Riding out the pandemic with the strays of Sofia
I’m not even a dog person, I thought, as I stared into the murk on a cold, late-autumn night. But right then, I had no choice but to do my best imitation of one. Somewhere down the dimly lit dirt road a gravely wounded canine shivered in pain and fear. This neighborhood, on the dilapidated fringe of Sofia, Bulgaria, was as foreign to her as it was to us. Leaving her would be to abandon her to a slow and miserable death from her injury, or a more violent one at the teeth of other feral dogs surely lurking nearby. Yet if we tried to catch her she might lash out, possibly exposing us to rabies.
“I’ll go get the car,” Wendy, my wife, who is a dog person, said. “You walk back there and see if you can find her and catch her.”
“But I…” I’m not even a dog person!
Just short of four years before that night, Wendy had called me from a job fair for international teaching gigs to tell me that we were moving to Bulgaria.
“Bulgaria? What the hell’s in Bulgaria?”
We were living in Durango at the time, my hometown. Life there was way out of our price range, but it was pretty good. I had a great job. Our friends are there. The climate’s good, and I could go trail-running right out my back door. When Wendy had suggested trading it in for life abroad, I had assumed she meant southern Italy, maybe, or Provence. But Bulgaria? After hanging up I tried to imagine the country, and all I could conjure were visions of drab, gray buildings, drab, gray skies, and drab, gray boiled cabbage. I Googled: “Where is Bulgaria?” “Typical Bulgarian cuisine.” “Trail running in Sofia.” “Wine in Bulgaria.”
Initially, the search results brought relief. Bulgaria wasn’t in the cold north, but in the temperate south, bordered by Greece and Turkey. Bulgarians didn’t eat boiled potatoes and cabbage and gray, rubbery sausages, but grilled meat and fish, fried potatoes with cheese on top, and tomato-cucumber-salads accompanied by high-octane brandy called rakia. Sofia wasn’t surrounded by dreary plains at all, as I had imagined, but sat at the foot of a trail-addled forested mountain. It sounded great.
But there was a hitch. Lurking in nearly every rosy account of the rich history, the thriving trail-running scene, the delicious Mediterranean cuisine, the affordable wine, was a warning: Watch out for the dogs. Bulgaria, it turns out—at least according to the always-reliable internet—is stray-dog central. Packs of feral canines roamed every corner of the city, hungrily eyeing humans. Nearly every Bulgarian’s been bitten at least once, resulting in the requisite round of painful rabies shots (I’m not a needle person, either). In 2012 a pack attacked an elderly academic and author, ultimately killing him, the second fatal mauling in the city that year.
I comforted myself with the knowledge that I could always give up running and going outdoors in general, and simply stay inside and become the world’s expert on rakia, instead. Besides, it’s not like we were going to be there for very long—a year or two, tops. Or so I thought.
If you’d told me then that I’d still be here four years later, I would have laughed. If you’d told me then that I’d be riding out a gnarly pandemic in an Eastern European country, I would have scoffed. And if you would have told me that one of those vicious Sofia stray dogs would have stolen my heart, I would have whacked you in the head for your preposterousness.
And yet. Here I am.
In August of 2016 we arrived at our apartment on the campus of the school where Wendy teaches. The school was built a century ago on a gentle hill that at the time sat in the countryside between the city of Sofia and Vitosha Mountain. Urban sprawl has since metastasized its way up to the foot of the mountain, and the campus is now a part of the city’s outer neighborhoods. Yet it remains a sanctuary from the outside world, grassy at its center, rife with trees, including pears and apples and wild plums, a few towering redwoods, and several elegant old oaks with sweeping limbs reaching gracefully into the blue, their skyward hands filled with fire-hued leaves in the autumn.
Just a few minutes into my first neighborhood run I encountered a pack of four feral-looking dogs lounging around on a quiet street. As I approached, they rose to their feet. I slowed, but refused to be cowed, knowing that they can smell fear, and continued moving forward, ready to leap over a wall or throw a rock or just run like hell in the other direction. But without a growl or bark they skittered calmly to the side, looking at me curiously. I saw more strays that day — one on the walk to the grocery store, and two well-fed mutts lying outside the market’s sliding doors — and they all treated me with the same aloofness. Even the school had an official stray, Mama, an ancient longhair whom had been taken in by a teacher years before and then left behind.
