Kosovo and Companion Animals:

A Cultural Exchange

APNM Board Member's Humanitarian Lessons Pave the Way for Kosovo's First Animal Shelter

As featured in today's Albuquerque Journal, Animal Protection of New Mexico's Board of Directors member Tom Alexander traveled to southern Kosovo last November to teach schoolchildren that with empathy and care, dogs and cats can become loving companions and to educate municipal leaders of the need for a community animal shelter.

  Tom in Kosovo

The 1999 war between Kosovo and Serbia came to an end, leaving its villages and people devastated. For the past 12 years, Ben Mares, a Denver based businessman, has been active in providing financial guidance as well as humanitarian and refugee aid. As the Kosovar people slowly rebuild their country and their lives, Mares' attention has turned to the need to curtail and care for the abundance of free-roaming, unwanted dogs and cats. Mares' goal for 2013 is to build and equip the "South of Kosovo Dog and Cat Shelter," the country's first animal shelter.

As the Humane Education Coordinator for the Santa Fe Animal Shelter, and as an APNM Board member, Tom has an extensive background in teaching human stewardship of animals. Recognizing his expertise, Mares asked Tom to travel to Southern Kosovo, meet with schoolchildren there, share his compassion for animals and gain an understanding of the needs of the local citizens.

Tom traveled the countryside for eight days in an old German Army Troop Truck, accompanied by Mares and the Kosovar coordinator, who made all the scheduling and living arrangements for the team. Joining them were Selami Hoti, the driver/interpreter, a Kosovar citizen (who brought two dogs and a kitten to illustrate how good care can contribute to creating wonderful companion animals), and a United States Army veterinarian and his assistant who were stationed at nearby Camp Bondsteel and taking part in a community outreach program. Within the eight-day period, Tom gave 10 presentations to over 700 elementary through middle school-aged students, their teachers, and community leaders. Most had never touched a dog or cat in their lives and feared being bitten.

Schoolchildren in Kosovo

Tom took a friendly and informal approach to expose his audiences to a new way of considering animals and to gently suggest a possible change in the future. Pointing out the similarities between Kosovo and New Mexico's overpopulation of unwanted animals and the need for controlling these numbers, Tom also provided a PowerPoint presentation featuring the staff, volunteers, and animals of the Santa Fe Animal Shelter.

To acquaint the Kosovar people with the concept of an animal shelter, Tom displayed photographs of the Santa Fe shelter itself, the animals within, the shelter's veterinary clinic, and adoption scenes depicting happy families with their new animal - all foreign concepts to Kosovars. Discussions led Alexander's audiences to realize that both animals and humans desire and need the same basic things: food, water, shelter, exercise/play and love. Topics also covered understanding why dogs bite and how to avoid being bitten, the negative effects of chaining an animal for prolonged periods, safe behavior around loose animals, pack mentality and animal body language.

Alexander found his audiences receptive to his message, and wanting to touch and handle the well-cared-for animals who accompanied him. He describes his trip as "amazing... I stayed with local people in villages. They are the most wonderful people I have ever met. They have gone through so much... many have so little but will give you whatever they have... they love Americans. It was a trip I'll never forget."