BUCHAREST, Romania — Walk down any residential street in Romania’s capital and you are likely to encounter a member of Bucharest’s canine population — if not a whole pack of them. Banding together in groups of three or four, or even more, the dogs treat the city as their own, wandering freely, even hopping on and off public transport.
But these days, Romania’s stray dogs are increasingly seen as a threat. The Romanian Parliament is currently debating legislation that could lead to the euthanizing of thousands of stray dogs. Since 2007, the Animal Protection Act has outlawed the killing of these canines. But following the death of a woman attacked by dogs in Bucharest earlier this year, some lawmakers want that ban reversed.
“The possibility that another person gets killed is extremely high because there are so many dogs on the streets,” said Mihai Atanasoaie the prefect of Bucharest, who pushed for the law.
NGOs estimate that 40,000 pooches live on the streets of Bucharest, although local authorities say the number is closer to 100,000. While lethal attacks have been extremely rare, 8,348 people in the capital were treated for bites by stray dogs in 2010, according to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Bucharest.
People blame former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu for the homeless pups. In 1984, he razed the historic town center to create the House of the Republic, now the Palace of Parliament, a communist monstrosity that is the world's largest civilian administrative building. As a result, an estimated 40,000 families were relocated to modern apartment buildings in which pets were forbidden. So they abandoned them to the streets.
Today, the presence of these animals roaming the city is perceived by the Romanian government as an embarrassing symbol of poor public management and a failure to live up to the standards of a modern European capital as well as of a European Union member state.
If passed, the new amendment will put the ultimate decision on how to tackle the problem into the hands of local authorities, with euthanasia as one option. Authorities will be required to keep dogs taken from the streets in shelters for 30 days.
“The problem has really escalated and local authorities so far been have unable to solve it by sterilization or relocating the dogs,” said Atanasoaie, adding that the law prioritizes keeping the canines in shelters. "We have to take the dogs off the streets. That’s the most important thing, for citizens, for tourists, for anyone who lives in or visits Bucharest.”
However, few regard shelters as a long-term solution, and animal rights activists argue that such confinement is cruel. And as no one expects more public funding for increasing the capacity of Bucharest’s already-crowded animal shelters, euthanasia is often seen the most cost-effective option.
NGOs and animal rights activists argue that euthanasia is not only inhumane but ineffective. “If you take a dog from one place, it doesn’t matter if you kill it, put it in a shelter or send it to the moon," said Kuki Barbuceanu, Bucharest project manager of Four Paws, an NGO responsible for neutering about 3,300 stray dogs since September. "Soon, you will have the same number of dogs in that place as before.”
The law will also tighten up the rules on adoption. “What has happened so far is that dogs have been taken off the streets and put into shelters, and then private organizations adopted them and put them back on the streets," said Atanasoaie. "This cannot go on.”
One woman, who did not wish to be named, told GlobalPost that she had "reclaimed" dogs that she regularly feeds on streets from the shelters. She was shocked by the conditions she found them in: “The smell [of the place] was absolutely awful and I don’t believe that they are feeding them.” She admitted to releasing them back on street, where she believes they have a better life.
Meanwhile, Barbuceanu says there is a political component to the initiative. He believes that the short-term effect of euthanizing strays, leading to fewer dogs visible on the streets, is timed for local elections scheduled for mid-2012.
“The people are stupid enough to believe that if they don’t have dogs on the streets in the next months, for example, they can say, 'My mayor has done something, he is a good mayor and I can vote for him again,'" he said. "And, of course, in a few months, after one year, the dogs will be back on the streets.”
Romanian law defines euthanasia as the administering of a humane lethal injection. But animal rights activists say that cheaper methods have been employed, and accuse politicians of siphoning off extra funds for their election campaigns.
“We have seen photographs as well as videos showing dogs being killed with metal bars, electrocuted and having their throats slashed,” said Marcela Pisla, president of Cutu-Cutu, an animal rights organization that has been active in organizing public protests and lobbying against the amendment.
Atanasoaie says the opponents of the legislation are putting the rights of animals above the safety of people. He has also accused them of aggressive and underhanded tactics. “Opponents have been threatening the [lawmakers],” he said. “I have received emails threatening me and my family on behalf of these stray dogs.”
Even if the initiative passes, and more dogs die, it won't convince everyone that these canines are dangerous and should be put down. “Dogs are the innocent victims in this situation,” said one Bucharest resident, Mihaela, who declined to give her full name. “Humans have the power and this power should not be abused.”