“Man’s best friend”: Balancing public safety and animal rights to address the stray dog problem in Romania
By Claudia Moscovici
When I left Romania, as a child, in the early 1980’s, the country was at one of its lowest points in history. Conditions during the communist so-called “Epoch of Light” were notoriously miserable. People had to wait in long lines for meager supplies of food, clothing and household goods. There was limited heat and hot water. By the late 1970’s, the Secret Police (Securitate) had installed microphones in virtually every home and apartment. The whole population lived in fear. As a Romanian citizen said to a French journalist following the fall of the Ceausescu regime, “It was a system that didn’t destroy people physically—not many were actually killed; but it was a system that condemned us to a fight for the lowest possible level of physical and spiritual nourishment. Under Ceausescu, some people died violently, but an entire population was dying.”
Since the anti-communist revolution of 1989, Romania has flourished. Despite the periodic economic and political crises that have engulfed most of Europe, Romania has become a leader in culture. The country is internationally known for its celebrated film directors (Cristian Mungiu, Calin Peter Netzer, Stere Gulea, Vali Hotea, among many others); its award-winning literature (which includes a Nobel Prize in Literature won in 2009 by Herta Muller); its art; one of the largest and most acclaimed festivals of classical music in Europe (the spectacular George Enescu Music Festival); its breathtaking natural beauty and picturesque towns, not to mention the cosmopolitan nature of its capital city, Bucharest.
Although Bucharest is in many respects a very modernized European big city, it has a relatively large population of stray dogs: something that one also encounters in smaller villages throughout the country. These dogs, often abandoned or kicked out by their owners, wonder around the city streets, congregating in packs and trying to find some scraps of food by begging or searching through the trash. Although they are usually innocuous, this month one of these dogs attacked two little boys in Bucharest: 4 year old Ionut Anghel and his six year old brother. Ionut died from the dog bites; his brother was seriously wounded. This tragedy, which no doubt touches all of us and strikes fear in the hearts of parents, became the catalyst for a government-mandated solution of killing all stray dogs—euphemistically called “euthanasia”–which, in my opinion, only amplifies senseless suffering without solving the root of the problem.
The new law, approved by President Basescu, sanctions the killing of stray dogs in Romania
In response to Ionut’s tragic death, the Romanian government approved a law (signed by President Basescu) that sanctions the mass killing of stray dogs throughout the country. As the Humane Society International documents, “a few days later, on September 10, the local governments acted immediately, killing countless street dogs and starting a widespread campaign to reach hundreds of thousands more in the upcoming weeks… The Romanian government has killed over 100,000 stray dogs using public funds. Despite attempts and offers [by both national and international animal welfare groups] to assist the Romanian government on this issue, they proceed with the killing of any dog in sight as a means of street dog control.” (HIS, HumaneAlert, https://e-activist.com/ea action/action?ea.client.id=104&ea.campaign.id=22665) This cruel measure has also been adopted by most mayors of Romania’s towns and cities. In fact Ziarul Argesul states that the mayor of Pitesti, Tudor Pendiuc, is offering citizens a reward of 10 lei for the capture of each stray dog to be “euthanized”, thus transforming the local population in animal control workers, or “hinghieri” (http://ziarulargesul.ro/19402-recompensa-pentru-prinderea-maidanezilor-ne-facem-hingheri.html).
Although killing all stray dogs may seem like the most expedient solution, it is both ineffective and inhumane. Moreover, this action casts Romania in a very negative light internationally, as a country that is dealing in a barbaric manner with a problem that could be solved in a more humane fashion. The mass killing of tens of thousands of helpless dogs sparked protests from animal lovers and animal rights organizations, both in Romania and internationally. One of the most active groups in the country, which organized protests with hundreds of animal lovers against the killing of stray dogs, is Vier Pfoten Romania. The animal shelter (mostly for cats, but also for dogs) Pisici Pentru Adoptie and the group Spune NU eutanasierii câinilor (represented on Facebook by Mihai Pirvu) have also led the protests and adoption efforts in Romania. Furthermore, leading intellectuals have joined the ranks of those protesting the extermination of stray dogs: most notably, Daniel Cristea-Enache, one of Romania’s best known literary critics.
Among the international organizations protesting the dog killings we can find the Humane Society International (HIS), the Humane Society U.S., Vier Pfoten, Viva (in Warsaw, Poland), the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). Within Romania, this ruthless law towards misfortunate stray dogs divides the country. I believe that some of the tension comes from misunderstandings. The two sides may not be as far apart in their views as they seem. In fact, there are many more points in common that unite us, both within Romania and internationally. After all, we all share the same common goals: namely, protecting the safety of the citizens and finding a solution to the problem of stray dogs in Romania. Currently, there is a big disagreement on how these goals should be achieved. However, I hope to show that much of this disagreement may be the result of misunderstandings, polemical arguments and inflammatory rhetoric on the part of individuals who claim that those who argue on behalf of the animal rights side don’t care about the safety of Romanian children (or of Romanian citizens in general).
