Subtitled: Dog People vs Cat People.
This is the first time where I have even thought about pigeonholing myself in such a tight box, there is almost no room to breathe, let alone flap my indecisive all-encompassing animal-loving wings in here. Deep breaths, KJ, deep breaths.
So, here goes: I’m a cat person.
There! I said it! Are you happy, world?!
I can remember being told that the one wish that can maybe possibly perhaps come true if you really wish hard enough, is that of blowing out the birthday candles on your birthday cake – since then I have wished for a puppy or a kitten. I wasn’t fussy, not at all, I’d never had either and I wanted both equally. Until I turned 19 my wishes for magical birthday-granted pet ownership remained unfulfilled. That day my precious Minka, a kitten, was and is the light of my life. She’s my baby. But had she been a big black puppy instead of a little black kitten I would have loved her all the same. I have never been able to say definitively, until maybe now, whether I truly am a cat person or a dog person.
You know the stereotypes:
Dog person: kind, sunny disposition, outdoorsy, ready to take opportunities by the balls (or lead). Most usually, and importantly has an apparent dislike of felines.
Cat person: quiet and clever, often very good at being cooped up inside for days studying or listening to a friend’s problems. Most usually, and importantly has an apparent dislike of canines.
The thing is, we all know plenty of both, and nobody really fits the typified mould: lots of dog people are shy or more than happy to relax and stay indoors alone even sometimes when it’s sunny. Many of the cat people are out rock climbing or bike riding, loving the rain and the cold.
But the thing that rings true for most of both kinds of people is they can decide easily between cats and dogs. They can even shrug off the dislike for the “other” animal, in fact quite enjoy the company of brethren of said ‘other kind’ but, they remain convinced of where their true colours should be worn.
Until Albania, I have been one of the few and far between who really really truly couldn’t put herself in either camp. I of course seem to be biased towards the meowing camp because of my name and my apparent resemblance of cats. But I love the companionship dogs give, the time they’ll spend with you, their excitement to see you and determination to protect you. They can be docile and determined, dopey and diligent. They can be intuitive and emotional like greyhounds or rough little tugboats like Jack Russels. I like that they come in shot-glass size and tyrannosaurus size, I like their intention to smell every part of you and determination lick the sweat from even a slightly salty patch of skin.
But the dogs in Albania have tarnished my genuine indecisiveness about my connection.
The dogs of Albania are of course not at fault alone, but the hostility and abandonment they represent is enough to shake even Alex (who has decided to keep a long stick with him at all times on the bike).
Along our cyclingabout adventure, up until Croatia there were cats everywhere, pussy galore if you will. The stray cat population is not a desirable thing because I am sure their effect on indigenous wildlife cannot be a positive one. This is a fairly bold and abrasive thing I’m about to state, so cat people look away, it seems to be that homeless cats are easier to destroy or at least manage than homeless dogs. Stray cats can be caught and culled but stray dogs are another thing entirely, for some reason unbeknownst to me the dog problem isn’t seen as one that needs solving like a cat problem might. This surprises me because dogs, like cats, can live and breed pretty much anywhere but the worst thing a cat every did to a human was hiss and scratch a little, yes I’m sorry but I have never heard of death by cat. Dogs can be unpredictable when left to their own devices, and are almost always vicious when they have been mistreated. This again, I must stress is not the fault of the dog but none the less, it makes the stray pup population worse than that of the stray moggies.
The majority of dogs we have seen are in bad shape; in need of food, shelter and a lot of love and care. We found a stray cat society in Rovinj, Croatia, where a yard was opened up, filled with tables, boxes, old armchairs and a few clear places to eat and collect waste…the result was fewer cats on the streets, and a positive community mindset. A number of cat people could come in each day and easily manage the mess, resulting in an agreeable arrangement for all concerned. As much as I would love there to be an equally astute solution for the doggy compatriots of Albania alas, there just isn’t.
