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MONTH: March 2006

Panics drive Eastern European dog purges after exposés of pelt trade

OSAKA, BUCHAREST, SOFIA––Twice in three weeks fate linked Japan and central European street dogs.

Because a Bulgarian circus family became stranded in Kawachi-Nagano, Japan, Animal Refuge Kansai on February 18, 2006 pledged to invest the equivalent of about $85,000 U.S. in Bulgarian dog and cat sterilization work.

Because Japanese businessman Hajime Hori, 68, bled to death on January 29, 2006, after a dog bit his thigh on a Bucharest street, severing his femoral artery, Bucharest and other Romanian cities captured and killed dogs more aggressively in February 2006 than at any time since the 2001 street dog purge ordered by then-Bucharest mayor Traian Basescu ––who now heads the Romanian government.

The ARK pledge to help Bulgarian sterilization efforts came about six weeks after Bulgarian SPCA president Yordanka Zrcheva and Doctors for Animals spokesperson Rumi Becker alleged to Katy Duke and Elizabeth Day of the London Telegraph that corrupt Sofia dogcatchers are covertly selling the pelts of up to 10,000 dogs per year.

ARK founder Elizabeth Oliver attended the 1999 International Companion Animal Welfare Conference in Sofia, and has long felt moved to help the animals there. The opportunity came after she learned from an Osaka veterinarian about a Bulgarian couple and their 21-year-old daughter, found living in a snow-covered steel shipping container, with their 38 trained dogs and cats in a second container.

“Two years ago, as part of a circus troupe, they came to Japan and performed in many places,” Oliver said. “Their journey ended in November 2005 when the company went bankrupt and the owner disappeared with the proceeds. The promotion company balked at having to pay either their back salaries or the cost of returning their animals to Bulgaria.

“As time passed the situation for the animals became desperate. While the dogs could exercise outside the container, the cats were contained in dark cages without exercise or sunlight. The promotion company was obviously playing for time,” Oliver told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “I think if we hadn’t gotten the Mainichi Broadcasting Service to feature their story on its news channel Voice, the family would have remained in that terrible situation until mid-March, when their visas expired, and they would have been forced to leave Japan without their precious animals.

“Public response was overwhelming,” Oliver continued. “Within a week we collected more than enough money to cover the cost of their return to Bulgaria. Even after we closed the account, money came in ‘for the Bulgarian animals.’”

The Kawachi-Nagano city government and police also took an active interest in the situation.

“Since then,” Oliver said, “the promotion company has paid all the costs of the transport of the animals to Bulgaria, plus other incidental costs like new cages. I had told the family that we would pay all the costs, but at the eleventh hour all this happened, so we have been left with a sizeable amount of money. I am determined that ARK should not receive even one yen from this, and that the money should be used, as intended, for the benefit of Bulgarian animals.”

Details of the ARK investment in Bulgaria were in planning as ANIMAL PEOPLE went to press.

No miracles in Romania
Romanian animal advocates could only wish for comparable miracles.

“Animal welfare people think the dog who attacked the Japanese man was an owned pit bull terrier,” as the fatal incident occurred in a neighborhood where illegal dogfights reputedly occur, “but most people think it was a stray dog,” Dutch volunteer Nathalie Klinge of FPCC-Romania told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “Mayor Adriean Videanu announced that the city will catch all the dogs and put them to sleep within 72 hours. Everyone who is involved with stray dogs in Romania is working like hell to do something about it.

“The Federatia Nationala Protectia Animalelor, founded by FPCC and Vier Pfoten, made a proposal to Videanu in December 2005 to solve the stray dog problem in Bucharest through neutering,” Klinge continued.

“Vier Pfoten had a similar agreement with the former mayor, and spent $1 million on it,” until Basescu “refused to cooperate any more and started catching and killing dogs. Until now Videanu says he hasn’t made up his mind,” Klinge said. “Meanwhile the killing goes on.”

E-mailed Bucharest art designer Violetta Penda, “The victims are the old, the harmless, the inoffensive, the peaceful dogs, not the dangerous ones, because the dangerous dogs are hard to capture.”

Videanu “doesn’t know what to do or is waiting to see which way the wind blows,” said FPCC-Romania founder Robert Smith. “We will try to push him to accept our proposals by placing newspaper advertisements and by seeking cooperation with animal control. The animal control director, Simona Panaitescu, admitted to me that her dog catchers are illiterate, poorly paid, and unmotivated, and that the dog-loving population of Bucharest hides their dogs or bribes the catchers. She agreed they need a new image, new personnel, and new credibility. She said she could not return dogs to the streets, but would not mind if we did it for her. But I am not going to repeat my mistake in Campina,” Smith declared, recalling his first Romanian sterilization project, “or Vier Pfoten’s mistake in Bucharest in April 2001, when Basescu cancelled the neuter/return program and embarked on his useless killing campaign. We have to control the shelters.

“Bucharest has spent over five million euros since April 2001, and was killing on average 1,350 dogs per month even before the current extermination campaign, for a death toll of about 80,000 dogs in 46 months,” Smith said, “yet still the streets of Bucharest are full of dogs.”

The FNPA perspective was not unanimously accepted, even among animal advocates.

“The guilty dog has not been caught. The assumption that it was a pit bull is hard to sustain,” claimed SPCA Romania president Ana Halmageanu. “All such dogs are registered with the police,” she said, “and were the first to be checked. It is a mongrel,” she insisted, “previously a stray dog, who has an owner.

“The authorities no longer accept neutering and returning dogs to the streets,” Halmageanu continued. “For the moment, neutering campaigns are a waste of money, as the dogs will be captured and killed.”

