The story of our June cover star

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Watch this moving documentary – it tells Freedom’s story so far.
We think Freedom was definitely worth fighting for.

There can be no more rewarding experience than saving the lives of strays fighting for their lives. But you can never save them all, and saying goodbye to the unlucky ones is the cruellest ordeal

Maria Slough

4.30am. A lone bark in the hills behind us cuts through the silence. Knowing what that sound represented, I was unbearably grief stricken within a fleeting moment. Snow fell from dark skies as the lights of Sarajevo blurred through the snow fall while the car weaved its way down to the city centre. The mournful sound of Kaleo’s ‘Way Down We Go’ played on the radio as the sadness of Sarajevo enveloped me and tried to stop me leaving.

I always feel this way as I say goodbye to the stray dogs of this country; to the beautiful dogs in the care of UK charity Saving Strays. It’s like a slow suffocation that you know you have to survive, leaving behind friends who have become family; dogs on the streets trying to outwit their inevitable fate; the dogs on death row that you have to leave behind… this time.

We had been there for eight days with the sole objective of building a sensory garden and adventure playground for 48 former abandoned, stray and death-row dogs. A small team of volunteers had raised the money to build this special space at the charity’s kennel partners, so the dogs in our care could learn to forage, run, play and build muscle strength and sensory understanding.

As a small, entirely volunteer-run charity, we rescue, rehabilitate and rehome (when possible) abandoned dogs in need and are dedicated to helping address the stray dog problem with a future vision for education at local level through dog walking and open days. One of our patrons, TV presenter and Strictly Come Dancing star Ian Waite, had joined us for 24 hours to meet our dogs and learn a little more about the stray crisis that runs through the veins of Europe like hidden mercury.

In those 24 hours, we took Ian to the land sanctuary, where, since 2017, we have supported the care of many strays, originally rescued by lone rescuer Milena Malesevic, and to our kennel partners, Mersad and Melisa, to meet our awesome dogs. The volunteers and Ian downed the tools of their trades from daily life and picked up hammers, paintbrushes and drills to complete the perimeter of the new garden. Soon beautifully coloured murals would adorn the fencing panels, and plants and flowers approved by the charity’s vet trustee would scatter around this space alongside ramps and tunnels for the dogs to play in.

But it was the visit to the public shelter that stayed with us all. For Ian and our treasurer Kim, it was a first-time experience. Wagging tails and smiling faces of the few dogs that were brave enough to venture to the perimeter fence greeted us. Many dogs stayed back in the shadows, full of anxiety and fear.

We took a moment to take in what we were witnessing. While the dogs had been fed and fresh water was out in anticipation of our visit, several dogs were in need of immediate help. They were decaying in front of us. An older looking girl could barely walk, her right shoulder protruding badly as she limped to eventually fall into a sitting position on the concrete. You felt her pain as she hit the ground. You could count her ribs.

Another dog, a Chow cross with runny eyes, a split nose and skin disease all over her face, came to the fence. I lifted my hand to her; she kissed it and offered me her paw. Her coat was so matted in blood and faeces that dreadlocked pieces had started to hang from her body. Miraculously, her tail wagged. What courage it took these dogs to survive the misery that was being imposed upon them.
I looked around and saw several dogs with tails so badly tangled, they couldn’t walk properly. Next to this little girl was a white dog whose eyes told me he had given up. We left knowing that there was nothing we could do – with our funds so low and numbers so high – but we could not get them out of our minds.

The team decided to launch a social media post to try to raise enough funds to offer the dogs some medical care and get permission to administer it. We had to alleviate their suffering. Within one hour, the funds had come in with a donor request to save them and we made a plan to liberate the dogs.

With the cooperation of the public shelter and our kennel partner Mersad, four dogs arrived at our kennels five days later. It felt like the longest five days, but it was worth the wait. We took the dogs to our vet and they received the medical attention they needed immediately.

The older girl, who could barely walk, had holes in her skin to the bone. Our volunteer Sharne named her Grady, in memory of Paul O’Grady whom the world had just lost. The Chow mix girl offered a kiss despite her desperate condition. She had a fever, but the extent of her problems were hidden by her coat. I travelled with her to a parlour and the gentle shearing of her fur revealed multiple bleeding sores across her skin. Her now skinny little tail still wagged. She was exhausted, we were exhausted, but it didn’t matter. The relief hit us, as we had got them out and saved four lives. She slept with me on the back seat as we travelled back to our kennel partner. We named her Freedom.

In a world where volunteers across all charities are on their knees, desperately fighting to stay open and survive another day, we recognise our challenges are not unique, but as the news cycle continues to burn, we will keep working to raise awareness of the forgotten dogs of Bosnia as well as the hundreds of UK dogs being abandoned each week. It is these dogs that haunt our dreams and hurt our hearts, as we remember their sense of defeat. Dogs don’t understand boundaries or location; they just want to be loved wherever they are.

As the scholar Hamza Yusuf said, “Reality of things is hidden in the unseen”. We must never stop searching for the unseen, exposing it and seeking justice for those suffering within the truth it hides. We hope some of those reading this will support our efforts to keep helping dogs in need, fighting for dogs like Freedom and Grady, and finding solutions at the source of the problem.

You can donate to the freedom fund at https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/thefreedomfund and follow their work at www.savingstrays.org.uk

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