Owners struggle to rescue pets in Balkan floods, many forced to leave them behind

When the floods came, Danijel Mitevski was separated from his family, and it took him two days to rejoin his wife and daughter in a shelter. But the resident of Serbia's flood-hit town of Obrenovac wouldn't rest until his family was complete again.

For five long days, Mitevski, 30, didn't know what had happened to the family pet, a cheerful 18-month old mongrel named Gavra, whom they had to leave behind in a cousin's flat. Mitevski returned three times to the soaked town before he finally managed to reach the dog after walking five kilometers (3 miles).

"Gavra didn't recognize me at first," Mitevski said Thursday. "But, when he did, he cried like a child."

The Mitevski family is among hundreds of thousands of people who have been forced out of their homes in the epic Balkan floods, which hit large parts of Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia last week, drowning entire villages and towns. At least 50 people have died.

Fleeing in panic, in packed boats and trucks, many owners could not bring their animals along. On flooded farms, thousands of livestock have drowned inside barns and stables, with officials warning that tons of dead animals must be destroyed before they pose a health hazard.

But efforts also have been underway to rescue any animals that survived the calamity, and reunite them with their owners. In Serbia, a website has been set up offering description of the pets, now staying temporarily with other people, or in dog shelters. Dozens of animal videos and photos have been posted on social networks.

In Obrenovac, volunteers have set up a network of their own to feed and rescue abandoned animals, which can be seen roaming the streets, looking for food amid the debris. One of the volunteers is 27-year-old Ivan Munitlak, who drives back to Obrenovac daily from the capital Belgrade to feed the dogs still stranded in the town.

"People calls us to tell us where the dogs are and we go there," he said, loading bags of pet food into his car outside a Belgrade shelter hosting people with pets. Inside the shelter, dogs and cats are packed side-by-side with their owners on makeshift beds lining the walls.

An elderly couple from Obrenovac are there with Lea, a small black-and-brown, sad-eyed mongrel. Lea, they said, is like another grandchild, so when they had to flee, the couple put her in one of the two bags they were allowed to take on the rescue boat.

"I could never look her in those eyes and leave her behind, never," said 64-year-old Milena Novakovic. "Then, I would stay too."