This is part of a series highlighting recipients of Lady Freethinker’s new Urgent Needs grant program, created to help rescuers with lifesaving veterinary expenses. This nonprofit is our final awardee in the first cycle of the Urgent Needs Grant program — meaning that, with your support, LFT was able to grant a total of $44,000 to 10 nonprofits to support their work for animals

After Dana Costin finished high school, she decided to dedicate her life to animals.

That aspiration was particularly fraught with challenge because Costin lives in Romania, where public education about animal welfare is lacking and thousands of stray, abandoned, and neglected dogs roam the streets due to fall-out from industrialization policies and economic ruin during the former Soviet Regime. 

Not daunted by those obstacles — or not knowing English and not having a working internet connection at home — Costin set about making a reality of her dream to improve quality of life for Romania’s dogs, and ultimately to eliminate the number of homeless and abused animals.

She’s now the founder of the Romanian League in Defense of Animals (ROLDA) — a registered charity in Australia, the United States, and Europe — that currently operates two shelters near the city of Galati, in eastern Romania.

While Costin is the first to acknowledge she can’t save every dog, she can now provide shelter, vaccinations, sterilizations, medical treatment, and proper care for up to 700 dogs at ROLDA’s shelters, which incorporate British kennel design and are built and maintained to European Union animal welfare standards.

Since the charity’s inception in 2006, ROLDA has cared for 21,000 dogs and rehomed more than 1,900 dogs to loving homes. One of those world-traveling canines is Jaxton — a Carpathian breed formerly named Dream — who found his forever home with South Carolina resident Stacey Govito.

“It has been a year, and our boy has flourished,” Govito, who learned about ROLDA through other animal rights work, told Lady Freethinker (LFT). “I love him to pieces. He was the perfect fit into my family. Like I always say to Dana, ‘Dream is my dream come true.’”

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Jaxton, formerly Dream, a Carpathian adopted through ROLDA (Courtesy of Stacey Govito)

“Dana is amazing to me,” she added.  “I would definitely recommend (ROLDA) to anyone who is serious about adopting a pet from overseas and is willing to go the extra mile, because she expects nothing short of that.”

Costin told LFT that she persists in ROLDA’s mission — despite limited resources and an unsympathetic local and national government — because of her love for animals and her belief that they deserve good lives in caring homes.

“Romanian dogs are innocent, defenseless, and want only to love us back,” she wrote on the charity’s website. “We believe they share the same right to life, safety, and happiness as any human being. ROLDA gives hope, because hope is what gives our lives purpose.

ROLDA was one of two nonprofits granted a full award of $10,000 to spay, neuter, vaccinate, and care for 100 dogs in Romania through the first cycle of Lady Freethinker’s Critical Care program, a part of the Urgent Needs grant program that we rolled out in Winter 2020.

We wanted to spotlight our awardees so LFT readers can see exactly what kind of phenomenal work for animals they are supporting! 

The following interview combines information from Costin’s grant application and interview with LFT. Answers have been lightly edited for grammar and length.

If you’d like to further support ROLDA, you can do so here.

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A dog who found his happy forever home after being cared for by ROLDA (Courtesy ROLDA)

A Q&A with Dana Costin, Founder of the Romania League in Defense of Animals (ROLDA)

What’s it like for dogs in Romania?

ROLDA operates in one of the poorest regions of Romania, and people from the countryside live at the edge of poverty. These families can’t afford to pay regular dogs’ checks to the vet, treatments, or medical procedures like sterilizations. 

Homeless dogs are treated badly in Romania. Public shelters are grotesque and cruel; even if well-managed, they are pathetically under-equipped to care for a national stray dog population estimated at 2 million.  

With the exception of a few government-run pounds — which are little better than filthy dungeons in which dogs are abused and killed — abandoned, sick, and injured dogs have nowhere to go. 

It’s a tragedy that these dogs suffer, day after day. And like many modern tragedies, it happens right in front of our eyes.

Tell us about 2020, and the continued impacts from COVID-19.

The impact of Covid-19 on dog owners across Romania means hundreds more dogs could need our help. Problems we faced were donations dropped significantly, a lack of resources to help more strays in need, ridiculously high prices paid for items (like gloves, disinfectant, masks), an increased number of dogs abandoned on streets, a reduced number of adoptions since COVID started, and shelters functioning at full capacity.

