The Romanian government has announced a large-scale campaign to rid the country of many of its estimated two million stray dogs. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase says the campaign is necessary because the plight of the dogs has tarnished the country's image abroad. But the move has provoked an uproar among dog-loving Romanians and drawn criticism from animal-rights activists. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc reports:
Prague, 16 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Prime Minister Adrian Nastase is the man behind Romania's new program aimed at ridding the country of many of its estimated two million stray dogs.
The campaign, due to begin in two weeks (1 March), was triggered by Nastase's reading of a critical article about Bucharest's estimated 300,000 stray dogs in a French newspaper ("Liberation"). In announcing the program at the beginning of the month (1 February), Nastase said Romania's large number of homeless dogs was tarnishing its international image.
In the next two years, the plan envisions sterilizing some 100,000 stray dogs in Bucharest alone, and up to 300,000 throughout the country. But critics say the campaign will also lead to the unnecessary killing of many animals.
In Bucharest, packs of stray dogs can be seen everywhere -- outside parliament's gates, on downtown avenues, and even at the capital's airport. More than 20,000 people were bitten by stray dogs last year in Bucharest, placing heavy pressure on a national health system already quite weak.
Bucharest Mayor Traian Basescu has pledged some $17.5 million for the new campaign -- a huge amount for impoverished Romania, where the average monthly salary barely reaches $100. His financial commitment shows how serious the problem now is, after decades of neglect.
Liviu Harbuz, the prime minister's adviser in charge of the campaign, says many citizens and organizations support the program. He tells our correspondent that the stray-dog problem could be solved in three years.
"It's a long-term program, with a duration of at least two years, during which animals will be sterilized. The average life expectancy of a stray dog is six years, and the average age of the dog population is now about three years. If all of them are sterilized, they would disappear in a maximum of three years."
Previous anti-stray programs launched by the authorities or by non-governmental organizations all failed, due to either lack of funds or commitment. In 1996, Bucharest, a city of two million people, had only six dog catchers.
Under the new program, stray dogs will be caught and taken to special shelters, where ill or old animals will be put down through so-called "euthanasia" -- or painless killing. According to the authorities, a third of the nation's stray dogs suffer from serious diseases such as rabies or hepatitis, and should be put down. But critics say that figure is highly exaggerated.
Adoption could save healthy stray dogs, which are to be kept in shelters for 10 days. Once adopted, animals will be immunized and sterilized. Under a special form of adoption, an individual or an organization could assume responsibility for the animal, which would be released back onto the streets as a "community dog." The adopter would then have to provide regular immunization for his "community dog."
Even before it has begun, however, the program has come under heavy attack. High-profile animal-rights activists like former French film star Brigitte Bardot, animal-protection organizations, and many ordinary citizens have accused Bucharest Mayor Basescu and Harbuz of inflating the number of sick animals in order to destroy as many as possible.
Last week, some 200 people staged a protest outside Bucharest's town hall. One of the protesters told RFE/RL why he is against destroying the animals.
"I am an animal lover, and I find killing dogs an inhuman and outdated procedure."
Stray dogs have been a common presence in Romania's cities and towns ever since the communists took power and ordered large-scale demolition of single-family houses, forcing people to move into apartment blocks and abandon their watchdogs. That may explain why many people today say they oppose the killings, despite the inconvenience caused by the strays. Some even say they regularly feed the animals, which in turn act as neighborhood watchdogs. The government anti-stray program has gained conditional support from some local and foreign animal-protection groups. These organizations have urged a very limited use of euthanasia in exchange for their support. Angela Anton, the head of one such Romanian group, told RFE/RL the right solution is sterilization.
"I'm in favor of mass sterilization. But euthanasia should be used only for very sick animals with no survival chance."
Nastase's aide Harbuz says that because the campaign's aim is to secure a safe environment for people, sick dogs will be put down after a careful assessment. But he tells RFE/RL that animal euthanasia will be used only in accordance with international norms.
"We never envisaged using euthanasia at random, against healthy animals. Euthanasia [will be employed] according to international norms of animal protection, and only against very aggressive, old, or sick dogs."
Meanwhile, Bucharest Mayor Basescu says he is not impressed by the appeals he has received from animal-rights groups. He vows simply to "solve the problem" of stray dogs and, with the support of the government, will apparently launch the campaign next month.
But, if the high-profile case of Bucharest has generated a lot of publicity, little is known about how cash-strapped local authorities elsewhere in Romania will deal with the other estimated 1.7 million stray dogs.