The internet, in other words, was correct: Feral canines are ubiquitous here, cruising down alleyways, lounging in front of shops, and hanging out in in the common spaces at the foot of the towering, brutalist panelkis, built en masse during the communist era. Sometimes they do attack. A friend got bit in the leg while running, and had to go through the rabies rigamarole. A few of the dogs are aggressively affectionate: I once had a gangly tail-wagger follow me on a run and demand frequent pets. Mostly, though, the Strays of Sofia are gentle, skittish, and scared of humans.
Wendy, who finds it very difficult to pass an animal in distress without doing something to help, has a hard time with the stray situation. Once, while driving along an empty highway in California, she came across a very young, lost calf, coaxed it into her car’s backseat, and delivered it to the nearest high school’s Future Farmers of America. She tries to do the same with the Sofia Strays. But I remind her that most of Sofia’s ъездомни кучета, or “homeless dogs,” are not full-blooded strays or even completely homeless because they have people who feed them and even put out dog houses and cozy, warm beds.
Mama, for example, had the campus community to keep her fed and sheltered (she died of old age not long after we arrived), and a steady stream of hot-dog-dispensing customers cared for the supermarket dogs. The two campus dogs who arrived after Mama’s death, however, had no one. One was a large, mangy, dreadlocked creature that lurked near the dumpsters, darting off when humans approached. The other was a frisky, black and white, bushy-tailed mutt with a hefty dose of border collie in her genes. The old pensioners who guard the campus had named them Mecho (Bear) and Liska (Fox), respectively. Wendy started taking them table scraps, then dry dog food, then a gourmet stew that included chicken broth and olive oil. We had “adopted” a couple of strays, Sofia-style.
I have found that human love can be bought with good food. The same apparently is not so with skittish strays. The dogs were quite taken with Wendy’s stew and soon grew comfortable enough that they’d eat jerky from our hands. But neither would let us pet them, and when we did manage to sneak in a touch, they’d yelp as if in pain. At least they were reliable, showing up every single night at stew-time, waiting patiently if we were late.
So we were worried when Liska skipped dinner for two chilly nights in late October of 2019, and even more so when she reappeared, moving slowly and with a limp. Without any of her old temerity, she approached me and allowed me to pat her head and to get a better look at what was wrong. A large flap of fur and skin had been sliced loose on her chest, leaving a gaping wound revealing blood and bone and muscle and cartilage underneath.
I fell backward in horror—I am not a blood and bone and muscle person—and, quivering and on the verge of tears, ran to the house and summoned Wendy. Without a plan we went in pursuit, and Liska darted into the night, presumably to die alone. We watched her go, helpless and heartbroken. When she returned two days later, this time clearly ill, her glassy brown eyes looking imploringly at us, we were able to cajole her into the backseat of our old Fiat Panda, and we rushed her to the 24-hour veterinary hospital in a semi-rural area on the city’s outskirts.
After we put a muzzle on Liska, Wendy wrapped her in a blanket and lifted her out of the car. At first Liska was calm, but her internal vet-alarm must have sounded, because as Wendy approached the hospital doors, the dog shook the muzzle off, squirmed out of Wendy’s arms like a fish, and dashed across a busy road and down an unlit dead-end lane.
We looked to the vet imploringly. She shrugged her shoulders and gave us the Bulgarian head-nod (Bulgarians nod for “no” and shake their heads for “yes”). Her job was fixing animals, not chasing after potentially vicious, rabid strays—and we’d be wise to abandon our rescue attempt and head home, too, letting nature run its course.
That’s when Wendy sent me into the murk while she went back to get the car.
I walked timidly down the road, my phone-light unable to penetrate the darkness. A dilapidated abandoned warehouse sat on one side of the lane, a group of new Bulgarian McMansions on the other, protected by a high wall. This juxtaposition of privilege and poverty is common here: The median salary is about $8,000, but the streets swarm with late-model BMWs, Porsches, Audis, and even Maseratis and Bentleys; people burn car tires to stay warm in the winter, contributing to the hazardous levels of air pollution, but gated, luxury condo complexes are going up everywhere; thousands of friendly strays roam the streets, yet the pet stores do brisk business in pricey purebred puppies.