We are still reeling from the fallout of COVID-19, and the world remains gripped with anxiety under the grim specter of a next wave. There has never been a harder time for charities, as everyone understandably tightens their belts and conserves what they have to safeguard their own welfare and that of their loved ones through this period of danger and uncertainty. 

As the world marches into an unknowable future, we are desperate to stockpile as much food and other essential items we possibly can to safeguard our 700 dogs through the harshness and extreme cold of a Romanian winter. 

How did you decide to invest the grant money?

The grant is not yet spent in full. We will get $2,500 for four months. The first amount was spent on sterilizations and medical bills.

One case of a dog treated, with treatment costs paid with the Lady Freethinker grant, is Bobby. He was chained when he was little. He grew, but nobody bothered to replace the horrible collar that went deeply into the dog’s neck, causing him a huge wound. The dog is gentle, suffering in silence, but of course his behavior changed. Bobby was relocated to another family after his neck wound was treated.

When funds exist — like now, thanks to the grant from Lady Freethinker — and when there is no lock down or other COVID restrictions, ROLDA is paying vets and technicians to go into rural areas and offer free sterilizations and microchipping to pets (dogs and cats) from poor communities: to limit the number of puppies and kittens born unwanted, to prevent abandonment, and to track from where the dog was abandoned.

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Bobby, a dog rescued and re-homed by ROLDA (Courtesy ROLDA)

What’s a “typical” morning like for you?

I wake up at 9-10 a.m., depending on how busy the day is. I drink two large, black coffees. As often as I can, I run before going to the shelters. I started running two to three years ago on a treadmill, and that’s when I discovered that running empties my mind for a short while, which relaxes me.

At the shelters, staff tell me any problems they have, anything they need to buy or order, what they did, and what they are going to do tomorrow. I also meet any new dogs.

Some days I have to go to different institutions or to buy things for the shelter, go to the post to pick up ordered boxes, go to the bank, or meet our bookkeeper or lawyer or meet other people. 

I return home around 4-7 p.m. — or later, again it depends how busy day is. I start computer work again. I come up with ideas for websites, pages, newsletters; I write dogs’ stories; I like to keep an eye on what big name charities are doing. I don’t sleep earlier than 2 a.m.

Why do you love dogs so much? How do you handle the emotional strain of adoptions?

Meeting [some] people gets me tired, as you have to always be careful about what people want and what they really mean. But with dogs, it is so much easier. I am so much more natural around dogs. They rewarded me in all these years with beautiful moments and with the chance to get to know them. I doubt many people had the privilege to understand other animals and live so close to so many as I did.

As a protection shield, I prefer not to get too attached to any dog, which is impossible. For a while, I spent less time in shelters, and that’s how I keep away from the emotional part. But that didn’t last long, because sometimes I simply fall in love at first sight of a dog. My latest love is Princess, whom I have loved so much from the first moment I saw her. I am hopeful our Swedish partner will have a home for her soon.

Each dog needs a forever home. That’s our goal, not to mess up their feelings to make us or me feel better. Sometimes, people get too unhealthily involved and too much into rescue because of their own emotional struggle and problems, but that’s not good for dogs, in my opinion. 

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(Courtesy ROLDA)

What keeps you going on bad days?

The main challenges I have faced have been either having to deal with indifference, or battling to get the funds needed. My top qualities are certainly endurance and resilience. It is said that the road to success is more beautiful than success itself and this is true: every small victory puts a big smile on my face. I have extremely enjoyed building the charity ROLDA.

Is there anything you’d like LFT supporters to know about their support or your nonprofit?

I am impulsive, and to keep my feet on the ground, I have trained myself to slowly process information. [When I learned we had received an LFT grant], I read, read again… and then I started to scream and cry of happiness. Every time I read a grant is approved, after joy, I feel an overwhelming responsibility.

When charities like Lady Freethinker support ROLDA, it fuels our energy to continue despite all obstacles. It gives us confidence that we are in the right direction. It helps not just animals, but also people who care about them. It helps animals who have nobody else to care for them. Ultimately, it motivates others to join us. With 2 million strays estimated not long ago, Romania needs all the help it can get to make this world a better one for animals.

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Romeo, a dog helped by ROLDA (Courtesy ROLDA)

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