Diane Rowles is much like any other wife and mother. She makes sure the boys put on their coats before heading outside, that her husband eats his greens and that the laundry gets done before bedtime. She worries about all four children — their twisted ankles, math homework and feverish foreheads. But in addition to that classic role, Diane is also an extreme animal rescuer who has saved the lives of hundreds upon hundreds of animals who have survived circumstances far darker than the sting of snow against their legs or the ache of hunger as they search for food. One day soon, Diane may also become the newest inmate in Bulgarian prison. Her crime is simply being ’too poor’ to rescue animals.
As incredulous as it sounds, following the European Union accession in 2007, new rules here created a bottomless divide between the culture of animal suffering that had settled in during communist times and the animal welfare doctrine brought in by the UK. Though there’s no law enforcement against those who abandon or abuse their animals, there are very high standards for those who wish to rescue them.
Dogs Are Dirty Vermin
“Dogs here were always working animals, kept on short chains and it was illegal to keep them in the house,” Michelle Jones of K9 Rescue Bulgaria explains. “They were seen as dirty vermin; cats were seen as mousers, having to feed themselves and nothing more. Unwanted cats and dogs were either killed or simply thrown on the street. The result, hundreds of thousands of strays roamed the street, multiplying naturally.”
Only in the last few years has there been some evidence of baby steps toward a more humane culture, but for rescuers like Diane who confront the pervasive conditions of neglect, there simply won’t be a ‘slow day’ for the rest of their lives.
The Rowles have made animal rescue a family affair, opening their self-bought animal shelter a couple years back with help from a handful of supporters. They operate their charity under the name Rudozem Street Dog Rescue and did the best they could at the the time, acquiring an old building and some land that could eventually become a pristine shelter and sanctuary. But the dogs and cats keep coming at a rapid fire pace. People tie their animals in sacks and hurl them at the gates of the shelter or leave them in the middle of the night, sealed in cardboard boxes. With no municipal support and no network of local foster homes to rely on, the Rowles are on their own and their only option is to open each box and bag and introduce themselves to the terror-stricken animals inside.
Trying to Feed All These Animals and Slowly Renovate the Shelter
With the high costs of food and veterinary medicine for the hundreds of cats and dogs, progress in renovating the shelter has been slow. A new roof went up late last year, just in time to prevent a collapse under the weight of winter snow, but there is still so much to be done and that work will cost a small fortune.
“Rennovation will mean all the floors, walls, windows, doors, ceilings and drainage will need doing and also the building will be split creating an isolation ward, food preparation area, and the construction of individual pens,” Diane explains. “We will have to empty that part of the building of dogs so the work can be done. At the moment we have 33 dogs in that section and there is no room to move them elsewhere. We have over 150 dogs and 16 cats here in total and are working to adopt them.”
“There is no electricity in the main parts of the building where the dog and cat pens are,” Diane continues. “No hot water and the only heating is the small log burner. We have no washing machine and the only sink in the place is a tiny hand sink in the staff room. We need a decent sink and plumbing for a washing machine. For now we will get a small electric water heater so we will at least have hot water. In the summer, we wash and bathe the dogs outside using a large plastic tub and watering can. ”
“We have to boil water so that we have warm water. Dirty bedding and blankets are also washed by hand and hung over the fence to dry. None of this is possible in the winter. We have a backlog of blankets to wash and we are struggling to bathe new rescued pups.”
Keeping the Animals and Their Rescuer Safe
Time is not on Diane’s side, according to the group’s Secretary Anita Weber. ”As of February 12, 2013, we have been advised by the municipality that if the shelter is not up to European Union standards soon, then our shelter will close and Diane will go to prison.”
The Harmony Fund international rescue charity, based in the USA, is stepping forward to help raise funds to renovate the shelter here and to sustain an array of equally courageous and effective rescue teams throughout Bulgaria. We aim to keep Diane where she belongs, at home with her family and functioning as nothing less than a super nanny to hundreds of homeless animals who need her each year. To help us bring urgent aid to the animals and rescuers in Bulgaria, please click here.