The dogs love Raluca. She walks into the kennel, crouches down and they jostle each other to clamber onto her, dirty paw prints all over her clothes and she doesn't flinch. She picks them up. She cradles them, comforts them with soft words and a constant smile. Of course they love her. She's saved their lives. Their comprehension of the situation may not be so exactly expressed but it's obvious enough they understand they're safe here and somehow this woman is responsible for that.
They are safer here than they've ever been even though the structures here are roughly built. The kennels are made from wooden slats, pieces of metal and sheets of plastic. The ground is dirt. In each kennel, there is a cubby hole of some construction from which the shy ones barely poke their heads out. The eager ones dash forward and push their noses through the metal gates seeking some human connection.
The dogs may love Raluca but the neighbours not so much. She tells me they used to complain about her shelter. However, her paperwork was all in order so there was nothing they could do. Now they've stopped complaining.
There are forty dogs here. At Raluca's other shelter, there are three hundred more. A few days before my visit, she had just taken in thirty from a public pound in Breasta. The cutters there had hacked up many of the dogs with botched spay neuters and several had developed ugly infections. Hopefully, the dogs are resilient enough and the antibiotics Raluca is feeding them will be strong enough to overcome the infections.
A few people help Raluca run the day-to-day. Ovidiu works at the one we are visiting. He is quiet, attentive. He seems as comfortable around the dogs as Raluca. Every so often when we hear a potential dog fight start to sound, he runs off to quell the situation.
No one pretends this is a good life for the dogs. The cold has arrived and will only get colder. The kennels are cleaned but there are too many dogs and not enough people to keep them clean all the time. The dogs do not have much freedom to run or roam. And of course they are deprived of that which they most want: their own person and home. This is existing, not living but this will do for now. This will have to do until adopters come and take them out because the alternative is so much worse.
Raluca adopts out about two hundred fifty dogs a year. Many of the dogs we meet today are already spoken for and will soon be on their way to the U.K., Germany, Austria. And then there are the seven Randy and I will be taking to Canada. The original plan was to take six, three to accompany each of us but at the last minute Randy decided he could take another into the cabin with him so Raluca shows him two dogs small enough to fit under a seat on a plane. They are both shy but the brown one seems terrified and perhaps the flight would be too traumatic for him so the white Bichon Frise mix is chosen.
Randy also has his own rescue, Firefighter Dog Rescue
The organizers of this transport have asked Randy and me to make a list of potential dogs for the next transport. There is not one dog here I would leave behind. Every dog I've met here would make a wonderful companion. One or two might require a bit of work to bring them out of their shells - nothing a couple weeks of warm beds, full bellies and decent kindness wouldn't address. So to choose one means to abandon another. Still, you make a choice when you have to make a choice and you don't think too much on it because to do so would risk breaking something inside. It's no surprise many well-intentioned dog rescuers become dog hoarders. They've all stared too deep into the eyes of the ones they've left behind.
I like the quiet one with the stumpy legs because his personality reminds me of my own dog's personality. I like the big orange one because the big ones always have a harder time finding homes. I like the one alone in his own kennel because when he was young he had distemper and now his back leg twitches and his tongue hangs out the side of his mouth and he will be on meds forever because his kidneys are weak but this wonky little dog is still so full of joy it is infectious.
Maybe they will be chosen next time. This time, the seven already chosen will be transported on two separate trips, the first four by Randy and the remaining three by me. The half shells of the crates will be assembled at the airport because they are too large to fit pre-assembled into Madalina's car. Madalina has her own rescue and frequently partners with Raluca. She and her husband, Sorin, have been driving Randy and me all around Bucharest and will be transporting the dogs from Raluca's shelter to the airport for their flights to Canada. Everyone here is busy.
After a couple of hours spent with the dogs, the sun makes it's early retreat and Raluca invites us all inside for some coffee and dessert. We sit around a kitchen table. Raluca's mother-in-law has made apple turnovers and a pot of strong, sweet coffee. We talk about our other lives. Raluca is a full time veterinary student. Randy is a fireman. Madalina is a psychologist working in a hospital. Randy pulls out some photos on his smartphone showing himself as a fireman with his shirt off posing for a calendar. Madalina also shows us some of her photos as well. It's nice to get a glimpse of them in their other lives even though we only know each other in this one.
There are photos of Raluca on the wall, Madalina says. She points to a cluster of pictures of Raluca in a wedding gown. She was married just recently.
I ask Raluca where she went on her honeymoon.
"We have not been somewhere in the honeymoon," she says. "We don't have time for us."