How Romania turns dogs into cash

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This is a small feature on how to turn stray dogs into a money-making opportunity in Romania, written for US story website Loopletters in January 2013 – http://www.loopletters.com/

How Romania turns dogs into cash

For the past two years I have been making a film about Romania’s problem with stray dogs. The east European nation has millions of the animals prowling the streets, hotels, car parks, blocks of flats and even the backyard of Parliament and the corridors of a children’s hospital.
My job included talking to people about this environmental and social disaster. Often I would hear extraordinary stories about animals and their relationship with Romanians, but few of these could be demonstrated for the camera. Some included the low-cost methods county councils used to kill them, such as injecting the dogs with vinegar or burying them alive in limestone. But there were also incredible stories about the dogs, including how they could use the buses, trams and underground trains – one dog (now deceased) could slip under the barriers at the Metro station, negotiate the stairs and enter the train, moving between two different stations every day to a place where she could find food.
But these dogs were close to extinction at the beginning of the last decade. In the capital Bucharest, the mayor decided to organize a mass-slaughter of the dogs. This move would have been simple in a time of Totalitarianism, where the people rarely took a public stance against the police. But in a time of a fresh democracy, where the public were exercised at attacking the forces of order, this would prove difficult to manage. Added to this was a huge problem that continues to undermine Romania’s development – the fact that a scary number of people in public service and business are on the take.
There was this one block in Bucharest where a dog lived. He was a fat and shabby mongrel who sat at the front entrance, eating leftovers thrown out of the windows by the  residents. Fed many times a day by different families, he lived a content life, sunning himself outside in the summer and finding a home in the basement of the block during the freezing winter months.
But, with the mayor’s decision, a city dog catcher visited the block with a mandate to catch and kill the animal. The fat creature put up little resistance as he was trapped inside a metal loop and taken to the city pound to receive a lethal injection. When one of the residents of the block – an elderly woman – realized he was gone, she visited the pound to plead with the dog catchers to let him go. They were intransigent until she reached in her pocket, pulled out her purse and produced a few notes – worth about ten dollars – to take him home. Within half an hour the dog was back in his usual position, waiting for his next meal.
Now the dog catcher figured he was on to a good deal. Once a month he would visit the block, threaten to take the animal away and the pensioner would have to muster a ten dollar bribe to keep the dog alive.
But one afternoon, the dog catcher found the woman was not at home. Instead another elderly pensioner who fed the dogs was sitting outside in her dressing gown, cuddling the filthy animal. He asked her for money and there was an argument, but soon she agreed to provide him ten bucks to leave empty-handed.
The dog catcher began to increase the regularity of his visits. He would come back every week at a different time and encounter a different person caring for the dog and solicit a payment. If they refused he would seize the animal, chuck him in the back of his van and lock him up in the pound. Someone from the block would then have to come up with the cash to save the creature from the needle. The dog catcher ended up pocketing around 100 dollars per month – close to the then average salary in Romania – for the job of threatening to kill one animal. If dog catchers were replicating this pattern across a city of two million people, with around a thousand blocks, each with their own resident dogs, there was scope for a 1.2 million dollar a year black market. It’s possible that corruption saved thousands of vagabond canines.
This is a story I heard in many places across many cities in the country. Unfortunately on camera I could never catch someone taking or giving a bribe, but I thought this was a great example of how a society was failing in a surreal fashion – by doing nothing but sitting outside a block of flats, getting fat, wagging his tail and being friendly to anyone with a bag of bones, the stray dog in Romania had become a currency.

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