FOR THE LIFE OF A DOG

by Katherine Watt

Animal activist Christa Schechtl seeks to introduce modern ways of saving stray dogs, as extermination and ignorance have resulted in a dead end

Christa Schechtl

Tierschutz Mission Phönix, the only animal refuge in the 100 km radius of Burgas, have been told to leave. The municipality wish to build a holiday park over the small piece of land by the road from Burgas to Sozopol, so the shelter faces a date with a bulldozer.

The shelter's founder, German journalist Christa Schechtl, thinks it couldn't have come at a better moment: "I'm completely out of money, so this is a great opportunity," she says enthusiastically with regard to the 10,000 sq m of land she owns in Chernomorets. "I've wanted to build a bigger and better shelter for years, and now that the municipality are going to buy us out, we will get a bit of financial help." In a softer voice she adds, "I must warn you, right now the shelter's not very beautiful."

It isn't. Situated a few kilometres before Chernomorets, the place used to be an old dog crematorium where street hounds were rounded up to be exterminated in a furnace.

Old concrete blocks that resemble death row cells have long since been adapted as temporary homes for the dogs. But rehoming two-a-penny strays is no easy job, Christa says. "The longest resident we've had has been here for two years. It's very, very hard to find new homes for the dogs, especially for the old and the injured ones. Unfortunately, not many people know about us, so we tend to get more dogs in than out. Last May I raised enough money to drive 15 dogs back to Germany and I hope to be able to do this every year."

Yet until the new shelter is a fact, up to five grown dogs share a single concrete house and nearly fifty others live in makeshift huts made of either wood or tin. A large majority of the dogs, including dozens of puppies, roam the grounds. Others, however, are clearly unsuited to shelter life. "If a dog's too aggressive to other dogs or shies away from humans, it stands little chance of being rehomed," says Christa. "In such cases, the only thing we can do is castrate it and let it go."

Some dogs arrive at the shelter from families that can't cope. Others are brought in by officials after being found abused and neglected, and third are victims of car collisions and were found maimed and dying by the road. They all receive medical treatment from the in-house vet and staff, services fully funded by Christa. "The main thing I've learnt is that you must be independent from authorities and agencies," she says. "One shelter I know of in Russia is a real success, but mainly because it was built by a German governmental animal rescue organisation. I get support from neither the German nor the Bulgarian governments. All the money is either my own or is donated by people in Germany."

"Don't the expats do anything to help?" I asked the Burgas office manager, Margarita Peeva. She looked at me imploringly and said, "Please, don't take offence. I know the British have big hearts, but I just haven't seen it here in Bulgaria. Not long ago, I went to Goritsa, a village in the middle of Bulgarian Black Sea coast, to rescue some strays that faced being shot. The foreigners had complained to the local authorities that the dogs had been drinking the water in their swimming pools and they wanted them killed." With a cracking voice and tears in her eyes, she continued: "I took photos of the dogs and took them to the local expat venues, seeking any kind of help — food, money, spare wood for shelters, winter blankets. They all went 'ah! what pretty dogs!' and then saw me off."

Shelter in Burgas

Instead of this Ignorance-Is-Bliss line, it would seem that locals preferred a hands-on approach to the animal refuge. "When we started up, we'd get rocks regularly thrown at the shelter," said Christa. "The staff and I would have abuse shouted at us, but now that we've been around for a few years this has somewhat subsided."

Under Christa's management, the shelter has been operating for seven years. "I was doing reporting for Bravo, the largest teen magazine in Germany, when someone told me about this shelter near Burgas," says Christa. "When I went to see it, it was a real mess, stinking and swamped in mud, water and excrement. The dogs were starving, they had diseases and faced slow death. I tried to get help from the municipality, but they took me for a journalist seeking to stir up scandal. Nevertheless, I decided to stay to clean it up, build some proper outhouses, repair the roof of the main building and get some more food in."

So what converted the high-flying teeny-bopper journalist into a worldwide animal activist? "I've always loved animals, but it's easy to live in a bubble of pretence in the West," says Christa. Her first account on cruelty on animals in Eastern Europe was in 1998 in Kiev, and was followed by a series of damning reports. "An Ukrainian lady whose daughter read Bravo called the office to say she'd seen dogs and cats literally skinned alive but still walking the streets." After Christa travelled to the capital and investigated the extent of the cruelty, she decided to stay and wage a battle against the government to resolve the problem. "I contacted my local mayor in Munich for support, and even celebrities like Steffi Graf. Eventually new laws were passed and sick street animals were offered refuge. Then I moved to Odessa, where there were more animals in a death camp, waiting to be gassed. I eventually got the place shut down and converted into a refuge. I've set up shelters also in Moldova and Turkey."

Bulgaria's shelter is the last of Christa's refuges to be given a longawaited overhaul and now, with the municipality seemingly on her side, construction can begin. "Burgas Mayor Dimitar Nikolov promised that in exchange for our moving off the land, we will be given good builders and better sponsoring opportunities so that we can construct my ideal shelter. It will have sick bays, incubation and sanitation equipment, proper kennels and better supplies."

Making promises to a lone missionary and tireless campaigner means a solemn oath of aid. When it materialises, it will be one further step towards bringing Bulgaria's animal cruelty action on a par with that in the Western world.

For more information, please visit www.phoenix.org and also www.thetravelbug.org/tierschutzmission.htm

Christa Schechtl's animal action publication, Der Schrei, can be seen online at www.ausgabe3.dder-schrei.de

Please bring donations of food or blankets to 35 Slavyanska St, 8000 Burgas

To adopt or sponsor a dog, call Margarita Peeva on 056 82 30 10 or email at phoenixbg@abv.bg

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