Anxious Adventuring: Balkan Dogs
While many places in the world have stray dog populations, it seems that Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia had more stray dogs that other places that I have visited. These stray dogs, with tags in their ears, would laze about in the shade of statues or sniff the pavement in search of scraps. While there were many of them, nothing about them seemed threatening or worth noting. I didn’t bother taking any photos of them, as I didn’t think that they would play any role in my travel memories. I regret this, as I wish I had photo evidence of the mangy mayhem I experienced. They were simply canine background characters in my adventures. Even after a few guides warned me about them, I didn’t really think much about the warning. I thought that the guides were being overprotective or over concerned. I was wrong.
A dog eating an ice cream cone in Skopje: Image from: http://www.presentlynavigatinglife.com/skopje
My first warning about the Skopje dogs came from the leader of a walking tour. As the group of walkers wandered around the statues of Macedonia Square, she casually cautioned that several people had been attacked by dogs in Skopje. At the time, I wasn’t particularly concerned since the dogs seemed mostly disinterested in people. They meandered around the statues, minding their own business for the most part. However, the threat is real. While I don’t know the full extent of this problem, I did find a reference to a 67 year old man who was attacked by a dog in December, 2018 while walking in a park. A 55 year old woman was attacked in October, 2018 while walking downtown. Earlier in the year, a 17 year old girl had drowned in the Vardar River in the city of Gostivar while trying to escape a pack of dogs (A man and a woman attacked by wild dogs in Skopje, 2018). In the town of Kicevo, about 112 KM from Skopje in western Macedonia, a four year old boy was killed by stray dogs in 2017. His death unleashed a wave of vigilante poisonings of stray dogs, which prompted concerned animal rights activists to protest (Hundreds of protesters gathered to fight a spate of mysterious stray dog poisonings in Macedonia, 2017). In 2018, over 1,000 bite incidents were reported in Skopje alone (Macedonia pledges action after girl drowns fleeing dog pack, 2018). While I could not find more recent data, the 2014 stray dog population of Skopje was estimated to be between 2000- 2400 animals. The 2014 population was down 25% from 2010, which may be due to efforts to euthanize or spay/neuter animals (Terzievski, 2014).
My second warning regarding Macedonian dogs occurred on the way to Lake Ohrid at a stop at the sunken Church of Saint Nikolas. The church was partially submerged in Lake Mavrovo and was abandoned to the lake after the construction of the Radika Dam in 1953. This time, a guide warned of a dangerous dog that lived along the shore. A muscular, black Rottweiler snoozed in some soft grass, but hardly looked like a threat. I remained skeptical that the dogs were the problem that the guides were making them out to be. It seemed like the sort of things that tourists were warned against by guides who were trying to show concern and be good hosts. Later, I asked another guide why exactly there were so many stray dogs. That particular guide was a dog enthusiast who owned several pets and who had once entered his pet dogs in shows. He was happy to speak about the topic, and blamed the dog problem on irresponsible owners who released their pets to the street once they could no longer care for them. This story matches the narrative of a Veterinary blog which also blames the problem on pet owners, but also that pet owners do not know proper pet care before buying a pet. The blog also blames the government, which does not enforce laws which fine pet owners for abandoning their pets and that Skopje only has one animal shelter. Vardarishte, the only shelter in the capital, is a kill shelter that euthanizes the animals if they are not adopted in two weeks. Conditions in the shelter are poor, with 5-6 dogs kenneled together in unhygienic conditions. The shelter also tags, vaccinates, and neuters animals for release. Animal rights activists have organized against the conditions of Vardarishte and for control of their own animal shelter (The stray dogs in Skopje, Macedonia, 2018). In April 2019, the shelter closed for 30 days after failing an inspection. The shelter put a moratorium on capturing stray dogs while they were closed, taking in only dogs that had bitten someone (Main Skopje animal shelter closed for 30 days, 2019). It should be noted that North Macedonia is not a wealthy country, so dealing with the stray dog problem may be beyond the budget priorities of the government. Appropriate pet care may also be challenged by an unemployment rate of about 18-20% in late 2018 and the average monthly salary in 2017 was under $450.
Despite the warnings about dogs, I really didn’t think much of them until the morning that I left Skopje. I didn’t want to spend money on an expensive taxi to the airport and instead decided to take the airport bus. However, my hostel was about 2 KM from the nearest airport bus stop. I didn’t think that walking a little over a mile before 6am was too big of a hassle, especially if it saved me over $20. So, I set out with my bags into the early morning, determined to save some money and take a few photos of Macedonia Square. All was well until I arrived in the square, where dogs were still quietly snoozing. It was a lovely morning and all very enjoyable until the sound of my small rolling suitcase awoke the dogs from their sleep. As I moved along, I was suddenly followed by an amassing pack of hungry dogs. The pitiful animals that had moved about the statues and tourists by day, now suddenly seemed far more menacing. More joined them. They snapped and growled at each other. One nipped at my hand. The parade of dogs behind me and beside me might have been comical, except that I was alone and they were markedly unfriendly. I wanted to take a few final photos, but instead, I kept my face ahead, focused on the path along the Vardar river. I passed by shops and cafes, where more dogs awoke from their slumber on the sidewalk. I moved head, dogs all around me. I ignored them, keeping a brisk and determined pace, but not daring to look at them lest they attack. In my head, I wondered what I would do if they attacked. A shaggy golden retriever looking dog seemed to be the head of the pack. That was the one that snapped at my hand and growled the most at the others. I thought that if one dog made any sort of attack, they might start fighting each other in the chaos or commotion. I thought about kicking them or if I could swing my suitcase at them if they attacked. I hoped that maybe another human would appear and draw some of the dogs away. But, no one else materialized and all of the shops were closed.
