Whether I’m traveling in Mexico or Thailand, I often find myself heartbroken over the countless stray animals I spot living in the shadows of a destination. From too-thin dogs to rough-looking cats, I have often felt powerless over what I can do to help these animals in-need. Two years ago, during a trip to Belize, I decided to stop feeling powerless and adopt a puppy living in the sandy dirt of Caye Caulker. Our dog, Chico, now lives as a pampered prince in New York City, where he is the frequent recepient of homemade food, ample belly rubs, and locally-made dog treats.
In recent years, my desire to help other animals has led me to visiting and supporting animals shelters wherever I travel. Whether it’s volunteering with rescued elephants in Chiang Mai, reporting on a cat sanctuary in Rome, or walking dogs at a shelter in Mexico—I do my best to try and spread awareness of animal shelters and the tireless efforts they make to improve the lives of local strays.
One such non-profit has recently popped up on my radar and that is the JETA Tier und Mensch (JTUM), a woman-founded animal shelter and organization that is working to help the animals of Albania. In this interview translated by Angela Senoner and co-edited by Laura Fischer, we meet the founder of JTUM, Jenny Müller-Hasanaj, and learn how she set out to change the way Albania treats its animals.
Unearth Women (UW): For those unfamiliar with JTUM, can you tell us what it is?
Jenny Müller-Hasanaj (JMH): JETA Tier und Mensch is a non-profit organization that aims to create a life connection between abandoned animals and humans. We believe that both animals and humans live better together. We are the voice of the street animals in Albania—animals that cannot speak themselves but depend on our help. Our great love for animals, together with our years of experience in this field, is reflected in the numerous projects we are leading in different cities in Albania, such as Fieri and Durres.
We focus on four important pillars for successful animal welfare in Albania, including raising awareness in Albania in order to prevent violence towards animals and to ensure that pets are getting neutered and therefore not reproducing. We focus on neutering (Catch-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release, or CNVR) projects to sustainably reduce the population of street animals in Albania. We are building a modern veterinary clinic in Albania as a prototype for proper animal welfare and working to create rights for animals. In addition, we care for street animals in the region and treat emergencies. In our care are currently about 80 dogs and cats.
UW: What first inspired you to start JTUM and decide to help Albania’s animals?
JMH: Millions of animals are abused, mistreated, and even killed around the world. Many travelers will know of some countries that are more dangerous for animals than others. Albania is one such place. Again and again, my husband and I experienced a feeling of powerlessness when we traveled and witnessed how animals are being treated. We didn’t want to watch any longer and decided to make a difference.
In the summer of 2015, we started volunteering in Albania for one week at Protect Me Albania. This was bittersweet for us. On the one hand, volunteering and doing something for the street dogs felt great; on the other hand, the helplessness and feeling that we should do more persisted. So, we founded the association of JETA Tier und Mensch to give a voice to the street animals of Albania and to fight for a better co-existence between animals and humans.
UW: Once you had the idea for JTUM, what were the first steps you took to launch the non-profit?
JMH: First, I knew I needed to learn from active and long-time animal welfare activists about how animal welfare works in Albania. For this, I contacted Helene Wormser from StrayCoCo, a Swiss animal welfare activist working in Kosovo. To this day, Helene is an important advisor for JETA Tier und Mensch. To learn even more about the situation in Albania, I also exchanged ideas with Maria Medina Cristina, founder of Tierhilfe Tirana. She was the first animal welfare activist to set up an animal shelter in Albania and an important adviser to consult.
Then, I needed to gain experience on the ground. I live in Switzerland, so it was important to prioritize visits to Albania so I could understand the crisis better. It became clear castration projects were the most important starting point in a place like Albania where the number of street animals is completely out of control. Because of those trips, I knew the first focus should be a CNVR project.
Veterinarian care in Albania is still lagging far behind most of the world. Without a proper vet, we wouldn’t be able to proceed, so this had to be one of the first steps. On one of my visits to Albania, I found an injured kitten and took it to a local vet. That’s when I met our current partner for our catch-neuter-vaccinate-release program. We’ve now grown and have a wonderful vet partner in Durres who is also knowledgeable, compassionate, and committed.
