Zeljko Ilicic kisses a horse in the Old Hill, sanctuary...

Zeljko Ilicic kisses a horse in the Old Hill, sanctuary for horses in the town of Lapovo, in central Serbia, Wednesday, April 3, 2024. The 43-year-old Serbian man has set up the only sanctuary for horses in the Balkan country, providing shelter and care for dozens of animals for nearly a decade. Around 80 horses have passed through Ilicic's Staro Brdo, or Old Hill, sanctuary since it opened in 2015. Credit: AP/Darko Vojinovic

LAPOVO, Serbia — Zeljko Ilicic saved his first horse from certain death 12 years ago and found his calling.

The Serbian, now 43, set up the Balkan country's only horse sanctuary in 2015 on a small piece of land in Lapovo in Central Serbia. Around 80 horses have since passed through Staro Brdo, or Old Hill, sanctuary. Ilicic has taken in tortured, old and abused horses, but also those that had lived well but could no longer be looked after by caretakers.

Animal care is a persistent challenge in Serbia, which is impoverished and marred by corruption after years of crisis and conflict in the 1990s. While authorities run shelters for dogs, there are no state-backed facilities for horses. Ilicic's sanctuary today provides shelter and care for dozens of 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 derby winner that eventually died peacefully of old age. Another, now 28, was in a number of Serbian movies before retiring to the sanctuary, its legs stiff with arthritis. Some horses end up in limbo as “neither a pet nor a working machine” on farms, he said, so they become a burden to people.

Violeta Jovic, who works at the sanctuary, remembers a time in 2020 when veterinary inspectors intercepted a truck packed with nearly two dozen illegally transported horses bound for slaughter. She said they were all in bad condition but that the sanctuary managed to find new homes for most of them, while three remained under their care.

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

Horses eat in the Old Hill, sanctuary for horses in...

Horses eat in the Old Hill, sanctuary for horses in the town of Lapovo, in central Serbia, Wednesday, April 3, 2024. Zeljko Ilicic, 43-year-old Serbian man has set up the only sanctuary for horses in the Balkan country, providing shelter and care for dozens of animals for nearly a decade. Around 80 horses have passed through Ilicic's Staro Brdo, or Old Hill, sanctuary since it opened in 2015. Credit: AP/Darko Vojinovic

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 adoption, the sanctuary launches a bid for potential caretakers.

Staro Brdo today looks after nine horses, two donkeys, a buffalo, seven pigs, and several dogs, cats and chickens. Seven newborn kittens, found in a closed plastic bag, and seven Yorkshire piglets found at a waste dump have become fully grown animals that like to cuddle and play. A cacophony of animal sounds echoes through the small estate as a visitor ventures in.

The sanctuary operates on donations but Ilicic said he hopes to become self-sustaining through various initiatives, including therapy riding. Serbian authorities have helped by repairing local roads and Ilicic has cooperated with veterinary inspections, but there is still no legal framework to register his facility as an official horse sanctuary.

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

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