The beam of the Panda headlights revealed a flash of white appeared off to my side — Liska’s “socks"--and I slowly approached the dog, shivering in the darkness next to a bush. Wendy hopped out of the car, blanket in hand. While I tried to soothe Liska, Wendy threw the blanket it over her like a net, and then hugged her, as if she were swaddling an unruly infant. As I moved in to put the muzzle on, Liska flailed her head violently and her teeth whacked my knuckles, breaking skin. That’s it, I thought, as I jumped backward, I’m dead. Liska took the opportunity to wiggle loose again, and ran across the road into the brambles. We walked slowly toward her and sat down and softly explained that we didn’t want to hurt her, and that she needed to come to us. She looked out at us with sad brown eyes, her shiny black snout dusted with white, and seemed to understand. Her body went slack. Wendy approached and lifted her up. She did not struggle.
The vet opened up the wound, cleaned it out, stitched it up, put in a drain, and put her on a hefty dose of antibiotics, but he told us it might not be enough. The wound was too deep, the infection too far along. Yet Liska made it through the first night, then the next. I did not die of rabies. Every evening we drove through smog and rush-hour traffic to the vet, where we took Liska on little walks in the tiny, fenced outdoor space, petted her, and got to know the vets and their assistants, all of whom were lovely, caring people, surely getting paid a pittance by American standards to work ungodly hours and deal with hopeless cases. And finally, after three weeks in the hospital, Liska was strong enough to come home — or, rather, to come to our house, where she would spend her convalescence.
Honestly, I really wanted leave Liska in the hospital. I was certain she’d freak out in our house, tear her stitches loose, pee all over the rugs, chew up the furniture, scratch the veneer off of the doors, and possibly even bite me. That was not an option, though, and I shuddered at the thought of putting her in the dog-rescue place that we'd visited once in order to give a bunch of the cooped-up mutts a walk and some companionship. So we made her a bed in the hallway, where she'd do the least amount of damage, closed all the doors to the other rooms, and tried to go to bed. But Liska couldn't settle, and her claws clicking against the tile floor and the plastic lick-prevention lampshade banging against the walls would not let us settle, either. I got up and made a bed for myself next to hers on the tile floor, lay down beside her, and stroked her black fur until she calmed down and I fell asleep.
On our first morning walk, Mecho made an appearance. He was clearly bewildered by the bandage-wrapped and lamp-shade-wearing FrankenLiska, however, and he stood at a cautious distance. Liska took it in stride. To my surprise she was eager to finish the walk and get back to the house, and when we got back inside and I took off the leash, she bolted straight into the living room and pounced upon the sofa as if it were her prey, and thereby declared it her domain.
Maybe she had been house-, leash-, and couch-trained in a previous life, or perhaps she was just so damned smart that she figured out how to live with humans overnight. Whatever it was, she proved herself to be the best-behaved dog on campus. She learned to sit when told, so long as I said it in Bulgarian. She understood which furniture was hers to sit on, and which was off-limits. Without a whimper she succumbed to our incompetent medical care, which entailed cleaning and dressing her wound two to three times a day for more than two months after she got out of the hospital. And she shed her fear of human affection and now craved it, reveling in pets, ear-scratches, belly rubs, and snuggles. She slept on her couch without a sound all night, and as soon as she knew we were awake she ran in and jumped up on the bed, squeezing in between us and begging for love.
And just like that, Liska had gone from being a stray to a loyal and loving house pet. Or so it seemed.
Liska’s wound finally finished healing in mid-February, just as outbreaks of the novel coronavirus began to appear outside of China, but before it was a full-blown pandemic. When Wendy and I went to Berlin for a weekend, we took the dog to the vet to stay in the "hotel." The vets were happy to see Liska; she was not very happy to see them. We removed the lamp-shade for good, and even let Liska off the leash a few times during walks. Mecho had long since recognized his old friend, and joined us on our walks, frolicking and barking with Liska.
In late February I had to go back to the United States for a month or so for work — and to see family, friends, and get my slickrock and sagebrush fix. COVID-19 was spreading by then, but still hadn’t made it to Bulgaria or most of Europe. So I was only mildly terrified during my flight (I’m not an airplane person). But by the time I had landed in Colorado, twenty-four hours after leaving Sofia, Italy had become a viral hotspot. Each day — each hour, really — brought more bad news from around the globe. I was unable to hug or shake hands with old friends that I hadn’t seen in months. I developed a cough and panicked. The grocery stores ran out of toilet paper, then beans, then pasta. Our daughters’ East Coast colleges were getting ready to shut down, and none of us knew where they should or could go. Flights were being cancelled left and right.
