Don’t you love it when that happens: you want to adopt one dog and somehow end up with hundreds. In our ongoing series of dog-rescue charity profiles, meet Romanian Rescue Appeal, the organisation that saved Goldie Wunderdog
This isn’t another story of a woman who saw the bad in the world and threw away her current life to get involved in the dog-rescue world. Lindsey Church was actually just looking for a rescue dog to adopt in the UK to add to her two elderly pooches. That was all. And yet, somehow, Lindsey now runs a sizeable dog-rescue charity, has built a team and is charge of around 1,000 dogs. This really wasn’t planned.
“I saw a Romanian dog that was up for adoption in the UK, but that particular dog wasn’t good with children,” saysLindsey, whose son was three years old at the time. “I started looking into the situation for dogs in Romania: dogs get incarcerated alive in public shelters. At the shelter in Breasta [in the rural west of the country] the locals were going mad as they could the dogs barking all night.”
Even though the 48-year-old had only travelled to shelters in Romania a couple of times and was still at home in the North of England raising her young children on her own, she could practically hear those dogs barking. “I stumbled upon a Romanian volunteer at Breasta, who built a shelter for 11 dogs. She gave me a deadline to help her, so I started the page for Romanian Rescue Appeal. I started fundraising at work, and it grew really quickly. It feels like we went from 11 to 11,000 dogs.”
The RRA Team
The inaugural Romanian Rescue Appeal (RRA) team started in 2013 with this small shelter plus 17 dogs in foster care. But it sure didn’t end there: “Somebody contacted me that year to help in the Ecosal public shelter in Galati [in the country’s east] where they were killing the dogs. I tried to stay away as there was a rescue next door, but we ended up renting a farm for 300 dogs.”
Lindsey – now armed with more than 20 volunteers in Romania and 20 in the UK for home-checks, running the RRA’s website and fundraising managers – embraced her new life with another shelter in Calarasi, between Bucharest and coastal Constanza. In just 18 months, it has grown to a population of more than 400 dogs, and a further 130 live in a shelter in Brasov.
Why all that, you ask? Because the situation for Romanian stray dogs is desperate. During the urbanisation and industrialisation of the country under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu between 1965 and 1989, many farmers simply abandoned their dogs before moving to the cities. And those dogs bred. Today, hundreds of thousands roam the streets, and those caught end up in so-called ‘public shelters’, where they are subjected to unfathomable cruelty. “The pay is very low for workers in these shelters,” Lindsey says. “The people there don’t understand what dogs need. I have known dogs that bark to be whacked over the head with a spade. The workers have at least one dog at home, but it’s always chained up in the garden and used as a cheap alarm. They often make them aggressive by cutting their ears off.”
And this is why Lindsey and her team take dogs out of these shelters and away from the barbarians by the truckload. This is not the time to pick and choose – just get them out to safety.
Bills, bills, bills
With the increase in canine numbers, however, the vet bills have risen beyond what is sustainable for Lindsey and the 15,000 supporters RRA has amassed. Every dog that gets admitted has to be vaccinated before it is allowed to mingle with the other dogs. Many have injuries from car crashes or human cruelty. “At the moment, we can’t take dogs from public shelters anymore – and we used to take 60 at a time. We only take severe cases that we find by the roadside or that have been dumped outside our Calarasi shelter, which is our open shelter with 400 dogs, and it’s located by a busy road. We need to raise money to build kennels.”
With thousands of euros in vet bills outstanding, it pains Lindsey to have closed the shelter’s doors, but she promises it’s only for a short while: “We are building a new shelter in Tecuci, not far from Galati, where we hope to have a clinic one day. The vision is that we will hopefully get young vets who want to travel to work for us. We’ll rotate and offer places for those who want the experience.”
Money remains tight, and the adoption donation of £310 doesn’t even remotely cover the cost RRA incurs per dog. “There is a small amount of government funding in Romania now; we are unsure if we would be able to be allocated a small amount should we achieve NGO status in Romania,” Lindsey explains. “We also part-own a van, which we hope to use to transport not only our own dogs but also for other rescues for extra income. At this moment though, we don’t have the funds to refurbish this van.”
Chicken thieves and protest marches
Rescuing can feel like an uphill battle with dogs and bills coming in faster than homes and long-term supporters can be found. But the situation in Romania extraordinary: only a few years ago, 300,000 dogs were put down in just one year on government orders. International condemnation followed and the plight of ‘Rommies’ became better known around the world. Within the country, treatments of stray dogs vary greatly between town and country.
“I hate to say this, but it’s a lot of the uneducated people in the streets who are kicking the dogs,” Lindsey says. “One man handed in his dog and dangled it by its ears – the dog stole some chickens, but then they were starving.”
But it’s not all hopeless and awareness is rising. “We know a lot of good people,” she says of her local partners in Romania. “In Bucharest, there are regular protests for animal welfare, and some abuse cases are hitting the news now.”
The unconditional compassion and Lindsey’s curious ability to increase capacity in Romania while raising kids in England is matched by RRA’s efficient adoption process (read about my experience to adopt here). When I was looking for my new dog a year ago, I contacted more than a dozen animal rescue charities in the UK. Hardly anyone came back to me, even though I offered to foster as well. The only organisation that replied swiftly was RRA. Within days, the volunteers – adoption coordinator Kate Wood above all – arranged a home-check for me, and we chatted on the phone about which dog would be best suited for me out of the ones I had fallen in love with on RRA’s website. A friend recently also adopted from RRA and had the same smooth, courteous, efficient experience as I had. Now Goldie Wunderdog and Riley, my friend’s dog, play together in London’s green parks like every dog should. Both dogs arrived surprisingly well adjusted and ready to fit into their new lives.
Becoming part of something bigger
Adopted dogs can, of course, have issues – for example, separation anxiety, fear of men or an urge to chase cats or other dogs. But RRA’s network of involved adopters and fosterers addresses problems within minutes an issue is raised on its Facebook page. With an RRA dog, you are never alone.
For now, though, RRA could use some help with the vet bills. And, of course, a place on your couch for one of its wonderful pooches. Goldie is perhaps its best advert. Having been rescued by RRA from wandering the streets with an ingrown chain around her neck, this young dog has turned out to be an intelligent, friendly, beautiful and incredibly well socialised little creature. She is all one could ask from a dog. Her DNA test revealed the typical ‘village dog’ mix from a time before breeds were invented, which is a healthy antidote to the many genetic car crashes pounding the dog parks in western cities.
As RRA gears up for its new shelter in Tecuci as soon as the funds are raised, Lindsey’s dogs are able to live in peace with regular meals and safety from abuse. And a few lucky ones attract the attention of dog lovers in the UK, who buy them a ticket for the Happy Bus transport from Romania to their permanent home in a loving family. More than 1,000 dogs have found happiness thanks to Lindsey.
Not bad for a woman who really just wanted to adopt one dog.