Tuesday, 16 April 2024

Maja Vrvilo and Rick Wilkinson: The idea of filming a documentary about Zarkovica grew out of feeling of overwhelming helplessness

Written by  Mar 28, 2019

Maja Vrvilo and Rick Wilkinson, a married couple and filmmakers from Los Angeles, decided to do one amazing thing: film a documentary about the Dubrovnik animal shelter – Zarkovica. They invited volunteers and people who have adopted a dog from the shelter to share their stories about this amazing place. Zarkovica has been attracting attention for years, not only because of the amazing efforts of Sandra Sambrailo, who takes care of more than 300 dogs, but also because of the location and the hard conditions that are more than challenging. That's why the documentary with honest stories will be priceless. Maja shared the story behind the filming of the documentary with The Dubrovnik Times.

Why did you decide to film a documentary about Zarkovica?

The idea of a documentary grew out of feelings of overwhelming helplessness I felt the first time my husband and I visited the shelter. While there, we met Sandra who spends 22 hours every day on that hill taking care of the abandoned dogs. We met volunteers, people who visit Dubrovnik not to enjoy the beautiful beaches and bask in the beauty of Dubrovnik, but to spend their hot summer days hauling water and food for 350 dogs, clean their pens, apply flea meds and take them for walks. It seemed endless. And short of having funds to buy land and build the proper shelter, the one thing we could do is film a documentary to raise awareness and introduce Zarkovica to more people. We're both filmmakers and that was the logical step.

Where do you plan to publish it?

We'll decide on that once it's closer to being finished.

How are people responding, what are the reactions?

Reactions are overwhelmingly positive. So many people from Croatia and abroad have found themselves following, volunteering or adopting dogs from Zarkovica. They want to help out, offering to share their experiences and their time to help us out. We were lucky to partner with a producer from Dubrovnik, Maro Kockovic, who not only knew about Sandra's story but has adopted a dog from Zarkovica. He opened a lots of doors for us.

Have you heard some interesting stories already?

How much time and space do you have?! There are plenty of interesting stories! Saskia, who came to Zarkovica as a puppy while Megan, a volunteer from BC, Canada was volunteering there. Megan fell in love, and decided to bring Saskia home. She returned to Croatia couple of months later with her mother to take her new pup home, 5600 miles away. Then there is Sapa, a senior dog who had a heart attack last October in Zarkovica, but he will spend his remaining years in a warm forever home with Ellie, who travelled from Britain in January to bring Sapa home. Astor, another elderly dog went to Tina's house on the island of Brac one very cold winter under the pretence of staying there until spring. He is now happily, permanently settled in her loving home. Then there are the Czech tourists bicycling through hills above Dubrovnik and stumbling upon several abandoned puppies. They stuffed them in their backpacks to take them to Zarkovica, but couldn't resist the cute faces and adopted one of them. Last summer while I visited the shelter, German tourists brought a small young dog that was found abandoned. The dog was scared with so many big dogs around, and staying there wasn't an option since Zarkovica isn't allowed to take any new dogs in. Hours passed, I happened to be there and was petting the puppy when a young couple from Dubrovnik came in. Their dog passed away and they were ready to adopt again. They fell in love with the puppy, already purchased a bed, food for her. Sandra talked to them, making sure they're serious adopters and soon enough the little one was on the way with her new family.

When did you first visit Zarkovica and what was the reason behind your visit?

Two years ago was the first time I visited. I was already following Zarkovica story, helping as much as I could. When my husband and I went to Croatia to visit family, we decided to visit Zarkovica and meet Sandra and her pack.

zarkovica by maja

All photos by Maja Vrvilo


You fell in love with Zarkovica, why?

It's hard not to feel overwhelmed when you first walk in. There are so many dogs. Most of them are roaming free within the confines of the shelter. The conditions there to say the very least, leave a lot to be desired. Yet, the dogs are well adjusted, well socialized and happy. Would they be happier in homes with their humans? Sleeping on comfortable beds, being petted, walked and played with? Of course, but there is so much love in this place. There is no electricity. There is no running water. Dog pens are in desperate need of repair. And yet, when you leave, you don't want to cry. You want to come back and help.

And you adopted a dog? Tell us something about her, did she change your life?

Our dog is not from Zarkovica. She was a stray Los Angeles puppy. One night she followed a friend of ours, who was walking her dog, home, our friend took her in, fed her and asked us to foster her for a couple of days until she finds her a new home. You already know how this story ends, right? Pup, the most adorable 3-month old pit mix, walked in to our home, looked around and decided this would do. We weren't ready to adopt, so we were just calling her Pup instead of giving her a proper name. In the meantime, we took her to the vet to check for microchip (had none), get her shots, bought the bed, leash, food. Time passed. She started answering to ''Pup''. We started with obedience classes, succeeded house training her, gave up on crate training, allowed her on furniture and then one day I woke up, she was asleep on the bed wedged between us, snoring loudly and I couldn't imagine giving her up. How did we ever live without a dog?!

Was it hard to take the dog abroad, what is the procedure?

She travels within the US, never being abroad. If Saskia could travel 5600 miles to Canada, anything is possible. You have to make sure that passport and vaccination records are current, dog is microchipped and follow import procedures for your country.

How can people help Zarkovica?

Get involved. It's not just about money, even though they do need money to do repairs, buy flea meds, puppy food, take dogs to the vet. If you can buy a bag of puppy food – great! If you can spare an hour, go walk a dog or two. The dogs ask for so little, and are so happy to get some one on one human attention and sniff around. Do you have old blankets lying around? Bring them to the shelter. If you're good with tools, there are lots of dog pens that need repair, or broken dog houses that need couple of screws in their wooden boards. Are you willing to do some hard work? Water and food need to be hauled inside. Dogs need to be fed every day, pens need to be cleaned every day. Sandra, Tomislav and Martina work around the clock and could use help. Every little bit helps. And, who knows, you may fall in love with a dog, decide to adopt and gain a loyal friend for life.

When it comes to your documentary, what kind of help do you need?

To be honest, we really don't need much more help getting the production rolling. I'd say that anyone who is motivated to help should come to the top of that hill. Walk a dog. Haul some water. Shake Sandra's hand and tell her she's not alone. For me, it just doesn't get more helpful than that.


If you want to learn more about Zarkovica, visit our article:

Those that come with an open heart always come again – Sandra Sambrailo – Žarkovica Animal Shelter

The Voice of Dubrovnik


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