With the end in 1989 of the forty-five year Communist regime in Bulgaria, the lives of ordinary Bulgarians were up-ended by the change in the economic system, and many found themselves impoverished for the first time in their lives. The infrastructure collapsed and the very basics, such as food and warm clothing, were scarce. Under these harsh conditions, people could no longer afford to feed their animals. For this reason, there are hundreds of thousands of homeless dogs and cats in cities such as Sofia. The population of these abandoned dogs and cats has multiplied many times over during the intervening years.
The lives of these animals are very difficult. While cats are smaller and able to discreetly forage for food, the large homeless dogs are painfully conspicuous, as they huddle in packs on country roads and city streets alike. They are nearly all malnourished and often sick. Many Bulgarians fear these street dogs as carriers of rabies and other diseases. Most have never known human kindness.
Our story is about a Karakachan dog. The Karakachan comes from an ancient Thracian sheep guarding breed. It is unusual for a Karakachan to be homeless in Sofia; however, it still happens. This is an excerpt from the true story of Luchko, a Karakachan dog from Sofia, Bulgaria and the adventurous journey he makes from the streets of Sofia to a small farm in rural Massachusetts.
Life wasn’t so bad during the spring and summer. The five friends would run all over the park, chasing and retrieving children’s balls, splashing in the fountain on hot days, and soaking up the fresh air and sunshine. Sometimes they went off together to explore different streets and neighborhoods. People would occasionally throw unfinished ice-cream cones on the ground, and these made a nice snack. Watermelon rinds were plentiful, and so were soggy tomatoes, squishy zucchini, ancient cucumbers, and rotten apricots. They took naps in the shade on patches of comfy grass. When it rained, the water gathering in puddles was clean for a little while. Summer storms were wondrous, with their big darkening clouds and thunder and lightning. Cherna, Luchko’s older friend, though wise about street matters, was afraid of thunder, and would cower and tremble when the skies rumbled, so if a big storm began, Luchko would find her and bring her to the shelter of the tree in the park, where she’d be surrounded by friends, and wouldn’t feel scared and all alone. If a storm were really heavy, Luchko and his friends could always find a car to crawl under. On good days when they found enough food and the weather was fine, feeling free was delicious, and life a wonderful thing.
But fall was coming, and after that winter, and if there was one thing the street dogs and cats were all afraid of, it was winter. Luchko was still only a little puppy when his first winter had come the year before. He remembered it as a terrible time when he even thought he might die from hunger and cold. He’d had to grow up fast just to survive.
So, as summer came to an end, and the nights became cooler, and the leaves in Sofia began to turn yellow, Luchko and his friends became thoughtful. The snow that was sure to come would make it hard to find a warm place to sleep. Walking on slippery ice would be difficult, in fact almost impossible. And food? “Forget it,” said Mimi, a mutt with blond fur, and the oldest of the group. “There just won’t be any. We’ll be lucky if we can find a frozen pea.” “Or a rotten walnut shell,” added Chico, a long-haired dachshund whose tangled coat could have used some brushing.
One bitterly cold night, Haralampi didn’t come back to the tree. The next day, they all searched high and low for him, but he was nowhere to be found. The day after that when the little Scottish terrier again didn’t come back, Luchko, Chico, Mimi and Gooshi the cat knew he was gone for good. Something terrible must have happened to him. Something they didn’t have to discuss. Perhaps he had gotten sick and gone off to a field outside the city to die. They never talked about it, but each of them knew that for a cat or a dog, dying was something you had to do alone. They didn’t ask why this was so; it was just the way things were.
They also understood that if each of them were to find food, and thus survive the coming winter, they would have to go their separate ways. “Good luck!” they bravely barked to each other one bright cold morning in late October, “See you next spring,” and then they all ran off in different directions without looking back.
For three days, no matter how hard he tried, Luchko could find nothing to eat. Then, one early afternoon, he picked up some enticing smells, and driven as much by curiosity as by hunger, decided to hunt them down. As they got stronger and stronger, he saw a man standing at a trash can, going through the garbage with searching hands. Luchko stopped and settled back on his haunches for a moment, surveying the man to see if he were friendly or not. The man glanced his way and smiled. “Hello young fellow,” he said to Luchko, who then, in gingerly fashion, slowly approached.
The man, who was dressed in a shabby but clean, pressed suit, was very thin. “Shall we do a bit of digging together?” he suggested to Luchko. Thus Luchko, with a wag of his tail, joined his new friend in foraging for food.
