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ZAGREB (Reuters) - From afar, the rare visitor can see only the big cages covered with green nets that blend in with the lush local vegetation of hilly northwest Croatia.
It is only when you come closer that you hear the flapping of wings, the screams of hawks and buzzards and the yelping and growling of 11 dogs that watch over the Centre for Protection of Wild Animals.
The centre, one of only two in Croatia that cater for both birds and mammals, is run by a single man on meager government funding -- a feat that regularly impresses his wealthier colleagues from the European Union.
"They just can't believe when I tell them. They ask me: Are you a magician or what?" Zoran Horvat said as he walks the estate, followed by his dogs, to check on the patients.
The tour was interrupted by phone calls from people reporting new sightings of wounded animals - from an owl scratched by a cat to a young bird that fell through a chimney, testifying to the growing scope of work.
Like many former communist countries of eastern Europe, Croatia has a rich wildlife, including wolves and bears, and Horvat said he was glad to notice that environmental awareness was also growing, thanks in part to his efforts.
"The attitude of people towards animals, towards the environment has changed in the last 10 years. They know we are here and they can call us," he said.
Horvat, a salesman whose business collapsed last year, founded the centre in 2003 with his wife, who is a vet at the Zagreb Zoo, as a labor of love to complement his day job.
Registered in 2003, the centre has grown so much that Horvat, who built it single-handedly on his own land, is struggling to get by but remains determined to keep it alive.
"When we started, we never expected it would grow into this huge job. We get around 500 animals a year," Horvat said.
The centre currently caters for four eagle owls, a couple of white-tailed eagles, a number of buzzards, falcons and hawks, a dozen storks, as well as foxes, squirrels and a timid roe buck obviously fearful of humans.
The aim is to help the animals recuperate and return to the wild as soon as possible. Human visitors are not allowed.
"We want to minimize contact with humans. A wild animal must remain wild and should not get used to people, so tourism would only hurt them," he said.
Sometimes they don't succeed and an animal becomes too tame for release into the wild. One of those is Mr Fox, who calmly eats from Horvat's hand while his five wild brethren keep chasing their bushy tails in a nearby cage.
The government subsidizes the centre with around 100,000 kuna ($17,500) a year.
"That, of course, is not enough. The costs are huge, there is food, medicine, transport of animals. We get some donations and we've invested a lot of our own money. We cannot employ anyone because we can only afford volunteers," Horvat said.
However, he hopes that the prospects would brighten once Croatia joins the European Union in July next year.
"I think it could be better. I have information that European funds would then be much more available and I just hope we'll survive somehow until next July".
($1 = 5.7114 Croatian kunas)
Reporting by Zoran Radosavljevic, editing by Paul Casciato