BELGRADE, Serbia – Small and cuddly or looking like wolves, curled in filthy makeshift cages or roaming the streets in packs: Stray dogs are everywhere in Serbia, a country where even people struggle with hunger and have little sympathy for animals.
The numbers are staggering, fueled by years of war, poverty and the lack of any government strategy to neuter or control strays.
In the capital Belgrade, strays have doubled in recent years to about 15,000, according to government estimates — a huge burden for a city of only 2 million. In contrast, Moscow has five times more people and about 26,000 stray dogs.
"There are more and more dogs out there every day," says Jelena Jankovic, whose Center for Mixed Dogs group has run a small shelter in Belgrade since 1996.
While there are no exact figures for the rest of Serbia, officials estimate there could be around 50,000 dogs out there, many facing hunger, cold, diseases, harassment and sometimes unimaginable cruelties.
Officials who had been preoccupied with postwar and global economic issues have been forced to announce urgent measures to try to deal with the problem of strays.
"We must attack this from all sides," said Predrag Petrovic, who heads the newly formed special commission addressing the issue in Belgrade. "We have a difficult task ahead of us."
"We are all responsible for such an immense number of abandoned animals," says Budimir Plavsic, senior official at Serbia's agriculture ministry.
The scope of the problem was highlighted by a tragedy earlier this month, when a woman who single-handedly ran a makeshift dog shelter in northern Serbia died in a fire. She left behind about 500 dogs and 60 cats who are now in the hands of local authorities.
At the shelter, 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Belgrade, hundreds of dogs are fenced off amid debris and mud, chewing at raw meat leftovers provided by food factories. Local officials and animal rights activists said it could take months before the dogs are resettled.
"They have no one now to take care of them," gasped Kristina Paskaljevic, an animal protection activist whose SOS Animals group has helped many of Serbia's strays.
Serbia — like the rest of the Balkans — has a poor history of animal welfare and protection, and over the years reports have emerged of dogs being brutally executed.
Public outrage soared at the news of Mila, a young female mutt whose four legs were cut off with a power saw in a Belgrade suburb. She managed to recover and find a home with a family but no one was punished, despite police pledges to find the attackers.
Belgrade's chief veterinarian, Vladimir Terzin, who was involved in saving Mila, says Serbs still have a long way to go in accepting the idea that dogs can live side-by-side with humans.
"Those dogs are frightened, not dangerous," he said, referring to reports of attacks on people. "Dogs respond to people's behavior."
The Serbian government, which is seeking membership in the European Union, has adopted new animal welfare laws that match EU standards and knows it will be judged by how it treats its abandoned dogs. Animal rights activists say the record so far is not good.
"Apart from Belgrade, the situation with animal protection is very bad everywhere in Serbia," said Paskaljevic.
She and others allege that while Belgrade has adopted a "no-kill" strategy in dealing with strays, other parts of Serbia often simply shoot or poison the dogs.
"Unfortunately, they have little mercy in the small provincial towns and villages," says Jankovic.
Plavsic, from the agriculture ministry, says the next step will be a nationwide education campaign, teaching Serbians about the importance of sterilization and responsible pet ownership. Serbia is applying for EU pre-entry funds to help with its stray dog problem and local officials have attended U.S. workshops on the subject.
The number of abandoned animals grew sharply in Serbia during war years of the early 1990s, when many impoverished dog owners couldn't feed their pets and authorities allowed uncontrolled breeding. A new administration that took over in 2000 launched programs to sterilize, vaccinate and microchip animals with some success, but the effort was overwhelmed by other problems such as high unemployment and poor living standards.
Jankovic says she has seen several cases of severe cruelty toward animals in recent years. She saved one dog who was blinded by a group of young men, and rescued another dog who had been set on fire by unknown attackers.
"We could not even light a cigarette with the dog being around, he would go wild with fear," she said.
Paskaljevic agreed that Serbs need an education in animal welfare, but dismissed the argument that while people are struggling with hunger there can be little sympathy for dogs.
"This planet would be a very sad place if only people lived on it," she said.