Most people on deciding to emigrate are looking for a better quality of life, maybe a touch more sunshine and a bit of a slower pace to things.
When Tony and Diane Rowles decided almost a decade ago to up sticks and relocate 2000 miles from their Aberdeenshire home to the southern Bulgarian town of Rudozem, it was certainly in the hope of finding a more peaceful and less stressful way of life for them and their children.
What they have found instead, however, might actually be more stressful, but has certainly been life-changing, not just for them and their family, but for countless hundreds of stray, abandoned and abused dogs they have rescued and rehomed.
Today, the Rowles operate RSDR (Rudozem Street Dog Rescue), a non-profit foundation in Bulgaria that rescues street dogs from a life of abuse and finds them loving homes in the UK and the Netherlands.
With almost 300 dogs alone at the shelter, located close to Bulgaria’s border with Greece, the culture change has taken a while to get used to in a rural part of Bulgaria, where there is little else in the way of animal welfare resources.
Arriving in Bulgaria at the tail end of summer in 2007, the Rowles, originally from Stockport, with their four children, plus four dogs and two cats, had no plans to set up a animal rescue shelter. They bought their rural property on the outskirts of Rudozem with a view to enjoying a more peaceful way of life, perhaps even opening a cafe.
But it wasn’t long before such notions were dispelled. After just a few months, the family could no longer ignore the plight of the starving and unloved dogs that roamed the streets at constant risk of being shot, stoned and beaten.
The Rowles started feeding the dogs and patting them and were shocked by locals’ reactions and abuse towards the street dogs.
They continued to feed the dogs on the streets when they could out of their own money, despite the hostility this engendered from many who saw the dogs as simply dangerous vermin to be driven off or killed.
Then, just weeks after arriving in Bulgaria, the Rowles’ youngest son, Luke, befriended a street dog who started following the youngster around.
The dog had been shot, beaten and had part of his skull smashed in but, amazingly, still had not totally given up on the chance of human companionship.
So he was named Ranger and became the Rowles’ first rescue dog – saved from an almost certain brutal death.
In the following months other street dogs went home to the Rowles family, but soon their new home was bulging at the seams with 85 unwanted dogs.
“When word spread that we were rescuing dogs, people just started turning up to give us unwanted animals. We soon realised we couldn’t go on like that and took the decision to set up a proper animal rescue shelter,” explained Tony.
Diane told us: “I always had dogs growing up and when you see how many are treated here, it does get you down sometimes. So we bought an old building with a big yard back in 2010 and are looking to renovate that as soon as possible. In the meantime, we are doing as much as we can for as many dogs as possible.”
And Tony added: “You have to do what you can – you just can’t stand by and watch and do nothing. That’s simply not an option for us. This year we want to concentrate on getting as many adoptions as possible and as much raised as possible so when we get the chance we can start on either the first part, middle part or end shed, as we call it, and get one gutted and start building proper pens; plus a perimeter fence, gates and maybe exercise yard fencing.”
It is clear that without Tony, Diane and the staff of RSDR, hundreds of unwanted dogs would be left struggling for survival.
If you would like to donate to the appeal or find out more about the work of the Rudozem Street Dog Rescue, please visit the RSDR website (www.streetdogrescue.com) where you can find out which dogs and cats are looking for a home and also how you can support its work by fundraising and sponsoring.
Also take a look online at the documentary on RSDR made by Canadian film-maker, Erin Parks, at: www.findingshelter.net