Emma and Anthony are from Yorkshire in the UK. Anthony grew up in a farming family and for the past 25 years has worked as a commercial diver. He has lived in Bulgaria on and off since 2004. Emma worked as a response officer at North Yorkshire police and prior to this was a Sister on the Medical Admissions Unit at Leeds General Infirmary.
In June 2013 we moved to our new home in Bulgaria and started our career-break dream in Glushka village, which is close to Dryanovo, north central Bulgaria. We bought a house at the top of a tiny hamlet with spectacular views of the Stara Planina mountains. We moved to Bulgaria to enjoy a simple life and for the first couple of years we worked on the house, made a vegetable garden and were living the dream!
However, we soon became shocked and saddened with the amount of street dogs in Bulgaria, their suffering and poor treatment and decided we had to do something to help them and to try and improve the worsening situation.
In September 2015 we had a visit from Miroslav Semov who was running to be the mayor of Dryanovo. Miroslav had attended the Dogs Trust course in London and agreed that something needed to be done to help dogs in Dryanovo. There had been no effective neutering programme for at least 20 years: we now think there probably never was. Poisoning and shooting dogs seemed to be the chosen method of controlling an ever-growing population. One thing we connected with Miroslav on was his humanity towards animals and his wish for things to be done the right way. Happily, Miroslav was elected and that was when the work really started! With a small budget from a friends independent organisation we started a neutering programme. We needed to prove to the mayor that our work could make a difference. Due to an abundance of street dogs it was an aim that was easy to achieve. Sadly most dogs were pregnant and we had no choice but to neuter them as we had no facilities to take in dogs at that time.
It is unbelievable how many puppies a street dog can have: one dog had 17 puppies with her when we found her. All were riddled with fleas and worms - just heart breaking - and at this point the realisation set in that we could not just neuter and release. If we left these puppies on the streets we would need to be capturing them again in 6 months time to neuter them before they started to breed. By that point they are likely to be scared of people and catching them would be a huge task in terms of man-power and time. Having lived on the streets they are also likely to be ill from parasite infestation. So after 6 months experience we realised we needed to set up a small rescue centre. We converted our wood stores into kennels and our beautiful garden became a dog haven!
We wanted to work co-operatively with local people and had many meetings in those first few months. After a short time we were allocated a small budget for neutering from the municipality. There was no money for dog food or medicines so we paid for this ourselves. Of course there was not enough money for the amount of dogs we needed to neuter. We did an initial count of the street dogs we then knew of within the villages and town and it was about 150 – excluding all the owned dogs in the area.
The Early Days
The first few months were a steep learning curve. We started in a nearby village, Radovtsi where the dog population was out of control and patients from the hospital there were at risk. The manager did not want all the dogs there and we couldn’t blame her: it was unhealthy with dog faeces in the grounds. Many of the dogs were in a horrific state as they did not get enough food. The only option was to re-home some of them.
We then started working in Dryanovo town and that really was a steep learning curve. We uncovered terrible neglect and cruelty by people who were allegedly taking care of some of these animals. One dog was living in its own faeces on an apartment balcony; another had the most severe tick infestation we have ever seen (the poor thing died on the way to the vets); several dogs were chained-up in a garden starving to death. We tried to liaise and resolve the situation but a language barrier and different cultural ways made the situation incredibly frustrating.
At times the enormity of the task in hand was overwhelming. Dryanovo has 62 villages, as well as the town, and we could not cope physically or financially. Then things started to change. Friends from Emma's UK work heard about our work and began sending donations. Then a cake stall was organised at Harrogate police station: the first fundraiser was born! We also got to know other British ex-pats in our area and their response was amazing. They raised funds for us by organising charity evenings and whip rounds at the local bar. This public support was very much needed and appreciated.
2017 was the start of something great. Kate Lamb who is an actress, dog behaviourist and adventurist had heard about us and wanted to help. She visited our centre and was amazed by our work, but also knew we were at breaking-point financially. So Street Hearts BG was born! A new website (we only had Facebook), a Shelter Manager Database and a Go Fund Me fundraising campaign were launched. The results over-night were astounding.
Kate also worked with us on how to apply behaviourist training to dogs, to enable us to deal with scared dogs and rehabilitate them into family pets. This has been the biggest success to date: we have successfully re-homed over 270 dogs and to see them in homes across Europe makes all the hard work worthwhile.
In May 2017 Kate Lamb became Patron of Street Hearts BG.