‘Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, and filling an emptiness we didn’t ever know we had’ – Thom Jones
It’s an undeniable fact: being lovingly greeted by a dog is one of life’s greatest pleasures, whether it be after a long day at work, or simply following a few seconds after nipping into a shop.
What could be better? I’ll tell you what... Being lovingly greeted by not just one, but 300 dogs, all at the same time!
This was exactly the warm welcome we received during our visit to the Zarkovica Animal Shelter in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
A sea of wagging tails and pure adoration made up our first impression of the shelter, which beholds a stunning location high in the hills of Dubrovnik.
A chorus of excitable barking created the ensemble of dreams. We stepped beyond the gate, and were instantly inundated by dogs, all determined to be the first to say hello.
From German Shepherds and Labradors, to Mastiffs and mongrels: we were surrounded.
I have often wondered what heaven might look like... I think I now know.
Behind the dogs, a gentleman pushed his way through and shook our hands enthusiastically, introducing himself as Tom. He and his partner Sandra - along with just a handful of volunteers - single-handedly care for over 300 stray dogs (plus cats and birds), with no support or funding from the state. The Mayor contributes to the cost of food, and little else. These dogs require water, especially in consistent 30 degree heat. They need veterinary treatment to oversee their basic needs, and more complex operations such as spaying and neutering.
During our visit, one of the dogs was bleeding heavily from the nose after fending off a rat during the night.
Being a pet owner is costly at the best of times, let alone taking into account having not just one, but 300 dependents. We all know that gut-wrenching feeling of discovering that our furry friends have been suddenly cursed with an unexpected accident or ailment. You simply can't plan for these things, and having to scrape the money together at the drop of a hat to provide the very best care for our very best friend is stressful.
Initially founded in 2001, Zarkovica has stood in its secluded spot on the hill since 2004.
Ever growing in popularity, Dubrovnik sees a hefty turn-over of tourism every year. Sun-seekers flock to the town, relishing the warm temperatures, which can easily reach 35 degrees in the height of summer.
In contrast to these sizzling climates, Dubrovnik shivers with lows of six degrees throughout the winter months, and often plays host to treacherous storms.
Sandra, Tom and their team work in these varying climates all year round, ensuring their animals are as comfortable and safe as possible - but it isn’t an easy task.
Last winter, a storm destroyed part of the shelter, killing a number of dogs. The remnants of the shelter still lie in derelict tatters across the complex. There is currently no money to repair the damage.
Tom and Sandra have been forbidden to build up and adapt their shelter, amid external worries that the sight of it on the hillside will ‘ruin the view from the Old Town.’
How can anybody with an ounce of humanity and compassion turn a blind eye to the welfare of living creatures? I can’t even imagine animals being shunned and treated in this appalling way in the UK. It’s as inhuman as it is backwards.
Tom described a further incident whereby a large number of their dogs were taken from them by the authorities and carelessly deposited in shelters across Dubrovnik, where they would be killed if not re-homed within four weeks. Sandra spent the night driving around the city, retrieving every single one of her dogs and bringing them back to safety.
"They say too many dogs, but there are seven billion people?" Tom said.
It was one of the truest sentiments ever spoken.
Tom passionately reeled off the names of each dog we passed, reciting their individual stories and characteristics.
Never before have I fallen in love at first sight so many times over the course of a few hours. My heart melted for every single dog we were introduced to. Each and every canine possessed a totally different personality, and their characters shone through and made an immediate impact on our lives. Beautiful Kikica in particular was just a joy. Not a day has passed since our initial meeting that I haven’t spared a thought for her. A dog with a bigger heart you will never meet. Kikica spent the entire afternoon trotting after me loyally, placing her paw pointedly on my lap whenever another dog attempted to come close. She well and truly stole my heart.
Blackie, a faithful Labrador, was one of the first dogs we encountered. It took only a few brief seconds for us to become firm friends. He leant his full weight against my knee and, with his eyes half closed, dozed happily as I scratched his ears, the pair of us content in the afternoon sunshine.
I never thought it possible for a dog to smile, but sweet little Strippy certainly quashed this theory by beaming at us as we neared his enclosure.
Rex giddily raced across his pen to meet us, offering an ecstatic high-five.
Kindly Nila stood protectively at our feet as we listened intently to Tom’s stories, offering a cuddle to console us.
Fun-loving Cicibella roped us into a game of chase as he whizzed across the complex, bounding back over to us to demand more attention the second we turned our backs.
The unspoken bond between the dogs is both spine-tingling and remarkable to watch. A litter of puppies resided at the centre at the time of our visit, and were housed a little further up the shelter. Standing at the gate, we were met by a wall of barking dogs. It was almost as if they were guarding something...
Tom led us beyond the gate and towards a shaded section of the compound, the dogs still circling us. There, lying on an old rug, were the puppies. The older dogs were wary, and seemingly reluctant to allow us closer to the puppies, but eventually allowed us through once they realised we weren’t a threat. The older dogs then formed a circle around us, shielding the puppies and watching their every move.
Tom explained that the young puppies were orphaned and very weak when found. They desperately needed their mother to be able to feed if they stood a chance of survival.
Luckily, some of the centre's other residents had stepped up to fill the vacant positions of mum and dad. Watching the older dogs allow the puppies to feed from them was simply heartwarming.
What a life for these dogs, who spend their days running around with their friends in the sun, with access to shade, food and water whenever they require it. An eye opening experience it certainly was, and it dawned on me that these canines probably consider themselves luckier than the UK house dog, who, on average, spends up to seven hours alone per day.
As we walked through the shelter, Tom pointed to the view behind us. Beyond Zarkovica, the hillside dipped gently in the direction of the coast. There, blanketed between the dazzling sea and the shimmering sky, was the Old Town.
If ever you are in Dubrovnik, make a pact with yourself: swerve the cable car, and pay a visit to Zarkovica instead. The views are unrivalled, with the added bonus of dogs, plus the knowledge that you are helping an extremely worthy cause!
Tom informed us that Sandra sleeps at the centre every night; something she has done for the past eight years. The pair work pretty much all day, every day, 365 days a year.
Words and phrases such as ‘tireless devotion’ and ‘incredible’ are insultingly weak in this situation, and honestly do not do this place the justice it deserves. Tom and Sandra are the truest heroes I have ever met, and am confident to say, will EVER meet.
Spreading the word of this place is imperative, in terms of recognition, awareness, potential adoption, and, of course, much needed donations. Without Zarkovica, a vast number of these dogs would no longer be with us.
All 300 of those dogs have unique traits, different likes and dislikes, alternate requirements, and such incredible personalities. Every single one of them deserves the chance to be solely loved as we love our very own pets. There is a dog at Zarkovica for everybody, and what gives anyone the right to deny these pure animals the chance of a forever home and unconditional love?
To read more about Tom, Sandra and their ever-growing family of miraculous animals, please follow the link below, where you can also make donations -
‘Dogs are not our whole lives, but they make our lives whole’ – Roger Caras
Cara Jasmine Bradley