This is not a political or partisan issue
I’d like to address in this article, point by point, some of the arguments I’ve encountered in the Romanian media and from some of my own Facebook friends that are in favor of the mass killing of stray dogs. A few individuals simply denied that this law was passed or that the killings it mandates occur and will continue to occur, claiming it’s just a political propaganda campaign against the current government. Of course, the first part of the argument is absurd, reminiscent of an Orwellian denial of truth, or doublethink, that was common during the communist epoch. Reputable animal rights agencies, both national and international, have offered proof that this law exists and that stray dogs in Romania are being killed en masse. Moreover, Romanian citizens have seen it with their own eyes. As for the second part of this argument, it is also false. The international animal rights organizations protesting the dog killings have no stake whatsoever in Romania’s internal politics. In fact, from their perspective (as from mine, for that matter), any political party governing the country would face the same challenge: namely, that of reconciling public safety with animal rights. This is not a partisan or political issue at all.
Killing all stray dogs for the harmful acts of very few dogs is inhumane and unjust
The objection to the mass killing of stray dogs is primarily an ethical issue. Out of a very large population of stray dogs, most of which are at worst a nuisance, only very few attack human beings. Anyone who has ever owned a dog will tell you that dogs are, by nature, loving and loyal animals. They’ve been bred for centuries precisely for these positive traits. It’s no wonder that dogs have earned the reputation of being “man’s best friend.” All they need is food, shelter and care to become our loving companions for life. Mean dogs are very rare, and even in those situations, they’re often trained to be aggressive by humans, or reduced to that condition by lack of food and veterinary care. Yet all of these misfortunate and helpless animals—hundreds of thousands of stray dogs throughout the country—will now have to pay with their lives for the harm that only very few of them inflict.
Dogs are “man’s (and woman’s) best friend”
A second argument I’ve heard (or rather, read) from supporters of the law against stray dogs is the charge of the inconsistency–which some have even called “the hypocrisy”–of the animal rights activists who defend the lives of stray dogs. The argument goes something like this: how can we claim to care so much about the fate of stray dogs when we routinely eat other animals, or kill them for their skin, to make pretty leather purses and shoes? What about the lives of the chicken, pigs and cows we sacrifice without a thought? Why the double standards? First of all, many of the animal rights activists, including myself, are vegetarian and some even become vegan, precisely for this reason. But even in the case of those who are not, the argument of cultural habits comes into play: cats and dogs have been, for centuries, our loyal and beloved pets. There’s no tradition of eating dogs or using their skins for products in Romania, as there is in China. In Romania, like in the U.S. and most countries in Europe, dogs are considered to be “man’s best friend”. Most families have a cat or a dog. If any double standards are involved, it’s on the side of those who sanction the mass killing of stray dogs while still doting on their beloved pets. Why construct a binary dichotomy between our pets–the privileged dogs we treat as members of our families–and the misfortunate dogs wondering the streets, to be exterminated like vermin? After all, both groups are part of the same species. Most of the dogs in the street have the potential, with the right care, nourishment and training, to become loving pets as well. In fact, many of these dogs were once beloved pets that were lost or abandoned by their owners. Shouldn’t we try instead to help the dogs that weren’t lucky enough to find a loving home? Moreover, if numerous animal welfare organizations, both national and international, are willing to help Romania create a more humane solution to the stray dog problem, why not take them up on their offer? Rather than exterminating the stray dogs, let’s come together and give these dogs a chance to live a better life while also securing public safety.
Supporting this ethical issue that affects animals doesn’t minimize the importance of other ethical issues, which affect human beings
Another objection I’ve heard raised by those who support the government measures against stray dogs is: Why pay so much attention to this issue of animal rights when there are so many more serious moral and political crises in the world, affecting human beings? No doubt, that’s true. Romania, for instance, still has a large population of orphans who can’t find foster parents to adopt them. So then why worry so much about the adoption of stray dogs? First of all, let me state the obvious: although many of the Romanian orphans live in terrible conditions, thank goodness, there’s no government law being passed to exterminate them. We haven’t heard of such laws since the Nazis. More generally, it’s true that the world is, unfortunately, filled with violations of human rights, suffering and poverty. In fact, if each of us tried to do something about these problems, the world would be a much better place. But the fact that there are worthwhile humanitarian causes pertaining to improving human lives is not a valid reason not to care about animal welfare as well. Nobody is arguing that anyone should abandon their humanitarian causes for the sake of improving animal welfare. There’s room for both on this Earth. In fact, arguably, the test of a civilization’s advancement is not just its culture or technology, but also its moral standards: namely, how it treats fellow human beings and the animals who depend on us, particularly those that live in dire conditions. Gandhi’s saying still holds true today: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”.
