We both heard the incessant mewing the moment we arrived for a picnic lunch at the park in Prilep, Macedonia. Dave suggested the cry came from a bird, but I knew that was wishful thinking. I was certain the noise came from a very young kitten.
The sound intensified as we walked towards the dumpster. Not only was it louder, but we could hear three distinct voices. Trembling, I set my bike against the trash while flies buzzed around my head. I stood on my tip toes as I peered into the deep vessel, dreading what I knew I would find.
In the corner of the dumpster, below wilted flowers, I spotted the source of the noise. Three kittens, so new to this world that their eyes had yet to open and their fur was still wet from birth. Blindly, they crawled over one another, vying for the top position, screaming in search of their mother.
I gasped at the sight. Clearly, these newborn kittens had been tossed into the trash like rotten fruit, left to die. Without their mother, they had no chance of survival. I became flooded with emotions: shock, anger, disappointment, urgency, despair, utter sadness. How could someone do this to another living being?
I stood frozen while contemplating what we do with these kittens. Four teenage girls came bounding down the stairs, curious over the noise. Horrified, they gasped at the sight. They informed us that there was no veterinarian in town and certainly no animal shelter. We found ourselves faced with the dilemma of fighting for these cats’ lives in a small town in a country that does not hold animals to the same standards as do developed nations or continuing our journey, knowing the kittens couldn’t be saved. We fully understood that their fate may well end up the same despite our efforts, however, we simply could not allow these kittens to decompose in the trash like a banana peel.
This was the second time during our journey where the Universe recruited Dave and me for two animal rescue missions.
The moment we crossed into Croatia, the status of dogs and cats as loving companions haltingly downgraded to nuisances and dirty creatures meant to live outside. Stray dogs and cats roamed the streets in search of food, rummaging through dumpsters and courting restaurant patrons for scraps. They hobbled along on three legs or walked around with blinded, cloudy eyes, due to a life on the streets without veterinary care. Mostly friendly, and notably terrified of humans, dogs scampered around with their tails between their legs, skirting away at the raise of a hand or stamp of the foot to the pavement.
Those who did keep dogs used them solely for hunting or as protection. They lived in small kennels, forced to eat and sleep in the same place in which they relieved themselves. Others spent their lives within a six foot radius of the chain to which they were tied, choking themselves as they barked and growled at our passing. The sight of the abused, malnourished, injured, unloved creatures breaks our hearts every single time.
Most astonishing to me is the level of affection within these animals to still trust humans. Dave and I poured our love into all the street dogs and stray cats who allowed us the opportunity, receiving our kindness with wagging tails and deep purring. We named our friends who left the biggest impressions upon us.
There was Max, the yellow lab at our campsite in Bihać, Bosnia. Though he roamed the campground freely, owner ignored him, so we played fetch with a pear, as he had no other toys.
Sheeba, a sweet puppy at another campsite in Bosnia, lived tied to a chain under a bridge, with a tub of water and bowl of food to keep her satiated. She devoured an extra bone of Sora’s and yelped with delight as we walked down the path to greet her.
A little black and white kitten cared for by hotel owners in Bitola, Macedonia melted into my shoulder, purring when I scooped him up into my arms. I seriously pondered how I might fit him into my handlebar bag. We named him Clarence.
Diego joined us for lunch along a river in Montenegro. We were no match for his deep brown eyes and offered him a bit of Sora’s kibble.
There was Jazzy in Lake Ohrid, Macedonia, a puppy still trying to fit in with the resident dog pack of the city center. She followed us around while we walked in search of ice cream one evening. She ran up playfully to a family who kicked her away. Dave and I shouted at them to stop. She’s just a puppy.
And then there was Lily.
We found Lily in a ditch in the village of Prača, Bosnia. Stopping to look at a map, Dave heard a whimper, [delegating] the noise to Sora. I began to speak and he shushed me, listening more intently. The whimper came from the stream behind us, sitting five feet below the road surface.
Dave handed me his bike as he searched for the culprit: a tiny shepherd puppy. The size of an imperial pint glass, she nestled into the crook of my arm as we made our way to the gas station down the road. Neither of the attendants spoke English.
We offered her a bit of Sora’s food while Dave contemplated carrying Lily in his handlebar bag until we reached a city with a veterinarian.
I set after a woman whistling to her sheep, figuring that she must like animals if she managed a flock of sheep. She garbled something to me in Bosnia and pointed down the street.
I walked down the road feeling hopeless. How was I supposed to cultivate compassion for a small creature from residents of a country with 43% unemployment. They had more pressing issues to worry about.
I came upon a group of men and showed them my translated message indicating that we had found the puppy in a ditch and asking if they could help. Two of the older men shrugged their shoulders while another made a phone call. Talking amongst themselves, I wasn’t sure if they were trying to figure out a way to help me or just continuing their own conversation.
A few minutes later, the sheep herding woman came marching down the road with a wheelbarrow. She motioned for me to follow her behind the house and into a backyard. Suddenly several puppies came barreling out of a barn, clearly part of the same litter as Lily.
Gleefully, I set her down among the group and watched her tumble with her siblings, relieved that our rescue ended in success.
After debating a few minutes over our options to save these kittens, Dave grabbed a plastic bag to act as a glove and scooped the kittens out of the dumpster, one by one, placing them in a box he had found. He would go in search of a veterinarian while I remained with Sora and the crying kittens.
People came and went. Some peered into the box and shrugged their shoulders as they walked away, others went about their business completely oblivious to the sound.
I sat with Sora reading my book for two hours, wondering when I would see Dave again. At times, the kittens would stop mewling and I wondered if they were still alive. Moments later, the squeaks would resume, like a newborn baby drawing its first breath.
Finally, a yellow van pulled into the parking lot. Dave got out and said that he happened upon a veterinarian office after several failed attempts of finding Internet at cafes. While riding to what he had deciphered among a Cyrillic pet care webpage as a veterinarian’s office, he stumbled upon the telltale sign of a different veterinarian: a V with a snake wrapped around a pole.
After a bit of convincing, they finally agreed to help the kittens and drove Dave to the site. The driver picked up the box, silencing the noise I had heard for over two hours straight. The quiet felt discomforting.
I didn’t trust that the vet would actually nurse these kittens to the point where they could survive on their own, yet I had to hold faith that someone in this profession couldn’t just allow an animal to die. We’ll never know what came of the kittens, or Lily, or of any other animals we’ve encountered on our journey. If we could fit them all in our trailer and panniers and handlebar bags, we certainly would, a traveling animal shelter, but we can’t. Each day, I witness a level of kindness from these animals that acts as a constant reminder to approach all that I do with love.