Dog projects

I’m home from work this fine Wednesday afternoon, partly because there is not much to do until we receive the draft reports from our national teams on Community Social Responsibility in their respective countries; but mostly because my shoulder hurts from working, to the point that I’m starting some physical therapy with a local American. I’d had a desk and computer at the office until our program assistant returned; after that, I typed on my laptop; but then we moved into a new, cramped office with lousy desk space. Bottom line: bad ergonomics = shoulder and hand problems. I’m only giving this post about 10 minutes, and then I take a break.

Cooper has become a much more affectionate dog after a period of ignoring us. He had been food-obsessed, even stealing food off the counter. He was at his worst during his walks in the park: once off the leash, he’d run in search of picnickers’ bones or poo*. He ignored other dogs, and he wouldn’t come when called; all he wanted to do was eat. Finally, about two weeks ago, he stole a piece of chicken from my plate at dinner, and when I tried to wrestle it out of his mouth (not to eat it myself, but for principle’s sake), he tried so hard to gobble it down before I could take it from him that he bit me through the finger nail, drawing blood. I smacked him hard and banished him to another room, and wouldn’t let him back in for about an hour. The next day, Abby and I let him off the leash at the park as always, and then proceeded with our walk, and after three minutes we realized that Cooper was gone. We called, we searched, and finally some passers-by told us they’d seen him running back the way we came, out of the park; Abby climbed a hill and sure enough, she saw him standing in the traffic square outside the park. I can only guess he’d decided to find a piece of byrek or shishqebab at one of the eateries on the border of the park and had became confused; but our hearts stopped to see him standing in the middle of the street. Fortunately, rush hour hadn’t quite picked up yet, so I was able to get him out of traffic unharmed.

Since then, he’s been more attentive to us, and he has started playing with the park dogs again; and we’ve also started using food rewards to get him to come every time we call, as Abby’s pet guru, Victoria Schade, has recommended. (Abby met Victoria online by writing to Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post after he’d written about his dog and dog training in his live chat; we were considering flying her out to Albania at one point, when Cooper was in his biting phase.) This may be one of the reasons he’s more playful, but it beats having a jerk around the house.

Meanwhile, the dog of one of Abby’s colleagues was fatally poisoned in the park about a week ago. We still don’t know if he happened upon rat poison, or if cyanide-laced food had been left out by the lake as part of the city’s dog culling efforts. Abby and I spread the warning to other dog owners we know whom we see in the park, and many of us are worried about this. Last night, however, I held the first meeting with a group of people whom I hope will form the nucleus of a stray dog population control program. (The dog poisoning wasn’t the cause of this effort – I’d spoken to an Albanian friend about this weeks ago – but it was certainly a reminder of how important this project is.) We have three Albanians, including the director of the veterinary research institute, two Americans, and a German couple, with other Albanians and expatriates interested in joining on. Our goal is to create a trap-neuter/vaccinate-release program, an educational program about dog care, and a puppy adoption program. This will take a lot of research and fundraising, of course, but we already have a commitment from the Institute to use its facilities for the operations; and all of us are sickened by the current population control methods and realize that something needs to be done. My job with UNDP ends in mid-June, and so while it’s possible that the USAID position will come through, I’m now not sure whether I want it or whether I want to devote myself to the dog project full time.

*Do I mean animal poo or picnickers’ poo? Po-ta-to, po-tah-to …


Last week, I spent three days in Shkodër, north of Tirana, with a local dairy owner and an Italian dairy consultant. Our goal was to see whether we could develop the goat milk market for the production of goat cheese for export. Goat cheese is a high-value item in Europe; Albania has a lot of goats, but farmers mostly raise goats for meat, so much of the milk is wasted. Our initial investigation was to understand how the goats are kept, to see to what extent the milking procedures meet the necessary hygiene standards to produce raw milk of sufficient quality, to begin the value chain.