Funding needed to follow. For me, the easiest way to do that was to create a Swiss-based flea market to collect donations for the CNVR project. It was around then that we realized we needed to form an official association. So we created a foundation (with a friend and my husband) in Switzerland. There were many logistical reasons to do this in Switzerland rather than Albania. After I found a suitable veterinarian, collected the necessary money, and negotiated with Protect me Albania so the castrations could be done at their shelter.
UW: What were some of the challenges you faced in starting JTUM?
JMH: Relationships can be challenging in any space, but this can especially happen in the cross-cultural NGO arena. The situation in Albania is very different from the situation in Switzerland, and, yet, we must find a way to work together. For example, for the first castration project, we had to catch 100 dogs to castrate and release in Vlora, Albania. This was to be done in cooperation with a partner organization, which was to provide both financial and operational support. But things turned out differently than planned, as they often do.
Instead of helping us financially, I was approached for additional monetary support from the Albanian organization. In the end, I had to finance the whole project myself. For the castrations, the dogs had to be caught first. There, too, the cooperation with the organization proved to be difficult. In the end, we had to do all the work ourselves, which took a lot of effort. Since the whole project did not go as planned, it was stopped after 73 dogs instead of the planned 100.
This of course was so disappointing but taught us to have backup plans and to be ready to pivot at any time. It also helped us to concentrate on the work in the towns of Fieri and Durres, where we had our veterinarians and volunteer support. Sometimes narrowing your vision—especially at the beginning—can be the best decision.
UW: Can you tell us about the animal situation in Albania? In what ways is it better or worse than in other countries?
JMH: In comparison with other European countries, Albania is unfortunately very behind in animal protection and rights. Albania is a poor country with a difficult history, where human rights are also trampled regularly. Already the individual human being has little value there, and animals have even less value. Again and again, we are asked by residents: why should I take care of animals when I am already in a bad way?
Pets tend to be acquired objects rather than family members. They serve a specific purpose, whether it’s guarding the property, usually tethered 24 hours a day with no shelter, or befriending adults and children. The owners do not take much responsibility for their animals. Most of the time they are not neutered and are free to roam around the quarters without supervision. Thus, they also reproduce uncontrollably and unwanted offspring are often disposed of like garbage in a landfill.
In general, if a pet becomes a nuisance, it is quickly abandoned. The problem of street animals in Albania, which can be seen on every corner in every city, is due to this behavior. Most of the injured street dogs that we catch and treat were formerly domesticated dogs. There is still much to be done in the direction of responsible dog ownership. This is why our awareness projects are so important. JETA Tier und Mensch also advocates for a national dog database in Albania where all dog owners must register, as is currently being implemented in Kosovo.
The state also plays a relevant role. Albania is somewhat popular with European tourists and before the tourist season, the cities are “cleaned” of street animals. So, the street animals are killed by the municipalities. In addition, there is a garbage problem in many places in Albania, and the garbage attracts the street animals.
Animal welfare laws are lax in Albania. Making matters more difficult for animal welfare work is the fact that Albania is not part of the EU. Different rules apply to border crossings and animal welfare. For this reason, larger organizations tend to focus on building animal welfare in EU countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, not in Albania.
UW: How can JTUM improve the situation for stray dogs and cats in Albania?
JMH: To raise awareness, we go into schools to teach children about street animals. Providing Albania’s younger generations with a different perspective of animals can help change the future attitude in the country. We really try our best to focus on CNVR programs. We have to lower the population to better care for the animals. Being born on the street is not easy for dogs and cats. They often get sick and suffer a lot in their lives. With castrations, we prevent the animals from reproducing uncontrollably.
We also help acutely wounded and sick cats and dogs every day in Albania. After treatment, the often abandoned animals stay with us and are placed with a family when possible. Until the population is reduced, this will continue to be a big part of our work. We also organize talks with public offices. Most municipalities don’t yet welcome this but there are some leading the way in Albania. We also protest actions and continue to fight for animal welfare laws to be implemented in Albania.
