In Kosovo, struggling to recover from a 1998-99 war that ravaged the country, parents warn their children to beware of packs of feral dogs that wander the streets and countryside.
Just a week before Tom Alexander visited one of the villages, a dog attacked a child getting off a bus.
The Santa Fe man faced a formidable task, then, explaining to children on his eight-day tour through the country last November that dogs and cats can be cuddly, gentle, devoted companion animals.
“The idea of a dog in a home is almost never seen,” said Alexander, who is humane education coordinator for the Santa Fe Animal Shelter and a board member of Animal Protection of New Mexico. “If they do have a dog, it’s chained in the backyard. It’s viewed as a furry burglar alarm.”
That’s a far cry from dog-pampering Santa Fe, and even the rest of New Mexico.
Pet ownership statistics released Wednesday by the American Veterinary Medical Association ranked New Mexico as the second-highest pet-owning state in the country, with 67.6 percent of households including a pet (behind Vermont).
It also ranks second in dog ownership, with 46 percent of households having a dog (behind Arkansas).
The entire country of Kosovo — about the same geographic size and population as New Mexico — doesn’t even have an animal shelter, Alexander said.
The purpose of his Nov. 3-13 trip was to help prepare Kosovans for their first shelter, being built this year through the efforts of Denver businessman Ben Mares — who, Alexander added, was born and raised in Taos.
Mares’ Kosovo relief organization (Refugee Direct Aid, a private organization) funded the journey, according to Alexander, whose own participation had its roots in a tour a Kosovan delegation took through northern New Mexico and southern Colorado in 2011.
Alexander said he made a presentation when the group visited Santa Fe’s shelter, and Mares took him aside and asked him if he might be interested in taking his educational talk on the road.
“I thought it was one of those polite things that people say,” Alexander said, not imagining that he would be traveling the southern part of Kosovo more than a year later.
That 2011 delegation also visited Smith Veterinary Hospital and Heart and Soul Sanctuary in Santa Fe, as well as Stray Hearts animal shelter in Taos.
During his recent overseas trip, Alexander said, he talked to more than 700 people in six different villages in the southern part of Kosovo.
Besides children in the elementary to middle school ages, he talked with many school and municipal officials, he said.
“The greatest thing for me was meeting these people. There are no words to describe how wonderful these people are,” he said.
On this tour, he made sure he brought along two “friendly, sweet” dogs and a cat that were pets of people who worked for some Mares-funded businesses in the country. “For some (kids), they had never contacted a friendly, clean dog,” he said.
After initially hanging back warily, many children soon gathered around the animals, petting them happily, he added.
“What I tried to communicate was, ‘I am not here to tell you what to do. That’s what your parents and teachers should do. But you are the future of Kosovo. Things are going to get better. Be aware that there is another way to be. Think about it as you move into the future.’”
That “other way to be” could include sterilizing animals, instead of the current method of reducing the number of feral dogs. “Their way of population control is to get out in a truck and shoot them,” Alexander said.
The animals, who scavenge garbage cans and other sources for food, are not vaccinated, and rabies can be a problem, he added.
“You see some dogs, you don’t even know how they’re walking, they’re so skinny,” Alexander said. “You are seeing dogs who in fact are starving to death.”
He was careful not to criticize Kosovans for their situation, noting that they are struggling to make a living, and some of them very well might have seen dogs eating dead bodies during the 1998-99 war against Serbian forces.
His interpreter and driver lost dozens of extended family members in the war, including two brothers and his father, Alexander said, adding that the man told him, “They shot my dog, my four cows and burned my house down.”
That man now lives in an 1,100-square-foot house with 30 people — many of them widows and orphans from the conflict, according to Alexander.
“The war devastated everything. The idea of paying for dog and cat food — they’re just trying to survive and feed their kids,” he said.
But Alexander, who is retired and moved to Santa Fe in 2000, sees himself as helping lay the groundwork for a more humane approach to animals as the country rebuilds. “You have to start somewhere,” he said.
And, he said, he’d love to go back. “It’s one of those life experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world,” he said of his trip.