Sofia remained virtually virus-free, but things weren’t going well with Liska. Since I work at home, I had spent nearly every waking hour with her for the previous three months, taking breaks from typing to give her belly rubs or take her on walks or tend to her wounds. Then I just went off and abandoned her, or so it must have seemed. She rebelled, peeing on the rug for the first time, refusing to go on walks, shirking away from our friends who were planning to stay with her when Wendy went on a work trip. When Wendy tried to maneuver Liska into the car and to the pet hotel, instead, the dog freaked and made a run for it. Wendy searched the campus frantically for hours. Nothing. After a couple of days of absence, Liska returned, but she wouldn’t let Wendy get anywhere near her.
“It’s okay,” I told her, over Skype. “Maybe she was meant to be a stray. Like Sting says, if you love someone, set them free.”
As if it were that easy.
“I bet she’ll come back when I return.”
As if that helped.
Life was normal in Bulgaria when I had flown out of Sofia in late February. When I returned three weeks later, the country was under complete lockdown. Businesses, schools, parks, trails, and the roads in and out of the city were all shut down. Like all incoming travelers I had to quarantine for two weeks, and the government took it very seriously (one guy got fined bigly for stepping outside his apartment for a smoke), but at least I was able to run and walk around campus. The dogs joined me, but Liska remained wary.
Liska and Mecho had become inseparable and rather busy. The lockdown had nearly emptied the campus of humanity, and a couple of stray dog packs — of the kind without caretakers, apparently — moved into the vacuum. Liska and Mecho stood guard vigilantly, keeping the strays at bay (and keeping us up at night with their barking). On one spring walk a pack of four or five large husky mixes crossed our path. Liska and Mecho went ballistic, darting through the woods in pursuit, and chasing them all the way off campus and then some. When Liska returned, her white-tipped tail wagged wildly and she sat down next to me, her big ears — one of which is torn from some ancient fight — perked up proudly. I reached down and petted her and, instead of shrinking away, she leaned into me.
Bulgaria made it through the spring and early summer with relatively few cases of COVID-19. The daily death toll rarely exceeded single digits, and the infection rate was one of the lowest in the world. As the temperature warmed and the fruit ripened, life began to return to normal. The virus had cancelled our usual summer trip to the States, so our daughters came here, instead, and we all hunkered down and enjoyed the bounty of Bulgarian summer: Eating Black Sea mussels outside under a canopy of green; throwing socially distanced movie parties in the backyard; hiking on the mountain; going to the bustling farmers markets and loading up on big, pink tomatoes, juicy peaches, eggplants, red peppers, and even trout, a specialty of the Balkans. The dogs showed up every evening for dinner, and while Mecho conversed with us in Wookie, Liska danced a crazy jig, leaping into the air in anticipation of Wendy’s stew. She’d stick around after for a dose of pets, but resisted our attempts to get her to return to her couch.
Our daughters went back to college, and the virus came back to everywhere, even Bulgaria. As summer became fall thousands fell ill. The test positivity rate climbed from below five percent in September, to nearly forty percent and rising in December, and the daily death toll has topped two-hundred on occasion in a country with less than 7 million people. Medical workers are coming down with the sickness at an alarming rate, hospitals are filling up, and only the government only recently shut down bars and restaurants and other non-essential businesses. Meanwhile America, where our daughters are and where my work is based, looks like an absolute tire fire from here in so many ways. I’m afraid of the future. I’m afraid of the present. I often snap awake late at night, anxiety pressing down on my chest, my brain whirling with uncertainty. I know I'm not the only one.
Several weeks ago, on a chilly, late-autumn evening, Liska and Mecho showed up for dinner and I sat outside and petted Liska, like I often do. When I stood to go inside, Liska looked back at Mecho as if to reassure him, and then she darted ahead of me, through the open door into the house, and headed straight for the couch, her couch, pouncing on it in her characteristic way. The next morning we took a walk and then Liska ran off with Mecho. She returned to her couch after dinner, and has followed the same routine every day since.
Maybe she came back because it was getting cold. Or maybe it was something else. As I sat last night and stroked her velvety ears, petted her generous, shiny black coat, and gazed at her big, battered paws (I still am not a dog person, but I am a Liska person), I realized that she had returned to her couch exactly one year to the day from when we had rushed her to the hospital with a nearly fatal, gaping wound. Maybe she came back inside to thank us for rescuing her. Or maybe, seeing us in distress, she simply is returning the favor.
Jonathan P. Thompson is the author of Behind the Slickrock Curtain: A Project Petrichor Environmental Thriller (Lost Souls Press, 2020); River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster (Torrey House Press, 2018); and the forthcoming Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands (Torrey House Press, Summer 2021).