[Editor’s note: This story is upsetting, but in life, there are good days and bad. Animal lovers proceed with caution.]
I visited a friend in another city recently, en route to Skopje, for a little stopover to see her new apartment and to cross one of the local sites off my Macedonia bucket list. She had a meeting and our leisurely coffee ran late, so she headed out and I stayed to finish the dishes before departing.
Throughout the morning, a dog’s barking echoed through the apartment building. A stray had found his way inside and up the stairs, which happens periodically. Was the barking annoying? Absolutely. But I figured he would find his way back downstairs and outside again, which they always do.
Halfway through rinsing the coffee cups, I froze. Just outside the door I could hear the unmistakable, shrill cry of a dog in pain. I ran to the door and threw it open in time to see one of the neighbors slam a wooden stick on the steps, inches from the dog, who was cowering and backing down the steps slowly. I slammed the door.
Part of me was afraid of what I might see. Part of me didn’t know what to do. Part of me wanted to run back out of the door and chase the dog away to safety.
Animals are treated differently here, I reminded myself. This dog doesn’t live here and needs to be shooed back outside. It will be okay.
The thud of the wooden stick hitting the steps down three flights unnerved me, but it was the dog’s continued yelps and cries that crushed me the most. I stood at the door saying, “I should go down there. I should go down there. I should do something.”
But I didn’t.
As the cries continued, I ran from the door to the window, hoping to see the dog skitter out the door to freedom, away from the man with wooden stick.
I don’t know how long the cries continued, maybe only a few moments, but it felt like the time stretched. I kept repeating, “I should go down there. I should try to help. I should go down there. I need to go down there.”
But I didn’t.
The cries stopped and I leaned out the window, again hopeful to see the dog leaving. Several neighbors were also leaning from their porches and gathering around to see what was happening. They might have been saying, “I should do something.”
But they didn’t.
The man with the now bloody stick emerged from the entrance, dragging the dog’s limp body by the tail. Murmurs went through the group of neighbors. My hands went to my mouth. I felt immediately overwhelmed with guilt for not intervening, and at a loss for what to do next. There aren’t any organizations that deal with animal abuse. The police likely wouldn’t do anything. It was a street animal. There were no consequences.
I paced back and forth, saying, “I should have done something. I should have done something.” Then I returned to the window. The dog, who hadn’t moved from under the tree where the man with the bloody stick had dragged him, was breathing. I could see his side rising and falling, slowly.
Should I bring the dog water? Should I try to help? Will it be afraid of me or snap after that horrible beating?
I was still running through my options when the man with the bloody stick came out again. I heard one more sharp cry, and when I ran back to the window, the dog was gone. The man with the bloody stick was uncoiling a hose to rinse down the stairs and hallway.
That was ten days ago and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, about how it could have been different. But the reality is that there isn’t a group I can call. And I was at a friend’s new home, and if I had tried to intervene with the man with the stick, any number of things could have been worse for me and worse for my friend. But I still feel awful.
I talked to our safety and security officer about it today. (Our Peace Corps Batman. He’s amazing.) He confirmed that sadly, there are rarely repercussions for animal abuse. And agreed that intervening might have created conflict for my friend living there. There is probably a reason that neighbors gathered, but said nothing; did nothing. This culture is heavily based on relationships. Neighbors wouldn’t interfere.
He also agreed that it just plain sucked. He was supportive and understanding. It’s an area of growth in Macedonia. There have been small changes over the years, but there is a long way to go.
I tell this story not to paint a bleak picture of life here. I have never seen a situation this extreme before, and it really got to me. Periodically my students will shoo animals away, maybe I’ll see someone toss a rock. A lot of times, people just leave street animals alone.
But there are also people who love animals like I do. There’s a man who lives by my school who feeds all the cats in the neighborhood. My host cousins have a big, beautiful, fluffy dog named Jessie that lives inside. My friends Betty and Pavle adopted a sweet, gray cat named Pepe. My host family for a long time cared for a sassy, white Persian cat named Julie. (RIP Julie.) There are people here who love and care for animals, who look out for street dogs and cats, and who respect the four-legged among them.
Every day, I walk to school and say hello to my neighbors if they are out in their gardens, or this time of year, harvesting grapes. I have one neighbor who always tells his dog, Bingo, when he sees me coming. “Bingo, your friend is here,” he says in Macedonian. And whenever I see Bingo, I whistle and he comes running. He has helped me show my students walking to and from school how to be kind to dogs. He has raised eyebrows of the old men biking and walking past when they see me stopping to rub his belly. He has elicited a grin or two from the babas walking by, when they see me talking to him.
There is work still to be done, but there are good people here. Hearing and seeing the man with the stick was really awful, but it was one bad situation in two overall really great years. And I have a few more months here, which means a few more months of helping people fall in love with Bingo and spreading a bit more kindness.