of emergency care.
“Montenegro is not a rich country,” she says, “there are 23 municipalities but there are only eight dog shelters. Every municipality is supposed to have a strategy to take dogs off the street if they’re causing a problem, or help when people find sick animals, but most municipalities don’t have a shelter and they don’t have any funds to build shelters.”
Network for Animals has provided funds to help two dog shelters in Montenegro: in Kotor NFA purchased fencing that has enabled shelter workers to separate the dogs into small groups, thereby solving the pernicious problem of dog fights, and at Nikšić NFA has provided a water tank, a number dog kennels and will soon equip a veterinary clinic at the shelter.
In addition, the organization is supporting Friends of Dogs Montenegro to conduct vital research.
With NFA’s backing, Fiona and a group of local animal welfare activists have visited all 23 municipalities in Montenegro and documented the barriers they face when dealing with street dogs. They have also assessed the shelters against the legal standards, which are generally not well enforced. With good information, Friends of Dogs Montenegro will be able to highlight the problems and difficulties and lobby for the government to address them.
“NFA has also helped other NGOs in Montenegro,” says Fiona. “There are about five or six very active NGOs that pick up dogs from the street, try to put them into foster care, or find homes for them and provide medical treatment. And mostly people just pay from their own pockets, living hand-to-mouth, trying to save dogs in the street. NFA has channelled some funds to help individual dogs or some of the informal foster carers who have vet’s bills to pay for the dogs that are sick. NFA has helped in a variety of ways.”
Fiona believes that it is possible to make a real difference to the lives of animals in Montenegro.
“We really have to step up the lobbying this year, while the strategy is being developed and while the Animal Council is interested. We need to take advantage of the window of opportunity to push through some meaningful change,” she says optimistically.
Fiona is reluctant to take too much credit for what she has achieved in the time she has lived in Montenegro, saying there are other local “unsung heroes” – the people who have been struggling for years with little support or recognition, caring for street dogs only with their own funds and time. She names the local NGOs Niksicko Udruzenje za Zastitu Zivotinja, Prijatelji Životinja Bar, Sapice Bar, and Korina Animals, among a multitude of other local individuals.