Dog days

Romanians love their stray canines, and don't believe in having them spayed.

Published January 5, 2001 8:16PM (EST)

Out of the 12 states negotiating membership in the European Union, Romania ranks as the poorest, with about 40 percent of its citizens living at or below the poverty line. As if that weren't bad enough, the nation's capital, Bucharest, boasts what is estimated as the world's largest population of stray dogs. City officials have attempted to control the mutt problem with mass sterilization but have been stonewalled by dog-loving residents. In a stunning interspecies protest against birth control, the populace of Bucharest has announced it doesn't want its dogs spayed.

Approximately 2.3 million people share the streets of Bucharest with 300,000 stray canines, which roam the city in howling packs, spreading disease and biting thousands of people each year. The sudden increase in dogs can be blamed on former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who bulldozed 3,000 homes in 1977 to construct a vast monument to himself. As people moved to new apartments, their pets were left in the streets to breed. Today, mutts can be seen everywhere: Some huddle together on sidewalks. Others get hit by cars, and their carcasses litter the pavement.

"People see the dogs as victims of communism," veterinarian Liviu Harbuz told Reuters. "It sounds unbelievable, but in a poor country people spend money to have healthy stray dogs."

The city first attempted to halt the spread with lethal injections, but switched to sterilization in the mid-1990s, after public protests. Currently the city has an annual budget of 48 billion lei ($1.87 million) to control the strays. But its primary obstacle is not the dogs, it's citizens who have adopted the animals, feeding them, keeping them as guard dogs and even blocking dogcatchers from nabbing them.

"Sometimes people throw pots at dogcatchers from balconies, even rocks or potatoes," said George Dumitrica, the head of a dog pound. "I reckon half the people in Bucharest want the dogs to stay; the others want to get rid of them," he added.

In the ideal world of civic officials, a stray dog is snared by a noose and taken to a vet, where it is sterilized under anesthesia. The dog is also inoculated against rabies, and its ear is clipped to identify it as neutered. After eight days of convalescence, a bitch gets its stitches removed, is given a red collar and is released in the general location where it was caught. A male mutt gets five days and a blue collar.

Advisors to the City Council estimate the dog population could be reduced to 50,000 in two or three years. But it won't happen that soon unless the people change their ways.

One schoolteacher told Reuters she spends 12 percent of her salary on dog food each week, and carries food pellets in her handbag. "Dogs have souls," said Elena Nita. "I always give them food. I'd prefer to give up meat for myself than let dogs starve."

By Jack Boulware

Jack Boulware is a writer in San Francisco and author of "San Francisco Bizarro" and "Sex American Style."

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