Serbian Center Cares for Old, Forgotten Animals

    14 April 2024

    Serbian Zeljko Ilicic saved his first horse from death 12 years ago and found his calling.

    Ilicic is now 43. He set up the Balkan country's only horse sanctuary in 2015. It is found on a small piece of land in Lapovo in Central Serbia.

    The sanctuary is called Old Hill. In the Serbian language, it is Staro Brdo. Around 80 horses have passed through it over the years. Ilicic has taken in tortured, old, and abused horses. But he also takes those that had lived well but could no longer be looked after by caretakers.

    Zeljko Ilicic kisses a horse in the Old Hill, sanctuary for horses in the town of Lapovo, in central Serbia, Wednesday, April 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
    Zeljko Ilicic kisses a horse in the Old Hill, sanctuary for horses in the town of Lapovo, in central Serbia, Wednesday, April 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

    Animal care is an ongoing difficulty in Serbia. The country has little money and struggles with corruption after years of crisis and conflict in the 1990s.

    While officials run shelters for dogs, there are no state-supported places for horses. Ilicic's sanctuary today provides shelter and care for many animals.

    "I witnessed the sad destiny of a horse that was about to be put down," he said, recalling the first animal he saved. "I decided to try to bring him back to life and to keep him if he survived. And he did."

    One of Ilicic's favorite horses over the years, he said, was a local race winner that eventually died peacefully of old age.

    Another, now 28, was in a number of Serbian movies before retiring to the sanctuary. The horse struggles to move its legs because of a disease called arthritis.

    Some horses end up in a place where they are "neither a pet nor a working machine" on farms, he said. So, they become difficult for people to keep.

    Violeta Jovic works at the sanctuary. She remembers a time in 2020 when officials stopped a truck filled with over 20 illegally transported horses. The horses were on their way to be killed.

    She said they were all in bad condition but that the sanctuary found new homes for most of them. Three of the horses remained under their care.

    "This is no longer volunteerism, or a hobby, or a job," she added. "This has become my life."

    The sanctuary tries to find new homes for as many animals as possible to ensure there is always space for new ones. When a horse is ready for a new home, the sanctuary starts looking for possible caretakers.

    Staro Brdo today looks after many different kinds of animals. Those animals include nine horses, two donkeys, a buffalo, seven pigs, and several cats, dogs, and chickens. The sounds of different animal noises fill the small sanctuary when visitors arrive.

    Among the animals are seven cats that were found as babies in a closed plastic bag, and seven baby Yorkshire pigs that were rescued from a waste center. Now, they are fully grown animals that enjoy being with people.

    The sanctuary operates on donations. But Ilicic said he hopes to become self-supporting through different programs, including therapy riding.

    So far, Serbian officials have helped by repairing local roads. And Ilicic has worked with officials to support the health of animals that people in the area keep. But there is still no system to register his sanctuary as an official horse sanctuary.

    He said, "We are the only ones in the Balkans at the moment and we hope that, in time, we will be recognized by the state."

    I'm Gregory Stachel.

    Jovana Gec reported this story for The Associated Press. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    sanctuary – n. an area where wild birds or animals are protected and encouraged to produce young

    destiny – n. what happens to somebody or what will happen to them in the future, especially things that they cannot change or avoid

    arthritis – n. a disease that causes one or more joints of the body to become painful and swollen

    pet – n. an animal that a person keeps at home for pleasure, rather than one that is kept for work or food

    hobby – n. an activity that a person does for pleasure when not working

    therapy – n. treatment of either physical or mental health problems, usually through means other than medication