Thousands of people are bitten by dogs in Romania every year, but a new law allowing the mass killing of strays has been met with criticism both at home and abroad. Animal rights groups say there's another option.
In early September, stray dogs attacked and killed a four-year-old boy in the Romanian capital Bucharest while he was playing. The case led to a new law, passed hurriedly by the Romanian parliament, allowing the authorities to kill strays.
In the future, communal administrations will only be required to keep dogs for 14 days in dogs' homes, after which they can put them to sleep if they can't find anyone to adopt them. Prior to that change, dogs could only be killed if they were incurably sick or aggressive.
The constitutional court has approved the law, but Romanian animal protection activists are protesting and have held a demonstration in Bucharest. There's been foreign criticism, too. German designer and activist Maja von Hohenzollern said the new law has made Romania into "the disgrace of Europe."
"So far, there haven't been any official dog massacres," says Bucharest animal protection activist Kuki Barbuceanu of the international organization, Four Paws. But they had information about several dozen cases in which private individuals had killed dogs since the law was passed.
Deadly dog bites
Gabriel Praun, Four Paws spokesman in Vienna, says there's no doubt that it's time for action. "We are on the same side as most of the people in Romania, in that we also want to see a solution to the problem of stray dogs."
The problem is certainly a serious one. There are believed to be several hundred thousand stray dogs in Romanian towns and villages, with an estimated 65,000 in Bucharest alone. The anti-rabies center of the Bucharest Institute for Infectious Diseases has already carried out 10,000 vaccinations against rabies following dog-bites this year. Last year there were 16,000 cases of dog-bites.
As the writer Iulian Leca wrote in the Romanian news website ziare.com, "Stray dogs have conquered the streets of Romania. Especially at night, it is dogs that are in charge - not those who are paid by the state to keep order."
The four-year-old was not the first person to be killed by dogs in Romania. In 2012, a pensioner died in the north of the country after being attacked; two months later stray dogs killed a six-year-old in an eastern village. In January 2011, a woman working for a recycling company was attacked in Bucharest and died three days later from her injuries; and in January 2006, a Japanese businessman bled to death in the capital after a dog had bitten him behind the knee and severed an artery.
The problem is not unique to Romania. There are large numbers of stray dogs in almost all the countries of the region, especially in Ukraine, Bulgaria and Serbia. There was a campaign to kill strays in Ukraine ahead of the European Football Cup there in 2012, but it was virtually abandoned after pressure from international activists.
As a result, the Ukrainian government imposed stricter animal protection laws, and Western organizations pushed for a program of sterilization in big cities like Kiev, Lviv or Odessa. Paun argues that sterilizing the strays is more effective than killing them - and they can be released on to the street since sterilization makes them less aggressive.
There are similar sterilization programs in some Romanian cities. That way, the number of strays is significantly reduced. But local authorities are often accused of corruption. Media reports say that much of the money which is intended for the sterilization programs disappears into private pockets.
There's certainly a shortage of dogs' homes which are large enough for the demand, and local authorities don't make enough staff available to match the size of the problem. Before the latest killing, Bucharest had just 12 dog-catchers; following the death, the number was quickly raised to 44.
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