On 10 September the Romanian Parliament approved a law that allows the killing of healthy dogs for overpopulation control. In practice, this act officially consigns to death tens of thousands of stray dogs.
The law pursues the elimination of all stray dogs in the country, and the official justification is that this is planned in order to protect humans from attacks and bites. In reality, thousands of friendly and harmless dogs have already been taken from the streets around the country, and are waiting to die any time now, after the implementation guidelines of the law were published last week. Some mayors are making absurd statements to the media, promising to clear the streets of all dogs, and some of them have a grim record of mass poisoning, of awful conditions in public shelters, and of animals caught and killed in the most brutal ways.
During a trip to Romania with a WSPA delegation at the end of November, I came across many dogs on the streets of Bucharest and other towns, and some who found shelter in the woods. They were often scared of humans, but extremely friendly once they understood that we did not want to harm them. Most of these so-called ‘monsters’ are as affectionate as any other dog who would welcome a cuddle and friendly human face. However, Romanian dogs are increasingly running away even from areas where they were once happily part of the community, because new norms make it illegal for people to feed and take care of them, unless they decide to bring them into their homes. This could also lead to an increase in the number of dogs with health problems on the streets, but the current concern of most of the political world is to respond to a panic campaign being waged by the media after a 4-year boy died on 2 September, allegedly mauled by stray dogs. The number of stray animals is extremely high in the country, mostly because of the absence of a national plan (including sterilisations and public education) that could make more effective use of the huge sums of public money being spent on canine overpopulation management. However, this doesn’t mean that people are constantly under attack. The number of dog bites recorded in the public hospitals does not distinguish between those caused by stray and owned dogs, and increasingly people tend to blame stray dogs because they fear that otherwise their own dogs might be taken away from them.
In some towns, a lot of money has been spent on dog population management, but their public shelters are in a terrible condition: sometimes investigations have shown animals starving or lying down in their own excrement, and yet the shelters have not been prosecuted.
These are only some of the many negative side effects of the new Romanian law. Stray and free-roaming dogs are increasingly scared of humans, and some people have taken the opportunity in this war on stray dogs being waged by the government to attack harmless animals in the streets. School boys filmed themselves kicking a harmless dog in the streets of Bucharest, while dog-lovers feel increasingly under threat. International TV channels have filmed dogs being taken by dog-catchers from the arms of citizens who are trying to protect them.
In this grim scenario, some Romanian and animal welfare NGOs have done their best over the years to educate the public about responsible dog ownership, encourage adoptions and offer free sterilisations, but clearly this has not been enough. The chronic lack of a government-funded national plan that supports adoptions, encourages neutering and provides education about responsible ownership has produced catastrophic consequences. The number of stray or free-roaming dogs in the country is estimated at between 500,000 and 1 million (no official figures are available), and we find the absurd situation where some authorities or public officers blame animal welfare NGOs for not having done enough!
Killing healthy animals for overpopulation control is unacceptable for ethical reasons, and over the years it has been demonstrated around the world that it doesn’t solve the problem either. If we only think about the negative impact the new Romanian law is having on human-dog relationships in the country, we can easily see that the new norms are going to increase the problem of canine overpopulation in the short and medium term. What is needed is a sensible and sustainable solution, not just an emotional response to the witch-hunt being conducted by some of the media against the country’s dogs.
There are, however, some examples of good practice. In some areas of Romania, mayors, local authorities and NGOs have teamed up to offer an effective alternative to the killings, by introducing a mixture of sterilisation and adoption programmes, and public education. In such municipalities, the number of stray animals has constantly fallen, and they have already announced that they are not going to kill healthy dogs even if the new law empowers them to do so. Where there is a serious commitment to solving the problem, killing dogs is not an option.
Many people in Romania are not used to keeping dogs in their flats, preferring to feed and take care of those roaming in their neighbourhood. Furthermore, many people who decide to live with a dog buy pure breeds from shops because they are still seen as status symbols – rather than adopt a mongrel from a shelter. This makes the problem worse. Sterilisation – especially in rural areas – is not normal practice, and is often too expensive for people with limited resources. Trade in dogs is certainly not just a Romanian problem, and campaigns encouraging people to adopt rather than purchase their ‘best friend’ are needed everywhere in the world. However, it becomes an even more serious problem in a situation where the authorities want to kill healthy mongrels while leaving untouched the breeding of dogs to buy and sell!
WSPA has teamed up with CAROdog and Save the Dogs to offer the Romanian authorities a humane and effective plan that provides an alternative to the killings, based on those organisations’ experience both in Romania and in many other countries around the world.
I was glad to accept the opportunity WSPA gave me to manage this campaign from their side, working together with a team of capable and enthusiastic people. The intense collaboration with CAROdog and Save the Dogs and the interaction with other Romanian NGOs will hopefully herald a brighter future for Romanian dogs, and for the large portion of the Romanian population that loves them.