Controversial ‘killing law’ leads to Bucharest stray-dog slaughter

Stray dogs

Stray dogs in Bucharest. Todd Kopriva under a Creative Commons Licence

They are the soundtrack of Romania’s capital, the exclamation mark on many corners: a yapping bark provided by the thousands of semi-feral canines that roam the streets of Bucharest. Some can be aggressive and intimidating – particularly in packs, which are not uncommon – but the majority are not. They merely prowl around the city alone, scavenging for food.

These dogs have had a particularly hazardous time since January, when Bucharest City Hall enforced a controversial law, coined the ‘killing law’, that saw the city’s dogs systematically captured and, if not adopted or homed within two weeks, exterminated. These strays are a major socio-political issue in Romania: polls show that a party in favour of cleansing the streets by ‘euthanization’ of the dogs is not going to be voted to power.

Some 26,000 strays have been caught by the ironically named Bucharest Authority for Surveillance and Protection of Animals (ASPA); 10,000 of them have been killed

Since then, 26,000 strays have been caught by the ironically named Bucharest Authority for Surveillance and Protection of Animals (ASPA); 10,000 of them have been killed. A 2013 census by Bucharest’s City Hall estimated that there were more than 60,000 stray dogs, but requests by international animal welfare organization FOUR PAWS for the report to prove its existence and review the methodology never sufficed. FOUR PAWS estimated that there ares between 35,000 and 40,000 stray dogs in the capital.

The stray dogs issue is long-standing, but it flared up last September, when a four-year-old boy, Ionut Anghel, wandered a kilometre away from his grandmother, who was sitting in a park, and was mauled to death by what the media reported to be a pack of vicious strays – despite neither the police nor the ASPA providing sound evidence of this.

Although a rare and isolated incident, President Traian Basescu declared ‘humans are above dogs’ and the ‘killing law’ was passed. This triggered protests around the world from people concerned with animal welfare and calls for the use of more humane and efficient long-term measures to deal with the strays. An online petition, begun in March to stop the killing and addressed to Prime Minster Victor Ponta, has collected over 150,000 signatures.

Image problem

Romania’s stray dogs issue is a by-product of the communist regime that ruled the country until 1989 under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceasescu.

Rural workers were shipped in from the countryside to work in the state’s industries as part of a mass urbanization plan, and the people who were ferried into the city’s rising communist blocks were keen to release their dogs for lack of space and money. Nature had its way, and the dogs bred.

Romania is now a member of the European Union (EU) and liberal democracy, but it has an image problem. It is still struggling to shake off the memories of its troubled communist past. The thousands of stray dogs still roaming its streets are not helping.

President Traian Basescu declared ‘humans are above dogs’ and the ‘killing law’ was passed. This triggered protests around the world from people concerned with animal welfare

The ‘killing law’ was challenged in court by FOUR PAWS, which deemed the procedure barbaric and insufficient. As a result, on 20 June the Bucharest Court of Appeal suspended the methodological norms needed to enforce the law: a victory for those opposing the procedure, and a lifeline for the thousands of strays held in the dog pounds and on the streets. FOUR PAWS is continuing to call on the government to annul the law permanently.

‘There are ongoing discussions with governmental representatives,’ says Julie Sanders, the charity’s country manager for Romania, ‘but decision-makers explicitly refused to create a working group of experts to draft new legislation for strays. FOUR PAWS worries that in the absence of a legal framework to manage stray dogs in a humane way, the situation will soon spiral out of control. Violent clashes between the ASPA dog-catchers and animal lovers has become commonplace.’

The debate reached its peak in July, when the head of ASPA, Răzvan Băncescu, was caught on camera punching a woman and two men who had been following his team so as to prevent stray dogs from being caught and killed. This is the man contracted to ‘protect’ animals, while also profiting from the stray dogs. Such is the Romanian system.

Research suggests the most effective and humane way of clearing the streets of roaming dogs is the ‘catch-neuter-release’ method (C-N-R), and this also appears, beyond rehoming, to be the most effective long term for the state. The animal welfare group calculated that killing each dog costs around $80, while the C-N-R method costs around $27. There are examples of C-N-R working in several Romanian towns and cities, including Oradea, where the number of strays was reduced from 4,500 to 300 over a six-year period. The euthanizing method may have a more immediate effect, but it doesn’t solve the long-term problem. A mass neutering appears to be a viable solution.

Testament to this is that although 144,339 stray dogs were killed in Romania between 2001 and 2007 (at a cost of $12 million) large numbers still prowl the streets.

Corruption, cruelty and big checks

The strays are not just a social and animal-welfare issue; they are a multi-million dollar business. Investigative journalist Radu Tutuianu wrote a report exposing apparent corruption surrounding the handling of the stray dogs. A good example is the $675,000 paid by Iasi Council, a city in the north of the country with an estimated 3,500 strays, for a shelter that contains no dogs and is reported to be constructed of five wire fences and two roofs.

The strays are not just a social and animal-welfare issue; they are a multi-million dollar business

The report also gives quotes from two unnamed sources who admitted to inflicting abject cruelty on strays. One says: ‘I could take it no more. They were nesting under my car and it became ridden with fleas. In the morning, when I was heading towards my parking lot, they attacked me because I was disturbing them. I bought some salami and filled it with needles and gave it them to eat. They died with punctured stomachs. I am sorry for them, but it’s better like this than to have my legs punctured.’

The second unnamed source revealed: ‘I put fowl blood in water and added [the highly toxic and illegal pesticide] Furadan, or antifreeze liquid. The dog smells the blood, drinks it and straight away you find it foaming at the mouth.’

Such tales of abuse and cruelty are not isolated incidents. The real horror story of captive strays can be witnessed in the many state-run shelters. A video released by FOUR PAWS reveals the horrific treatment of stray dogs, shockingly poor hygiene and conditions that breach EU animal-welfare legislation. If annulling the ‘killing law’ has contributed to this suffering by keeping these dogs alive, it has left the situation confused.

One divisive move by the Romanian government will come into effect on 1 January 2015: people with dogs that are not pedigree and who cannot provide certificates will have to pay $135 to have their dogs registered and neutered. Although a constructive move in terms of dog owners becoming responsible for their pets, it may well backfire, as the government is not prepared to offer a lower fee to those can’t afford to pay. For some, particularly in rural areas, the fee likely equals their monthly income, so they may opt to release their dogs to the streets instead.

Hope, but at a cost

At the periphery of Bucharest is one of Romania’s most developed stray-dog shelters, Speranta (‘Hope’). With a capacity of 600, it is one of the country’s most humane and developed dog pounds, and is financed only with private donations.

Its administrator, Radu Deliu, says it costs between $27 and $40 per month per dog to hold the dogs here. There are eight paid staff and four volunteers. But in the past two months not a single dog has been adopted from this shelter. Speranta is rife with tales of dogs that have suffered abuse and cruelty before being fortunate enough to end up here – where they will be rehabilitated and cared for properly within EU animal-welfare standards.

But dogs can live a long time and keeping vast numbers of strays alive, or barely alive, in shelters with little prospect of adoption is neither viable nor humane.

Polls show that seven per cent of Romanians – or 1.4 million people – would adopt a stray dog. The strays issue needs serious rethinking, investment from EU funds, and an aggressive adoption campaign. Instead, the ASPA co-ordinator recently announced the intention to charge $95 per dog adopted. On the European Commission’s website, a report states: ‘The EU is justifiably proud of its level of achievement and its widely recognized status as a global leader in the field of animal welfare.’ Yet there is at least one EU state that is carrying out animal abuse on a mass scale.

Stephen McGrath is a freelance journalist based in Romania.