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Putting the leash on Bucharest's shadow city of dogs

No subject divides the people of Bucharest more than the choice of whether to feed the city’s stray dogs or poison them

December 2010 - From the Print Edition

Mothers and sons, colleagues and school-friends and husbands and wives disagree on the fate of these four-legged beggars, in a debate which splits homes, blocks and communities.
Estimates for the number of strays in the capital are between 15,000 and 50,000, while the true figure is unknown.
But even the authorities are not convinced whether massacre or toleration is the answer.
City Hall has murdered around 100,000 canines since 2001 in a vast ‘dogocide’ that failed to curb their numbers - because dogs breed at a faster rate that City Hall’s team of six dog catchers can seize and kill them.
But in the last two years the mayor’s office has switched its policy.
Now the authorities and animal rights groups have begun an extensive programme of capturing strays, sterilising them and dumping the canines back on the street. This needs widespread support from the public, city authorities, civil society and the private sphere to show a humane method of pooch population control can work.
‘The Diplomat - Bucharest’ magazine this month investigates the fate of stray dogs in Romania. Some end up castrated and neutered, others poisoned and thrown in a skip, some are adopted by Germans, Swiss or Americans, others are trained to attack, while one dog is assisting a child with Down’s Syndrome to speak.
On the whole stray dogs rarely terrorise people - they bark and snap and can bite, but are not trained to fight. However they do scare pedestrians, especially the old, children and tourists, restricting many from walking the streets at night, while packs of unsterilised hounds can be a public menace.
But the more dangerous hounds are often those people keep in their front yards.
From the poorest to the richest districts of the capital, it seems obligatory for householders to keep at least one vicious, hyperactive and sexually incontinent guard dog.
Some estimates put the owned dog population at 400,000 in the capital - clearly eclipsing the strays by eight times. This is larger than any other urban population in Romania outside of Bucharest. Arguably the second largest metropolis in the country is the capital’s shadow city of nearly half a million dogs.
Even in a prestigious Bucharest district such as Cotroceni, almost every house has a guard dog - which means that in the summer months, where the temperature hits 40 degrees, this arboreal and attractive zone with winding streets and eclectic architecture is poisoned by the stench of canine urine and turd melting in the heat.
This is a vast under-licensed community which plagues public walking areas.
The canine presence is so ingrained in the Romanian consciousness that it has now built up its own mythology. Due to the Romanian fondness for conspiracy theories and delight in exaggeration, many legends - some possibly true - have emerged about dogs in Bucharest. Among these are that authorities kill dogs on the street, burn them and grind the bones into a protein flour, which they sell to Chinese drug merchants. Allegedly before the Bucharest NATO Summit in 2008, the city authorities rounded up 10,000s of dogs on the streets of Bucharest and secretly slaughtered them in one night, so the hounds would not bite the ankles of George W Bush or Angela Merkel, as they disembarked from their limousines.
Now - supposedly - Italian leather companies are buying up Romanian stray dog skin and passing it off as cow. There is also a story that during the Ceausescu period, the state-owned clothing companies used to make winter accessories out of dog fur, claiming this was mink.
One dog catcher told this magazine that sometimes, when he turns up outside a block, picks up a street dog and shuts him in a van, the people in the street shout: “Take him away and bring him back as gloves!”

Michael Bird

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