An investigation into the environmental and social crisis of millions of stray dogs in Romania – published in ‘The Diplomat – Bucharest’ in December 2010 –
Secret life of the Romanian dog
Charities are sterilising Bucharest’s tens of thousands of stray dogs, but first they must catch the crafty hounds – in a fearless operation requiring a net, frankfurters and a blowpipe. Report by Michael Bird
In a red uniform, beard and pony-tail Ovidiu is running through the car park of a DIY superstore in west Bucharest with a giant net. His partner Kuki follows – holding a copper tube close to his chest.
The pair are hunting George – a three year-old male stray. But for over an hour, George has predicted their every tactic to seize him.
Circling the warehouse-like shop, the dog barks loudly – arousing other canines in the area to the presence of the hunters. At the back of the DIY store, he sidles between the metal bars of a fence to a garage housing delivery trucks.
Ovidiu and Kuki prepare to follow him through the front entrance, but a security guard stops them.
“We want to catch the dog,” says Kuki.
“You need authorisation,” says the guard. “I will call the supervisor.”
As the dog controllers wait at the gates with their net and copper tube, George – only a few metres away – looks on, wags his tail, sits down and nibbles his paws.
A supervisor emerges with a stack of papers. The catchers fill in an access form and pass over their ID cards. The supervisor needs to process and photocopy all this information, so returns to the office to use the company’s Xerox machine. The catchers wait for a further five minutes – while George lies down to rest.
The supervisor returns and allows Ovidiu and Kuki to enter the backyard. The pair crouch down, walk slowly up to George and try a pincer movement to ensnare him.
The dog jumps to its paws and runs at a sprint through the metal bars of the fence and back into the car park.
A colleague of the catchers – Cristi – looks on while his partners lose the dog once more.
“I have only worked here a few weeks,” he says. “But I have learnt that the dog is very smart – very, very smart.”
After enlisting the retailer’s security guards to stand at points around the car park to trap all the dog’s escape routes, Kuki corners the animal on a hill.
Standing still, he takes the copper tube from his side, presses it against his lips and – with the dog in his line of vision – inhales deeply and then blows through the tube.
Out shoots a syringe with a pink fluffy tail, which darts into a back thigh of the dog. The needle is soaked in tranquilliser. George runs down the hill and into the car park.
On an empty space next to a woman packing shopping bags into a hatchback, George settles down, his legs wobble, he lies on his side, and falls asleep, teeth bared and tongue hanging out.
Cristi waits for deep sleep to kick in, then picks up the dog and bundles him into a cage in the van, where ten other dogs are encased. The animals shrug inside their cages and one is car-sick.
A 25 year-old woman is outside the store smoking a cigarette – she looks distressed as she sees another stray packed off.
“Are you going to kill them?” she shouts. “You can’t! You can’t!”
We assure her – No, these dogs will be taken away, castrated or neutered and brought back to the same location in two days’ time.
One reason it takes so long is that the employer of the dog controllers – Austrian animal rights charity Vier Pfoten – aims to be as humane as possible.
A tranquilliser gun would be the best solution to immobilise the dogs, says Ovidiu, but this is not possible, because dog catchers are not allowed to shoot guns in public places.
So the organisation has come up with a creative solution – a blowpipe. The preferred weapon of tribes in the Amazon basin is now a solution for capturing stray dogs in car parks in Bucharest.
Tough to catch
After working for Vier Pfoten for seven years, Ovidiu says there are three types of dogs – the scary, the timid and the friendly.
“You can pick up the friendly ones easily,” he says. All it requires is to throw a few pieces of frankfurter on the ground, watch a dog snap it up, stroke its head and then go in for the grab.
With the timid ones, caution is necessary. “These dogs have been hurt before by humans,” says Ovidiu. They want food and will take food, but they are wary. Slowness, stealth and trust-gaining is necessary.
But the scary ones need a tougher tactic – the metal loop or the pipe.
In a clinic in southeast Bucharest in a one floor industrial warehouse, Vier Pfoten prepares the captured dogs for sterilisation.
After tranquilising the dog, an assistant lays the animal down on an operating table. With a boy, the vets massage the testicles with water and soap and shave the hair with a clean razor.
A slit is cut in the middle of a testicle and a white-pink ovoid pops out – like an eyeball. There is no blood. After the second testicle is eased free, the vets spray a blue antibiotic on the cut – the assistant then places the dog on the floor of the clinic.