I have learned to dread meeting dogs on our path – the strays aren’t too troublesome, they’ll more than likely bark feebly and run away, tail tucked firmly between their legs in fear of retribution for simply daring to remain alive. The worst are the dogs who are left by their owners to guard properties or dogs who are used by farmers to herd sheep and cattle. These dogs are temperamental at best and ferocious at worst. They attack completely unprovoked, chase us on our bikes and create an atmosphere of severe unrest for me for the next few kilometres. These dogs of course are unlikely to really do much more than give us a fright or a chase, but they are liable to nip an exposed leg or force us onto rough road surface – they provide an unwanted disturbance, a roadblock with attitude. I can abide by it while we are riding on straight, flat, altogether predictable roads but that is not usually the case in Albania, for although the roads are far superior to what they were of old, they still require focus. This need for concentration and effort required riding up or down hills makes the times where we are being assaulted by dogs a simple inconvenience few and far between. It is more likely to be a major pain in the neck and takes over from the breathtaking views and breathgiving fresh air being the main part of my day: I don’t want to have my days overrun by dogs!
Our realisation that dogs were taking over as the dominant species came along the South if the Mediterranean coast – somewhere between Dubrovnik where our foursome (Amelie, Gabe, Alex and I on bikes) were joined by a cajoling golden retriever, lolloping along the streets with us, barking at cars and cats with equal enthusiasm. Yes, somewhere between there and the Rozafa Fortress in Shkodra where our new foursome (Travis, Jordy, Alex and I, on foot) were warily watched by a majestic mother dog, wolf-like in her watching of us and her two snow while pups. Dogs were officially the new cats and initially we enjoyed the change.
It wasn’t until Berat that we realised that dogs, even the harmless distant animals are a lot more invasive than cats and we began to reassess our kindly taking to their overtaking cat-kind. Barking. It’s a great number of decibels louder than any meowing, hissing, screeching or fighting a cat can produce. And dogs bark, a lot. Each night in Berat we closed our eyes to the sound of an angry canine barking, a sound that travelled across the river and up the hilly streets to our guesthouse. My sleep was punctuated, but instead of commas and full stops of communicative dreams, mournful howling and staccato yapping we’re the edits to my otherwise undisturbed slumber. Every hour we wake, there are barks, yips, howls and growls that carry from the angry throats of mistreated or overexcited dogs. It’s a bloody menace.
The smell of dogs is all well and good when it’s your own buddy wagging his wet tail at you and looking ever so proud of the new design whatever he was rolling in has left on his coat. However, as with many of our cat-accompanied campsites earlier, dogs are just as likely to come in close and direct contact with us, our bikes and our site.
After watching ‘Up’ (the wonderful Pixar film) while we were resting in Vlorë, we were somewhat softened on the idea of dogs and their true intentions. Maybe they too, if they had the magic power of speech (as in the film) would tell us that their true intentions were those of unquestioning love, keen interest and deep obsession with squirrels…but alas, while I’m sure they had some of these thoughts we only saw their more negative side when climbing the Llogora Pass on the way from Vlorë to Sarandë. Nothing more than our presence was needed to provoke these ‘guard’ dogs into action – they came hurtling down a driveway at us, barking the blood in my veins into a pulsating frenzy. I made the mistake of allowing my fear to escape its bodily confines and gasp out of my mouth in an altogether unprofessional manner. I squeaked in fear, you could almost see the dogs’ eyes fix on my sweaty forehead, my fear betrayed me and they were only too happy to oblige, bypassing Alex and heading straight for me. I scarpered, riding like the clappers up the steep hill in front of me, shamefacedly leaving Alex and the car full of HillBilly Albanians (with their couch and possibly kitchen sink strapped to the roof of their car) to deal with the offensive animals.
After that embarrassing encounter I resolved to only make low sounds when approached by angry dogs and to of course, make every attempt not to allow the smell of scaredness stink up my skin.
