Saturday, June 18, 2016

Rights Discourse in a Developing Nation: Stray Dogs in Kosovo

By Jasmin Vassilev

In indicating stages of a state’s development Mahatma Gandhi is said to have expressed that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and human rights oriented variations on this pyramid highlight the different foundational levels of needs for development. Basic ‘psychological’ needs, such as food, water and shelter need to be available to the people before a society can work towards creating a common morality for example. Post-conflict societies offer a platform for observing this process of state and nation building from the ground up.

Key issues in Kosovo’s progress of nation building are the ethnic tensions that are still present, the weakness of the rule of law, and the levels of corruption within the government institutions. But what is above all this expressed as a major source of frustration and political unrest, is the lack of job opportunities, in particular, the high rates of youth unemployment. As expressed by a Vetëvendosje activist: “If we had work, no one would have time for protests”[1].  

What this indicates is thus that certain developments in rights and security must be assured before the political discourse can shift towards addressing other issues of state development. Moreover, a progression in a nation’s rights discourse can be observed; first, majority rights are secured, then the largest minorities and gradually the most marginalized minorities will be included. In Kosovo this is evident in the rights of Kosovar Albanians as the majority, then Kosovar Serbs as the largest minority, and more marginal communities such as the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities and the LGBTQ community.  The rights of animals, as non-humans, tend to be more marginal in the rights discourse. Naturally, self-protection of an individual’s daily subsistence takes precedence over the rights and security of others, and it is usually the case that the majority—or those in power—determines the norm, who is included in this, and which groups are excluded from it. Through developments in state and nation building this ‘norm’ can become more inclusive. Still, certain levels of rights need to be established before people can concern themselves with animal welfare. Note, however, that the process is not linear, nor does it progress in identical ways in the development of nations; in ‘developed’ Western societies it can be the case that animal rights are prioritized over the rights of marginalized communities.         

This blog post is meant to share my past and current findings on the animals and animal rights in Kosovo. It is in no way intended to pass judgment on the ‘greatness of the nation’ or its morality; rather it should be seen as an initial inquiry in the position of animals in Kosovo in relation to its post-conflict development.

Two years ago, in 2014, when I was in Kosovo for the first time, the number of stray dogs struck me. From my own experience with Bulgaria, in particular, Sofia, I know that it is not uncommon for ‘Balkan cities’ to have large amounts of stray animals. But I knew that in Sofia the municipality had implemented programs to chip, register and sterilize all dogs living on the streets. And I think they might also have dog shelters that provide food and shelter for these animals. So, even though they did not belong to anyone specifically they would still be taken care of collectively. However, in 2014-Pristina, the well-being of the animals that were present on any street corner, seemed to be on no one's mind. Rather people feared the stray dogs and avoided areas in which they grouped. I recall our host Bardha scolding her younger brother for taking us to Newborn via a route that passed the abandoned Orthodox Church. People in Pristina are afraid of the stray dogs mainly because they can be aggressive, dirty, and carry ticks, fleas, and diseases, such as rabies. 

Recent media coverage of a seven-year-old boy who has been bitten to death by a stray dog in Fushë Kosova[2], is still very much on people’s minds. Although not very coherently, the story reports that a Roma boy was picking through the trash to collect recyclables when he stumbled upon a stray dog. The dog, that had sought shelter near the garbage pile, most likely felt threatened by the young boys presence and it launched at him in order to protect his territory. Then, multiple dogs, part of the pack, attacked the boy. The Roma boy died of blood loss from the biting wounds he had suffered. Our other host Enver, who initially informed me about the news report and who lives in Fushë Kosova himself, tells me that there are still a lot of stray dogs in the area where he lives. He says it is probably not a good idea to go walking about on my own in his neighborhood because of that. 

However, there have also been improvements in the last few years. This time, around I noticed a lot fewer dogs on the streets. Some of the stray dogs a saw seemed healthier than I can recall the majority of them to be in 2014. In part, this could be due to the fact that now dog shelters have been created outside of Pristina. These shelters collect Kosovo’s stray dogs from the city and provide food, vaccinations and sterilization. Furthermore, the welfare of these animals has been improved in another way: a few years ago, maybe two, a law was passed that made it illegal to kill stray dogs, before that, KFOR had the right to shoot stray dogs when they formed a threat to people’s security. Enver tells me he witnessed such a shooting in 2005, in the area where now the Newborn sign stands. Although animal rights groups—for example promoting animal cruelty-free cosmetics—seem to be absent from Kosovo’s political discourse, people have protested against the killing of the stray dogs, upon which this became prohibited by law. In addition, dogs are more prominent on Pristina’s streets in a different way: some stray dogs have also been adopted by internationals that were looking for a suitable pet. For locals, it also seems to have become more common to keep dogs as pets; yet the dogs they keep do not come from the streets. I have seen mostly labradors, and poodles, and pugs which seem to come from breeders rather than a local shelter. Still, dogs seem to have won over the hearts of the Kosovar people.

Thus, stray dogs in Kosovo are still present on most street corners, and near any monument, but already to a lesser extent than I have noticed two years ago. People still perceive them as potentially dangerous but have also become increasingly aware of their welfare. Although animal rights are not present in the political discourse, the core issue of stray dog shooting has been addressed. On the one hand, the shelters that have been erected on the outskirts of Pristina, have taken the stray dogs off the streets, on the other hand, people who have adopted dogs as pets have reintroduced them to Kosovo’s streets in a new fashion. This could indicate that the nation building in Kosovo has entered a stage where the ethnic rights discourse is slowly moving to the background, and other rights, including the most marginalized minorities, such as Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian and LGTB communities, and animal rights are becoming more prominent. Can the developments I describe truly benchmark Kosovo’s development as a nation? Perhaps. Only time can tell…

[1] VICE News. (2016, January 22). Corruption, Hate and Violence: Kosovo in Crisis [Video file]. Retrieved from

[2] GazetaExpress. (2014, November 17). Qentë mbysin 5-vjeçarin në Fushë Kosovë 'Dog kills 5-year-old boy in Fushë Kosova'. Retrieved from

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