Just as the man pulled out what looked to Luchko like a large piece of stale sausage, a big dog ran up to the old gentleman and with a vicious snarl tried to snatch the precious find away. The old man shouted at the dog, who nevertheless fastened his jaws onto the old man’s wrist, growling fiercely and trying to shake the sausage loose. As he watched this struggle, Luchko was suddenly overcome with a powerful feeling: he just had to protect this kind and gentle man, and so he lunged at the big dog. “Why, you–you PUPPY you!” the big dog barked, in the meanwhile dropping the sausage, which the man at once picked up.
The two dogs snarled and snapped at each other, trying to jump on each other as well. Even though he was smaller than the big dog, Luchko wouldn’t let up. He kept attacking the big dog, going for the ruff of his neck, while the old man, wary of trying to separate two fighting animals, stood uneasily aside. “I don’t want your rotten sausage anyway,” the big dog finally snorted, running off in the other direction with his tail drooping. Luchko was unhurt but panting and hungrier than ever as he watched the other dog disappear.
“Bravo, my friend!” said the old man, wiping off the piece of sausage with his neatly folded handkerchief. “That showed him. Here, let’s share this.” He broke the sausage in half and playfully tossed one of the pieces at Luchko, who caught it with his jaws as if it were a ball. “Not bad, is it?” the old man said to Luchko, eating his own half as well.
They rummaged through the rest of the garbage can together, and when they found half a fried fish wrapped in newspaper, the man divided it again in two, and again shared it with Luchko. The man reached out his hand and petted Luchko between the ears. “I’m Professor Vazov and I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. I think I shall name you Luchko, and perhaps we shall see each other again. As I think you know, I come to this trash can quite often.” Wagging his tail, Luchko opened his mouth in a wide dog-smile.
And that was how Luchko got his name.
After a lifetime of teaching at the university, Professor Vasov had retired, only to discover that his pension was so small he didn’t have enough to eat. That was why he searched for food in garbage cans. Although his clothes were worn and faded, he always dressed in a suit and tie. His shoes were very old, but they were always shined.
The next time Luchko saw him, Professor Vazov said, “You don’t know this, but you come from a very ancient and very noble breed. You are a Karakachan. That’s why you have those interesting grayish markings on your face . They make you look sober and serious, like a philosopher or a distinguished judge, even though I can see you’re still quite young. Your ancestors were Thracian sheep-guarding dogs and they have been here in Bulgaria for thousands of years, from the time of Homer, or even earlier. They are fearless and friendly–just like you. It is their instinct to protect the flock from dangerous animals like bears and wolves and foxes. When you defended me the other day from that fierce dog, you were doing what your ancestors did thousands of years ago. It’s bred into you, that kind of bravery.”
Luchko smiled some more and wagged his tail. He wasn’t really sure what it was that Prof. Vazov was saying, but he liked the old man very much and was listening intently to what he said. “Here,” said the kind old man, tying a collar knitted in red and white yarn around Luchko’s neck. “I made a present for you. It says, ‘Luchko’ on it. Knitting is a hobby of mine and I made it in my spare time, which I have a lot of.” He stood back to admire the collar. “Very snazzy, if I do say so myself. Now,” said the professor, beaming at Luchko, “Shall we have lunch?”
With that he rolled up his sleeve and delicately stuck his hand into the garbage can, while Luchko at the same time poked his head inside and began sniffing. He gave a little yelp and Prof. Vazov rummaged around a bit deeper inside the garbage. “Well well well, now look what we’ve found,” said the professor. “Some nice bones. What do you say to that?” He gave one to Luchko and wrapped the other in a piece of newspaper he took out of his coat pocket, and, after waiting for the trolley to pass, together they crossed the intersection of Graf Ignatiev Street and Boulevard Vassil Levski to the little park with the statue of Patriarch Evtimii. This was a meeting place for young people, whom Luchko and Professor Vasov, gnawing happily on their bones, watched with interest and curiosity. “Very tasty!” Professor Vasov said, glancing down from the park bench at Luchko, who sat at his feet. “Very tasty indeed.”
“No one from my street knows that I come here to look for food,” the professor said, delicately wiping his mouth with his handkerchief. “So it’s nice to find a friend like you to share my lunch with.”
When they had finished eating, the old man waved goodbye and went off in another direction. Luchko stayed where he was. He sensed that the nice old gentleman couldn’t offer him more food, and Luchko didn’t want to make him feel bad by following him. He didn’t like begging from humans and neither did Professor Vazov. They understood each other.