A staff member clicks a blue tag into place in its ear and writes down the number in a database. In three weeks, the association has built up a ‘dogabase’ of 800 sterilised street dogs. Ten minutes later the dog wakes up – lacking its balls.
Girls take longer – the hysterectomy includes the removal of ovaries and uterus. The vet places her finger inside a cut and pulls out an intestine with seed-like links. The vet – Anca – holds up its entrails: “The ovaries and uterus show she is still a virgin,” she says. “this is why they are so small – not yet one year old.”
Anca dumps the uterus in a bin.
At war with dogs
In the early 2000s Bucharest City Hall established a policy of killing street dogs, but this strategy failed to control the large numbers of strays.
In 2001, the capital began to kill the dogs en masse. From the 90,000 stray dog population, the Mayor’s office murdered around half. Until 2008, the City Hall averaged a rate of killing around 12,000 per year, but the numbers of street dogs kept up at around 40,000.
According to the World Health Organisation’s Guidelines for Dog Population Management, in the long term, “control of reproduction is by far the most effective” strategy of dog population management, while removal and killing of dogs has “no effect whatsoever” on the root cause of the problem.
Once a catcher seizes one dog, all the other mutts in the area flee. When the dog-catchers come, many residents protect the street dogs inside their flats. Such a ‘Final Solution’ needs expertise, manpower and massive funding over a short period – something City Hall does not have. If a massacre took place on an industrial scale, the negative international press against Bucharest would be huge.
Therefore the City Hall and Vier Pfoten struck a deal in September 2010 to catch, sterilise and release the dogs back into their original habitat, providing the Mayor’s office halts its policy of dog murder.
While the Austrian charity estimates there are between 15,000 and 25,000 street dogs, City Hall puts the number at 50,000.
Bucharest’s governing agency for street dogs – the Authority for Supervising and Protecting Animals (ASPA) – says that around half the street dogs have been sterilised by charities, private persons and ASPA itself. This leaves around 10,000 sexually active bitches, with at least 100 new dogs entering the streets of the capital every day.
If Vier Pfoten can continue its current work rate – in collaboration with other NGOs, private persons and ASPA – the charity argues that by late 2012 it is possible that all the street dogs in the capital could be neutered.
The only dogs on the street would then be newly abandoned canines.
However the authorities are not so optimistic. ASPA only has six dog catchers to tackle the canine masses and City Hall cannot employ any more due to a public sector freeze on new staff.
“If we continue castration and neutering in current conditions, we will not be able to solve the problem,” says ASPA’s president Robert Lorentz.
A major problem is that dogs are entering this city from the outskirts of Bucharest – the county of Ilfov, which has no policy on sterilising dogs.
While the NGOs and the City Hall agree on the strategy of capture, sterilise and release, the authorities want to remove more dogs from public places.
“It is impossible to have 50,000 dogs on the streets – we are a European city – we are not in the jungle, we have to stop this somehow – without killing the dogs,” says Lorentz.
The Authority has two shelters outside Bucharest which house up to 225 dogs, but is planning to construct a mega-shelter hosting 20,000 canines.
The project is to renovate the broken-down 1960s Institute of Agricultural Research in Fundulea, Calarasi county, which used to breed cows, pigs and chickens, into a town of sexless street dogs.
The camp will cost two million Euro per year to maintain and cash will come from public money, foreign donations and from private parties who want the City Hall to take their dogs away, but not kill them. This includes hotels, large retailers, schools and state institutions. “[These are the people who] want to welcome customers who do not have to sprint 100 metres to escape dogs,” says Lorentz.
Lost in the city
Many Romanians do not neuter their dogs because they fear it will affect the animals’ performance as a guard.
“People feel if they neuter the cat it will no longer catch mice and if they neuter the dog, it will no longer be so aggressive,” says dog rescuer Teo Paul.
When females are in heat, owners do not want them in the house, because they attract too many males, so they leave them on the street, where they mate, get pregnant, come back, give birth and then the owners dump the puppies. Villagers in counties around Bucharest also tend to release puppies close to the capital.
“They think someone in Bucharest will take care of them,” says dog expert Kuki.
Popular places for dumping dogs include forests around the city – such as Baneasa and Buftea, but dogs are also often found on construction sites, where workers living in temporary homes keep them as companions.
Alexandra Ion is a north Bucharest resident who has spent 17 years taking care of abandoned puppies, which she often finds in rubbish bins. “If people see that puppies are being fed in a particular place, they bring other puppies to dump there,” she says.