UW: JTUM describes itself as an organization dedicated to improving the lives of animals and humans in Albania. In what ways does JTUM help local Albanians?
JMH: Albania has a high unemployment rate. With the planned veterinary clinic, further jobs will be created for local Albanians. We believe by economically empowering the people, we can change the animal culture in Albania. In our awareness campaigns, we educate residents about the correct way to behave towards street animals. In this way, dangerous situations with street animals can be avoided and the fear of the animals can be taken away from the residents.
We also promote domestic adoptions and believe that living with animals can help people increase their quality of life, especially in a country where life can be quite depressing and hopeless. For Albanians who are responsible, loving pet owners but cannot afford veterinarian care, we offer to help pay the bill so the animal can stay with them.
UW: For women who are moved to start their own animal shelter, what is your advice to them?
JMH: Though it may sound counterintuitive: the main goal of a shelter shouldn’t be to take in animals. The main goal is to create a platform for awareness and animal welfare. You very quickly reach the limit of capacity in a shelter. Therefore, one must actively work to fight the underlying causes instead of just fighting the symptoms. This includes awareness projects to create a more animal-friendly environment throughout the country you’re working in, and promoting adoptions.
Although you want to help every animal, you have to make sure animal welfare standards are met at the shelter. There is a Central European standard that specifies dogs are kept in small packs (5-6 dogs of similar character) and do not have only concrete under their feet, for example. Do your research.
Regarding land, the most important step—from our experience—is that the land is purchased and not rented. Especially in a country like Albania, the risk is very high that something unexpected will happen, and having to find new housing for all your charges can be difficult. If you have land to build on, it is advisable to build the shelter in combination with a clinic so that treatments can be carried out on-site. This way, transport costs and stress related to transferring the animals can be avoided.
Last and most important: only take in as many animals as you can financially support. With your own shelter, you take responsibility for the lives and well-being of the animals. Even if there are street dogs that have been taken in, under no circumstances can they be allowed back on the streets after substantial time in a shelter; they just can’t survive. Always remind yourself that you are making an incredibly great contribution to the protection of the animals and give them a chance for a good life. If we all saved just one street animal, imagine what we could accomplish!
UW: How can our readers best support the work that JTUM is doing?
JMH: With limited resources and funding, volunteers are the backbone of our organization. Although JTUM works mostly in the Durrësi and Fieri regions, there are opportunities throughout the country. There are countless online opportunities as well. We need help with administrative tasks, social media, and grant writing. If you have ideas and want to organize future projects, we welcome all collaborations.
Hosting a fundraising drive to collect money or supplies also helps tremendously. If you have connections to larger companies or organizations that could contribute, building a partnership for our organization is extremely helpful. Another way to help is social media. Liking and sharing messages on Instagram and Facebook may seem ineffective, but it helps to spread awareness and is a key fundraising tool.
Social media pressure can also move the dial politically and encourage media outlets to pursue stories that need exposure. Plus, you never know who you may reach—a future volunteer, a donor, or even a family looking to adopt a pet. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram (and use their handy Translation services since we post in German or Albanian a lot!). But, of course, the best way to help is by donating to JTUM. Turning away a needy animal because there are no funds is heartbreaking. We have many animals in our care and so we offer monthly sponsorships that cover the cost of their food, shelter, and vaccinations.
UW: For people who are considering adotion, what do you recommend?
JMH: If you’re ready for the commitment, adopting an animal will change your life for the better! We have countless dogs and cats desperate for a loving forever home. The JTUM team helps navigate the entire adoption process, even for international residents. But, in all honesty, adopting from your local shelter is just as important.
We just encourage people not to buy cats or dogs from a store. We really encourage people to educate themselves about the realities of dog and cat breeding because if you buy from a pet store, you’re likely contributing to this unethical market. If you can’t adopt because you move too much or aren’t ready to make the commitment, then consider becoming a foster. Foster families are critical anywhere you live and is a great alternative to adoption that makes a huge difference in the life of an animal.