Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Animal Cruelty Raises Few Hackles in Bosnia

Activists face an uphill battle in changing a climate of public indifference towards animal welfare.
By Aida Alic

In Sarajevo zoo a large brown bear sits in a cage that is barely larger the animal itself, flapping its paws helplessly against the iron bars every time a child runs past.

Whether this gesture should be interpreted as a cry for help is open to question but the traumatised expression in its eyes certainly suggests it is in pain.

The bear’s dismal conditions draw little criticism from the stream of visitors to the zoo. In a country racked until relatively recently by savage ethnic warfare, few appear to have time or emotional energy to consider animal welfare.

Nor do the courts offer much guidance to the zoo authorities. Bosnia has no distinct law on the statute books concerning cruelty to animals.

“Last year, we came across a man interested in donating means to improve the bear's accommodation but the zoo's management didn’t take up on the offer,” said Velimir Ivanisevic, founder of SOS Sarajevo, also known as the Citizens Association for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, established in 1998.

The would-be benefactor was Zulfikar Alispago, owner of Sarajevo's City Pub.

Esad Tajic, director of the zoo, denies any negligence on his part. “Several factors prevented us from using that money,” he said, declining to elaborate further.

Tajic admitted that the European Association of Zoos, EAZA, had complained about the Sarajevo bear’s living conditions, adding that management was not sitting quietly on the issue.

“We plan to enlist the help of the [Sarajevo] canton authorities to build an entire new wild animal complex, which will be safer and cheaper than just building a new bear cage,” he said. The project has been budgeted at approximately 120,000 euro.

The plight of the zoo’s bear is shocking – but no less than that of many pets. “The treatment of animals in Bosnia and Hercegovina is appalling,” said Ivanisevic.

SOS has witnessed cases of pet abuse that almost beggared description, such as animals that had had firecrackers stuck up their backsides. Once, Ivanisevic came across six puppies that had been nailed to the floor.

In spite of scarce financial resources and official indifference, SOS has saved many from a cruel death.

The organisation’s members have no choice sometimes but to shelter animals in their own homes, or in their offices. Their main financial help comes from foreign animal welfare bodies, including Germany’s “Helfer ohne Grenzen” (Helpers Without Borders) and vets working for NATO-led forces in Bosnia.

Bosnia’s cantonal and local authorities have no plans to introduce legislation to protect animals and their indifference to the problem reinforces a public perception that it scarcely matters.

“I can hardly make ends meet with a monthly income of 150 Bosnian marks (75 euro),” one Sarajevo pensioner told IWPR. “Other issues are far more important than laws [on animal cruelty]. This country faces bigger problems, which need solving immediately.”

Another passer-by was more sympathetic. “These creatures cannot speak for themselves,” he said. “That fact does not mean we can deprive them of their basic rights.”

The SOS is trying to target local youth as part of its campaign to change the tide of public opinion. Members give talks at elementary and secondary schools to raise awareness about the proper treatment of animals.

But they have a long way to go. Humiliation of animals for public entertainment is routine in Bosnia. A television report last October, for example, told the story of a restaurant owner on Mount Vlasic who kept a caged bear to amuse his guests.

His piece de resistance was to intoxicate the animal with liquor every day in front of the diners, claiming the bear “simply loves it”.

The continuing popularity of dogfights in the republic is another reflection of general indifference to animal rights. These gory fights are held at discreet locations, mostly involving pit-bull terriers, and generate a substantial profit for the organisers.

One dog breeder said audiences at dogfights were not composed of poor and uneducated citizens. “They include doctors, professors, police - people from all levels of society,” the breeder told IWPR.

At the same time, a publicly-funded organisation of dog catchers rounds up strays and disposes of them as it wishes.

SOS is trying to come up with an alternative by setting up a new dog shelter to add to the one currently in existence on the outskirts of Sarajevo, run by the Help Animals organisation.

The aim is to provide both a home and medical care for abandoned animals until they find new owners. The search for a location is currently underway.

In the meantime, Zulfikar Alispago of Sarajevo's City Pub is continuing to raise funds for a new home for the city zoo’s wretched bear.

“I know Bosnia has bigger problems than animal neglect, but we have to start doing what we can, otherwise all the beautiful things in this country will vanish,” he said.

Aida Alic and Amil Ducic produced this article as part of their primary level journalism training course.

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