Instead, Halmangeanu argued for a “general census of dogs with owners in order to be able to prevent and punish abandonment; mandatory neutering of all dogs with no pedigree, down to the last rural household; limitation of the number of litters a bitch can produce to four in a lifetime, only one per year; setting up as many dog shelters as possible, having a maximum capacity of 300 dogs; and diminishing importation by introducing a three or six-month quarantine,” which Halmageanu contended “would balance demand and supply, so more dogs could be adopted.”

Deputy mayor Razvan Murgeanu told Agence France-Presse that the incident “shows the extent of the stray dog problem, which we inherited when the houses of Bucharest residents were destroyed by the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, forcing people to leave their dogs in the streets. I love animals,” Murgeanu claimed. “I have a dog myself. But the time has come to take radical measures, however painful, and eliminate the strays.”

An estimated 50,000 dogs remain on the streets of Bucharest, inflicting about 6,000 bites per year, or eight a day. This is a sixth as many dogs and 25% as many bites as were claimed in 1996, when former actress Brigitte Bardot funded the first high-volume sterilization program in the city. Many are true street dogs, with no homes or human caretakers, but half or more live in the courtyards of particular apartment blocks, as “community pets,” with regular caretakers who are not allowed to take them inside because government-owned apartment buildings do not admit dogs.

Disillusioned by corruption and broken promises from city hall, the Fondation Brigitte Bardot withdrew from Bucharest in 2004. Many other foreign organizations came and went in the interim, finding Romania in general and Bucharest in specific to be difficult environments. Only Vier Pfoten, based in Austria, is still prominent in Bucharest.
Yet the outside efforts bought time for thousands of dogs while local groups emerged to represent them, with increasing public support but still little influence over official policy.

“Impounded dogs are kept without food or veterinary care, in wet cages, in sub-freezing weather. Volunteers are not accepted in the pounds,” said Aura Maratas, founder of the Fundatia Daisy Hope, one of the few private shelters operating within inner Bucharest. “The authorities do not want to allow animal protection associations to assist in capturing, feeding, sterilization, or euthanasia,  even if this is what the law recommends.”

Worst, said Maratas, “the visiting hours are from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m., Monday through Thursday, and on the weekends the pounds are closed,” so that reclaiming or adopting dogs is extremely difficult for people who hold jobs or attend school.

“My phone is ringing all day long. People are crying to save the dogs they have sterilized and cared for. The dogcatchers take everything,” Maratas finished.

“The catchers are working around the clock,” agreed Asociatia Natura founder Carmen Milobendzchi. “Many people are asking us to accommodate their dogs,” at least for the duration of the panic, “but where? We haven’t enough space.”

“At the Pallady pound an average of 50 dogs are killed daily, while only 5 are adopted,” Sara Turetta of CaniBucharest told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “100 dogs per day are killed at Chiajna, the bigger pound, on the outskirts of Bucharest. Because Chiajna is far from downtown and hardly reachable due to very poor streets, fewer people go there to look for their dogs or to adopt one.”

Turetta said she had found homes in Italy for some of the doomed dogs.

Gains in Galati
Roxana Radu of ZooTerra cited the southeastern city of Galati as an example for Bucharest. There, Radu said, “Vier Pfoten Romania has sterilized 18,000 animals, with private funds, with the cooperation of the municipality. “

From 2002 through 2004, Vier Pfoten Romania sterilized 10,872 dogs in Galati, according to data Vier Pfoten gave to Robert Smith, with no 2005 total available.

“Vier Pftoten will come again to Galati in mid-February,” e-mailed Grigoire Corina of the local organization Help Labus. “According to the latest data, there are in Galati approximately 11,200 stray dogs, 14.000 courtyard dogs, and 3,000 living in appartments. In total, we can talk about 28,200 dogs, one dog to 10 citizens.”

Including suburbs which are part of the contiguous city but beyond the city limits, Galati has about 14,000 strays, many of them congregating at dumps, and 16,000 courtyard dogs, said Dana Costin, cofounder of ROLDA, whose shelter is outside the city.

ROLDA has also sterilized hundreds of dogs, bringing the non-reproducing part of dog population of Galati to at least 37% and perhaps as high as 58%, depending on the amount of sterilization done by private individuals. Even the high estimate would be short of the 70% needed to bring about a population drop, but within striking distance.

“ROLDA and [California-based partner] Romania Animal Rescue, in collaboration with City Hall Galati, on January 15 started a program of free dog and cat sterilization,” wrote Viata Libera editor Anca Spanu Tudor. “All Galati citizens can benefit from free spay/neuter for the cats and dogs they care for, at the Medviovet Clinic operated by Dr. Ileana Gheorghita.”

Visiting foreign veterinarians are expected to assist in April and May.

“Stray dogs have become a priority of Galati mayor Dumitru Nicolae,” continued Tudor, who said Nicolae wants to add sterilization facilities to the two Galati shelters and expand the shelters’ combined capacity from 434 to 1,500.

The Bucharest panic spread to other cities, especially after a young woman was severely injured and expected to die as result of a dog pack attack on Valentine’s Day in the village of Appraiser, near the Black Sea port of Constantia.

“Cluj will soon be a place of dog slaughter,” wrote Cluj resident Miron Arcas. “There is only one animal shelter in Cluj, consisting of 26 cells, and 800 street dogs outside, according to the officials. There are 2,000 street dogs in the streets, according to the Animal Protection Association.”

But in Arad, on the Hungarian border, “things are going on as usual,” Animed Arad founder Claudiu Iosim told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “The dogcatchers still trap and kill stray dogs, as they have been doing for five years now, but not at a larger scale due to the recent events.”

Iosim said Animed Arad had sterilized 240 dogs and cats in 2005, but hoped to sterilize 500 in 2006. ––Merritt Clifton