Human safety is a priority
To address what is perhaps the most valid concern: some of those in favor of the mass killings of stray dogs indicate that those who defend the right to life of stray dogs place animal rights above human safety. Fortunately, that is not the case. I don’t know of any reputable animal rights organization that makes such a claim. In fact, on this issue we can come together. We can all agree that public safety, and above all the safety of our children, are a top priority for any society. But killing all stray dogs is not the best way to go about securing public safety; the safety of our children. At this point, the ethical argument gives way to a more pragmatic perspective. Killing stray dogs en masse is not only immoral, but it also won’t solve the problem.
The pragmatic perspective: Killing stray dogs does more harm than good
The negative consequences of killing tens of thousands of helpless stray dogs are so much worse than working together on a more humanitarian solution aimed to help stray dogs and ensure public safety. We’ve seen that the mandate of killing stray dogs has divided the country and caused protests and inner turmoil. It has also encouraged a few cruel individuals to maim, torture and kill stray dogs in the streets. Some, ProTV stiri documents, even put poison in dog food to kill stray dogs. As the government sanctions mass killing of dogs, malicious individuals follow suit by taking the law into their own hands. Moreover, this inhumane treatment of dogs has generated a lot of negative attention to Romania from the leading animal rights organizations in Europe and the United States. Of course, the Romanian government is autonomous. Every nation decides its own laws and actions. But international collaboration on this issue doesn’t contradict the fact that, ultimately, it’s the Romanian government and people who will decide their national policies towards stray dogs or any other internal matter. The international animal welfare organizations only wish to help and collaborate with the Romanian government to solve this problem in a more humane manner. They have a lot of experience with what methods work best, since Romania isn’t the only country with a large population of stray dogs. This problem also exists in parts of Mexico, Peru and many other countries in the world.
Working together to find humane ways to combine public safety with animal welfare
In her article on the subject called “Romanian tragedy: culling street dogs isn’t the solution,” Kate Atema, the president of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) states: “We have worked in hundreds of communities across six continents, and never have we seen killing dogs to be an effective solution to this problem. In fact, not only does culling fail to address the underlying causes of dogs being on the street in the first place (which may include lost, abandoned or loosely owned dogs, not to mention breeding), but the “solution” of killing dogs inevitably creates even more conflict within the community, preventing more effective, long-term solutions from taking root.” (http://www.ifaw.org/united-states/news/romanian-tragedy-culling-street-dogs-isn’t-solution).
Ms. Atema suggests that the most effective approaches to the problem of stray dogs take into account the needs of each local community and balance issues related to public safety with the protection of the lives of the animals. “Often,” she continues, “this includes a mix of approaches including education, sterilization, registration and/or short-term sheltering; each community’s resources and perspectives are unique, and so then are their solutions…”Sterilization, animal shelters and adoption
Generally speaking, animal welfare organizations suggest that the capture and sterilization of stray dogs, placing them in animal shelters, and eventually working towards the adoption of the dogs from the shelters, would be the most humane and most effective way of dealing with the stray dog problem. When I expressed this opinion as well, one of my Facebook friends objected: “Don’t sterilized dogs bite too?” First of all, according to Rebecca Basu from the Humane Society International, “research shows that sterilization eliminates breeding behavior, which is a big cause of bites and dog aggression. In other words, sterilized dogs are less likely to bite humans.” Second, as mentioned, the goal would be to place the sterilized dogs in shelters. If any remain in the streets a few of them may still bite, but at least they won’t multiply geometrically, as unsterilized animals tend to do. Even if each stray dog currently out there in the streets is captured and killed in accordance with the current law, there will still be stray dogs out there. Dogs are lost or abandoned by their owners every day. As attention to this problem diminishes once the press coverage decreases, unsterilized stray dogs will continue to reproduce before they’re caught by animal control. Their population can multiply geometrically even if this inhumane measure is in effect. Killing stray dogs on the street today doesn’t get to the root of the problem in the long term as effectively as a combination of sterilization and adoption (from dog shelters) would.
Working together to solve this problem
I don’t see the stray dog problem in Romania as something that should pit human beings against one another, nor as something that should be politicized. The inflammatory arguments can lead to hatred and hysteria. I’ve had one disordered individual write me stating that he wishes that my child would be hurt because of my defense of stray dogs. Such hateful and irrational attitudes don’t even deserve a response. But their underlying cause, or fallacy, does: Seeing this problem as “man versus dog” can only lead to increasing the tension among individuals and to the polarization of their points of view. On a deeper level, we’re much more united on this issue than the current heated debates indicate. There is nothing “radical” about the animal welfare perspective. It is a reasonable point of view, governed by compassion and common sense. Nobody is suggesting that a dog’s life is more important than a human life. Nobody wants to see their children—or anyone’s child—maimed or killed by a stray dog. Everyone is for public safety. Nobody wants to see large packs of hungry and misfortunate stray dogs haunting the streets. It’s not good for humans and it’s not good for the animals either. If we come together on this issue, and actually listen to each other’s perspectives, city by city, town by town, working with, rather than against, the Romanian government alongside the most reputable animal welfare agencies in the world, together we can find a way to balance human safety with the welfare of stray dogs.