In the end, I arrived at the bus stop. I loathed the idea of waiting there with a pack of dogs, but once I arrived at the bus stop, the dogs actually dispersed. There was enough trash in the weeds and adjacent parking lot that the dogs could scout out their breakfast. I was no longer of any concern to them. The whole thing seems rather unbelievable. It seems bizarre. But, in the moment it was very real and scary. I really thought that I was going to be attacked by dogs and that I might have to fight them. It also changed how I felt about dogs. While those dogs had likely been pets at one time, in that moment, they acted like wild animals. They were not friendly pets or “dogs” in the way that I had always imagined and thought of dogs. In the absence of human companionship and regular food, they behaved like unfamiliar predators. So, the gauntlet of dogs remains a scary memory, but in the end, nothing bad happened. An important lesson is that I should not have been as skeptical about the threat of dogs. Thankfully, I wasn’t attacked, though in retrospect, I am not sure if I would have changed anything other than to try to be more prepared.
To avoid incidents with dogs, the CDC recommends never running from dogs, staying calm, avoiding loud noises, avoiding directly facing the dog, keeping a purse or bag between yourself and the animal, and curling up into a ball while protecting your ears and neck with your hands if attacked (Preventing dog attacks, n.d). Other tips include avoiding eye contact with the dog, standing still in the face of unfamiliar dogs, telling the dog to go away in a commanding voice, and giving the animal a jacket or shirt to chew on if they attack (Cicetti, 2010). In the United States, 60% of people attacked by dogs are children, followed by elderly people. Each year, 800,000 people seek medical care from dog bites, so the threat of dogs is not simply a Macedonian problem (Cicetti, 2010). A 52 year old woman from Dallas was mauled to death by dogs and suffered over 100 bites. There are 8700 stray dogs in South Dallas, which is more than four times the estimate for Skopje. Rabies vaccinations are recommended for tourists to Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, Estonia, Georgia, Kosovo, Latvia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Slovenia and Turkey. Rabies is almost 100% fatal in humans (Problems Posed By Stray Dogs or Street Dogs Include Attacks and Bites, 2017). However, the vaccine is expensive. I had asked for a rabies vaccination, but was told that it was over $3000 and that it was better for me to simply avoid animals. Getting a rabies vaccine is certainly a good preventative measure, if a person has the money for it! Though, the largest carrier of rabies in the Balkans are foxes, so the threat of rabid dogs may not be that high, especially since many stray dogs are vaccinated and tagged. Tourists could avoid problems by getting vaccinated, listening to the advice of guides, not walking alone (as I had), spending more money on a taxi rather than walking at strange hours, and following some of the advice offered by the CDC. I was fortunate that nothing bad happened, but I think it is something that tourists should take seriously.
A man and a woman attacked by wild dogs in Skopje. (2018, December 24). Retrieved from https://english.republika.mk/news/macedonia/a-man-and-a-woman-attacked-by-wild-dogs-in-skopje
Cicetti, F. (2010, August 30). How to Avoid Being Attacked By a Dog. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/8525-avoid-attacked-dog.html
Hundreds of protesters gathered to fight a spate of mysterious stray dog poisonings in Macedonia. (2017, April 10). Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/stray-dog-posionings-macedonia-protest-skopje-animal-welfare-radmila-pesheva-anima-mundi-a7676236.html
Macedonia pledges action after girl drowns fleeing dog pack. (2018, November 06). Retrieved from https://www.apnews.com/766046e998f34c59bb583798fc04d8e1
Main Skopje animal shelter closed for 30 days: Stray dogs will be left on the streets until they attack somebody. (2019, April 06). Retrieved from https://english.republika.mk/news/macedonia/main-skopje-animal-shelter-closed-for-30-days-stray-dogs-will-be-left-on-the-streets-until-they-attack-somebody/
Preventing Dog Bites | Features | CDC. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/features/dog-bite-prevention/index.html
Problems Posed By Stray Dogs or Street Dogs Include Attacks and Bites. (2017, June 19). Retrieved from https://dogbitesohio.com/problems-posed-by-stray-dogs/
Terzievski, D. (2014, June). PDF. Bucharest: OIE Platform for Animal Welfare In Europe.
The stray dogs in Skopje, Macedonia. (2018, November 12). Retrieved from https://iloveveterinary.com/blog/the-stray-dogs-in-skopje-macedonia/