64,000 feral dogs roam the Romanian capital's streets. But getting that population under control is a physical and political challenge.

It seems the stray dogs of Bucharest have been holding back the Romanian capital’s attempts to reshape itself as a modern European metropolis.

According to the city government, a staggering 64,000 feral dogs live on Bucharest’s streets, giving the metro area, population 2.3 million, more than twice as many street dogs per capita as Detroit, its closest U.S. rival. Last week, a stray dog debate that had previously been more about public health, animal welfare and Bucharest’s image took a tragic, urgent turn, when a 4-year-old boy died after being mauled by a dog pack. Following an understandable public outcry, Bucharestians will vote on October 6 on whether or not to allow euthanasia for the city's entire stray dog population.

Supported by Bucharest’s mayor, the proposal has nonetheless met with a roar of protest both local and international. And it needs electoral backing because a similar law introduced in 2011 was shot down by Romania's constitutional court only two months later. But while the prospect of thousands of dogs being put to death has proved extremely emotive, the story of Bucharest's canines is essentially an expression of a wider human drama, a story of a region struggling to find its feet after decades of population shifts and official neglect.

A member of an animal rights NGO, wearing a dog costume, shouts slogans during a protest demanding the dismissal of the Authority for Animals Supervision and Protection (ASPA), citing the problem of stray dogs, in front of Bucharest City Hall. (Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)

Bucharest isn’t alone in its problems, of course. Large stray dog populations are common across Southeastern Europe. Around the 2004 Olympics, there were unconfirmed allegations that Athens planned to kill as many as 15,000 stray dogs, though some of this number were eventually neutered and re-homed. A sad by-product of economic dire straits, Greece’s stray dog numbers are now rising again due to the crisis. As many families can no longer afford to feed their pets, they set them loose on the streets, preferring to imagine a lean future of scavenging for their dogs rather than instant euthanasia at overstretched pounds. In Serbia, Belgrade has an estimated population of 15,000 feral dogs, while Bulgarian strays hit the news this spring when an 87-year-old former American professor died ten days after being attacked in Sofia by a 25-strong pack. Many Bulgarians believe the country’s stray dog issue comes from a law that allows dogs to be released if a person or organization vouches for their security, without giving officialdom the resources to verify that they have stood by their promises.

But even Bulgaria’s high number pall next to Bucharest's, where there is a stray dog for roughly every 30 people. The reasons for this glut are connected both to Romania’s former communist government and to the chaos caused by its removal. In the early 1980s, Nicolae Ceaușescu caused havoc in Bucharest when he bulldozed a large chunk of the city center in order to rebuild it along more monumental lines. As well as destroying some of the city’s most beautiful areas, this move forced 40,000 residents to be rehoused elsewhere. Many of these people moved to modern developments on the outskirts that did not allow pets, causing a flood of dogs onto the streets. With Ceaușescu’s grand plan slow to shape, the half-built shells of this wrecked area gave feral dogs a place to thrive.

A stray dog rests on a bench in a park on a sunny autumn day in Bucharest. (Radu Sigheti/Reuters)

Feral dog populations only really grew out of control, however, after Romania’s bloody revolution of 1989. While ridding the country of a much-loathed tyrant, Ceaușescu’s overthrow failed to end a period of desperate want for many Romanians. The effects of Ceaușescu’s long bleeding of his country dry for debt repayments were compounded by the removal of basic commodity subsidies, violent state-sponsored suppression of protests and the withholding of funds by the IMF and World Bank due to a sluggish reform process. It’s no wonder that for many, basic survival (and emigration that further pushed up unwanted dog numbers) took precedence over civic management issues like stray dogs.

State animal welfare bodies have been trying to get on top of the problem by neutering dogs – 6,500 were neutered last year alone at a cost of €200,000. But with an un-spayed bitch capable of giving birth to up to eight puppies annually, even this level of intervention will not succeed in radically reducing numbers for years. As experience in Detroit shows, however, killing large numbers of dogs is expensive and complicated even if you disregard the suffering such a move would cause. Meanwhile, Bucharest’s years of insufficient action followed by abrupt threats of a massive cull suggest that the painful periods the country has gone through in recent decades aren’t entirely a thing of the past.

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