Atop Pala?e, a little town we stayed in after the incredible decent of Llogora, we accidentally adopted another man’s dog. Alexi’s Dog was an affable thing, quite happy to follow us along the coast (where we soaked up the enormously sunny rays delivered kindly by an almost wintery Albanian sky) and then proceeded to follow us as we rode around the little towns trying to locate lunch. We attempted, lamely at first, to ensure he stayed with his family but determined as he was, we dined deliciously inside and he waited patiently outside…for almost two hours. After lunch we assumed that he’d peel off from us on our way past his turn off (back to Alexi’s house on the beach, we stopped here and physically pushed him towards Alexi) but either his snout senses weren’t working or he just really wanted to spend more time with us because no matter how we protested, he galloped up the 350 metres of elevation to our hotel. Niki, the hotel’s real dog, a gorgeous one year old German Shepard, as delightful as dogs come was already our friend and was slightly taken aback by the arrival of Alexi’s Dog (who growled and barked at him for daring to interact with us, his apparent new owners). We resolved to pay no more attention to Alexi’s Dog and hope that he had gone by dinner time. Alas he was waiting for us and we were suddenly racked with guilt. Had we somehow communicated to Alexi’s Dog that we were going to take him on our adventure, had he been following our website perhaps? We continued the ignore to discourage routine and went to bed (after an amazing dinner of homemade pasta in fresh self-made tomato and basil sauce). You’ll know from the video that in the morning, Alexi’s Dog was still there at the hotel and we felt like mud. What could we do but escape the poor puppy? We could have, of course, taken him all the way back down to Alexi’s House but that meant a 350m decent/re-ascent and a return trip of an extra 8 kms on top of our already long day ahead. I feel wretched and still can’t escape the guilt of just leaving him, but he’s a dog and they’re well known for their ability to find people (and considering he hasn’t found us again, it’s fairly safe to say Alexi’s Dog and Alexi have been reunited).
We are quite a way further now and with another couple of doggy drills under our belts we have a plan of attack or a plan of coping with attack to be precise: I take the position inside Alex, he has a stick and the noticeable upper hand, I am deliberately louder than the dogs, barking back at them, growling my grievances and really just trying to keep riding. It’ll have to do for now.
I am sympathetic to these dogs, even through being assaulted by them time and time again – I know they are just enacting their intrinsic nature, it is their instincts, training and unfortunate experience that results in their ferocity and tenacity of attack. We visited The Blue Eye – a 50+ metre deep underwater cave set at the head of a limestone river giving the impression of a deep blue eye watching from under the water – and of course weren’t the only animals around. On the way in there was a mangy collection of strays and guards, loud but more curious than territorial. We were tracked by one poor animal all the way to the camp site, a bitch who wanted food and attention so much. We were quite surprised she was so friendly after we discovered that her ears had had the top 5 centimetres sliced off and burned closed. Who would do such a thing? Humans of course, needless to say, no matter how much she barked or jumped up at us, we were much happier to meet her than her human captor.
We were accompanied all night by these three dogs: two mums and a yearling, a mixture of temperaments and trepidation. The heavens opened their floodgates on us all night and we were safely tucked under a veranda at the closed-for-the-off-season hotel. After the main follower attempted to nick our food we stopped patting her, we didn’t give any encouragement or hardly any affection in fear of turning her into another ‘Alexi’s Dog’. We also didn’t give them any food, not even the scraps because e felt it unfair to promote such behaviour and reliance on us or other humans. In the morning we realised all too well just how hungry these dogs were – after vacating the toilet to fetch the water bucket to flush it, the dogs were snout deep in excrement in a scatologically humourless way. Eating shit should only ever be an empty threat. I have been unwell with a stomach virus ever since staying with these dogs and I hate to think what the reason for my stomach upset is.
Dogs are not treated like they are in Australia. On the whole I’d venture to label Australia as a dog friendly nation, of course there are terrible exceptions but in general most of the dogs in cities are owned and cared for. Even the wild dogs in Central Australia are on average, more predicable and manageable, although that could be because of their slighter numbers. No, dogs here are not treated as anything close to valuable – they’re workers or rubbish. They’re a dirty part of a dirty landscape, often residing in rubbish filled creeks, alleyways, dumpsters; the dirtier parts of any place. Often they fear humans having been badly mistreated, I completely understand the angry frustrations of the dog guarding our hotel currently, if I were kept in a cage large enough only for me to make a tightly paced circuit, hardly longer or higher than my body length I would be pissed off too. I would bark endlessly and scare the pants of everyone. Dogs litter the streets here, they are noisy and scatty, they are a prominent feature of this landscape and one which wearies me tirelessly. It is through this constant cacophony of careless canine companionship that I have realised my true allegiance with cats and cat people. I kind of wish we were heading to Egypt instead of Greece!