The first two days were spent tromping around goat farms. The farmers were friendly, and receptive to the consultant’s advice, and they kept offering us raki that we had to keep refusing until the second day when the farmer had the glasses and bottle in hand, thank goodness – but they didn’t have a lot of interest in producing milk for cheese-making. They noted (rightly) that they don’t have the infrastructure to keep the milk from spoiling; there’s little available veterinarian care to combat diseases such as mastitis, an inflammation of the udders – as you can imagine, I learned a bit about goat milk in three days; there is no centralized cooling center to store the milk until it’s collected; and the roads are so bad that it takes an hour to make what should be a 20-minute trip. We held a training on the last day which was reasonably well attended, but it seems pretty clear that without significant infrastructural investment, goat cheese-making is not a strong option at the moment.

The trip itself was a lot of fun, however. The hills outside Shkodër are beautiful, and goats are good-looking animals. The kids in particular are really cute, especially when there are about 40 of them running in a herd. But there’s a reason that when people say “You smell like a goat,” they don’t mean it as a compliment.

Hills in the village of Kalmët; kid goats running; an arty shot of abandoned farm machinery at one of the farms.

This week was part two of the project, where we went to Kukes and Has, two of the northern-most provinces of Albania, to investigate the goat situation there. I didn’t bring the digital camera, so I can only describe the scenery as Alpine and fantastic: green mountains, vibrant fields, and clear lakes. The town of Kukes is a fairly quiet place with nothing to do at night, but it is great for sight-seeing in the surrounding area during the day. The drive to Kukes, however, is not for those prone to motion sickness. The road winds up and through the mountains, at elevations ranging from roughly 1200 to 3400 feet. I can’t get a picture of the roads from Google Earth, so just imagine that you are effectively reversing direction every 20 minutes for the last three hours of the drive; I’ve followed a straighter trajectory on a Tilt-a-Whirl.

As an aside, I’ll note that the ride home was even worse, at least for the first hour, because the staffer who had the front seat tuned the radio to a Kosovo station that was playing modern traditional music (as opposed to pop). Traditional Albanian music is heavily but monotonously percussive, and usually features some combination of concertina, horn, and whining clarinet. It’s still popular today; in fact, many of the pop songs essentially feature a Christina Aguilera-type singer backed by traditional instruments and rhythms. At its best – after a few glasses of raki and a plate of grilled lamb – it is festive dance music. However, at its worst, it sounds like the product of a methamphetamine-addicted klezmer musician playing a bagpipe stuffed with accordians and cats.

Back to the subject at hand: the trip a success for the most part. The officials in Kukes were helpful, and the farmers in Has were very interested in developing a goat cheese production facility. They even are interested in working cooperatively – a pleasant surprise given that the word “cooperative” can raise unwelcome connotations of collectivization. Has is even more remote than Kukes, but the farmers were sure they could find a market since they sell goat meat in the south of the country. (I can’t imagine how the meat stays refrigerated for the 6-8 hour trip down, and it probably doesn’t.)

Still, the Has farmers too complained about the lack of the necessary infrastructure, so the basic obstacles remain. In fact, the meeting put me in the difficult position of trying to be encouraging and agree that we needed to develop a concrete plan, while not being able to promise anything more than a conversation with my boss, since I command zero resources at UNDP. I do want to see something happen up here since there is a lot of potential for development, but I don’t think the prospects are good. The state continues to neglect the area apart from a significant road construction project – albeit one that appears to have been tendered corruptly – while the rest of the work is being done by aid agencies like UNDP, and I doubt that my boss will be able to change the approved work plan that is currently underway, or that she will be able to broker any private investment in the two months she has left under her contract. (UNDP does everything by annual contract, which makes continuity and personal investment difficult.)

Actually, overall, I’ve been disappointed with my work experience, since we don’t seem to get very much done. We seem to be taking a scattershot approach at a real problem of underinvestment in small business, nor are we doing much to promote the Global Compact. I think we face some combination of poor program design and management from HQ, a lack of focused local management interest, and my boss’s inability to create sustained value in the face of these other obstacles (to put it kindly). I don’t know if the USAID job will come through, but if it’s anything like my current project, I might be better off focusing on photography and the Gallery.