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Surrounded by hundreds of dogs, wagging their tails and running free on fenced-off land in a Serbian town, Sasa Pesic knows each of the pooches by name.

"I know exactly how each dog arrived at my shelter, I know their names, personalities," says Pesic as he patted one of his charges.

It all started when Pesic, out of work like around 17 percent of Serbians, came upon four abandoned puppies in woods near his home.

The discovery changed his life dramatically, setting him on a path to becoming an advocate for stray dogs and opening a shelter in Nis in southern Serbia.

Today it is home for more than 450 animals, but Pesic may soon have to move his canine horde as the city wants him to find a new location.

When the 45-year-old walks into the shelter, set on a piece of land near the centre of town, hundreds of mongrels of all sizes and colours run to him barking happily in greeting.

The refuge is located at a former equestrian club stable that Pesic got rent-free from the owner back in 2010 where the dogs can be outside all day long.

"It is only when night falls that we put them in their cages. They are happy this way," he tells AFP, adding that all the dogs have been vaccinated, sterilised and have microchips.

There are 280,000 registered dogs in the Balkan country, but veterinary authorities say it is practically impossible to determine the exact number of stray canines, many being pets abandoned by their owners in hard economic times.


- 'An endless fight' -

The sheer size of the problem makes the work of advocates like Pesic even more important, says Jovan Stojkovic, who is in charge of animal issues in the municipality of Nis.

But recently the city, claiming the shelter's land belongs to it, told Pesic that he would have to leave with his dogs.

That immediately sparked protests by animal rights groups. Tens of thousands of people signed a petition to prevent closing down the shelter, forcing the city authorities to back down and pledge to find a solution.

"The city supports what Sasa is doing," Stojkovic tells AFP. "We are certainly not going to allow these dogs to end up back on the streets, that would be a disaster."

For Pesic and his six volunteers, working with the animals is a non-stop business.

"This is an endless fight. I don't have time to eat properly and even less to think about a private life," Pesic said. "You have to fight every day to provide food and care for all these animals."

When starting out, Pesic was getting food for the dogs from local bakers and slaughterhouses. But supplies soon outstripped demand and he had to push for donations, especially through social networks.


"People, especially from abroad, were rather open and backed our project. We need some 5,000 to 6,000 euros ($5,400 to 6,400) for our 400 to 500 dogs every month," he says.

The battle to rescue stray dogs, which began in 2008, grew as people began bringing him abandoned pets that they found and the number of those ill-fated animals rose to 60, leading Pesic to move them to the current shelter.

Ana Mitrovic, a shelter volunteer, believes the city will stick to its promise to help find a new home for the hundreds of canines.

"I am confident that the city will help us to find, by the end of the year, a suitable location, a lasting solution to continue our activities," the 35-year-old woman tells AFP.

And especially since the shelter is also trying to have its residents adopted.

"Since opening, we managed to find homes for 250 dogs," Pesic says proudly. AFP