In Bucharest the poorest sectors of the city – the west and southwest districts Sector 6 and Sector 5 – account for over 60 per cent of the capital’s street dogs, according to City Hall. This is because there are many houses in these areas, where owners do not neuter their guard dogs.
A key problem is not only an uncontrollable street dog population, but also a mix of yard and street dogs reproducing. There are around 400,000 house or yard dogs in the city. Many of these are guard dogs and owners allow their mutts time off by letting them run free in the streets, where they terrorise the local females. This is why many of the recent generations of Bucharest’s strays have traces of German Shepherd and Rottweiler.
Feed or poison
Bucharest is a city where the public is split between those who want to feed the street dogs and those who want to poison the street dogs.
Every apartment block in the capital has its own identity and prejudices – they resemble vertical villages and there is no more controversial issue than the feeding of strays. Some blocks are pro-dog, some are anti-dog, while others are divided on the issue.
“I have been spat on and hit by my neighbours for feeding stray dogs,” says Alexandra Ion. “Now I have to feed the street dogs early in the morning or late at night, so the neighbours cannot see me.”
While some residents risk ostracism to care for animals, others are fiercely protective of strays. “People in Bucharest love animals,” says Vier Pfoten’s programme coordinator Anca Tomescu. “80 per cent of residents say to us – ‘If you do not bring back my boy or my girl, I will kill you’. Many people do not believe us – they beat us up and smash our car not to take away their stray dog.”
Awareness campaigns have helped the population to gain access to information detailing why the capture, neutering and release system is a workable alternative to mass dog murder.
Raluca Simion, director of Romanian animal rights charity GIA, has found that appealing to the prejudices of people in villages has worked as a disincentive to killing animals.
“If I tell people from the countryside it is ‘sinful’ to drown puppies, they stop doing it,” she says.
But many owners are protective of their dog’s sexuality. Recent research by Cluj-Napoca’s Babes-Bolyai University into hundreds of northwest Transylvanian dog owners found that men were against allowing their male dog to be castrated, while women were more than happy to see the dogs’ testicles popped out.
With female dogs, neither the men or the women had strong views on neutering. “One problem is that vets advise animal owners to have one litter for the bitch to keep it healthy and then neuter it at three to four years,” says Simion.
TV shows on top rated channels have also started to promote the benefits of sterilisation. “Now when we go into some villages, everyone wants their animals to be neutered,” says Simion.
Stray dogs defamed
If a pedestrian is bitten by a stray dog in Bucharest, he or she must drive to a hospital to have a Rabies vaccination, where the payment is free. However, if someone is bitten by a dog which is owned by his or her neighbour, this treatment costs.
Therefore anyone who is bitten by a breed dog, a pet rat or a sharp-toothed creature tends to tell doctors they were bitten by a stray dog to receive the jab for free.
Animal rights groups argue that the figures for victims of strays is hugely inflated – leading to a defamation of the stray dogs’ level of violence.
In his office in Bucharest’s historic centre, Robert Lorentz holds up a large pad of photocopied reports – about two inches thick. “These are complaints from one week from one of Bucharest’s six Sectors,” he says, “all about dogs.”
In 2010 alone there were reports of 10,000 incidents of attacks by street dogs. Lorentz dismisses the claim that many of these were residents lying about their assailant so as not to pay for the rabies jab. “Is its possible there are 10,000 people only bitten from their own dogs?” he says. “It is a joke.”
Dogs held to ransom
Historically, Romania has suffered from dog ransom. Dog lovers recount how local authorities – not only in Bucharest – would find a stray dog which had a lot of admirers near a block, then kidnap it.
Animal lovers accuse former members of the Bucharest animal health agency of targeting docile and cute dogs who live close to high rises. The tendency was that the catcher would take the dog away to a shelter and only return the animal if they received a cash ransom. If no one came up with the cash, the dog-catcher put the dog down.
One dog lover stated that a city authority staff agreed to a one million lei [25 Euro] bribe for the dog and turned up at her workplace on a bike with the dog in a plastic bag to make the exchange. Other animal lovers say the ‘bribe’ not to remove the animal has increased to around 60 Euro.
Robert Lorentz acknowledges that the problem has existed in the past. “In the period when the City Hall took the dogs away, [residents] paid the workers not to take the dogs – like a tip,” says Lorentz.
But there should be no more motivation for staff to hold dogs to ransom, as the City Hall has stopped killing dogs.
The ASPA President says that he tells his staff not to receive any cash bonuses.
“If I hear they have taken money, I fire that person,” he says. “I have to convince my staff not to blackmail the population.