Street life in Bucharest: Watch out for that dog!

Associated Press, 11/26/97 17:15

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) - Rome is famous for its stray cats, New York for its rats. But in Bucharest, the streets have gone to the dogs.

Between 100,000 and 200,000 mangy mutts roam the city, cowering in doorways, dashing in front of cars, foraging for food. They bite 50 people a day - nearly twice as many as in New York, a city three times larger.

``I was climbing the stairs to the Senate and a dog just jumped up and bit my leg,'' Irinel Radulescu said. She went for tetanus and rabies shots ``and in the hospital courtyard, a dog almost bit me again.''

Even Hillary Rodham Clinton's security guards had to deal with the mongrels, chasing a pack away from another hospital just before she arrived for a visit last year.

The problem of out-of-control canines is blamed on former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who leveled entire neighborhoods during his megalomaniacal building spree in the 1980s.

Ornate prewar homes were torn down to make way for a gargantuan Palace of the Republic - second in floor space among government buildings only to the Pentagon - and rows of equally pompous buildings along a boulevard patterned after the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

The people who lost their homes were moved into large apartment blocks with no yards. Some found new homes for their dogs, but others just left them to fend for themselves. And the abandoned animals have been breeding ever since.

The dogs saunter along the sidewalks with a confident air, sniffing around for scraps and rooting through garbage cans at night. Human passers-by try to avoid them, but sometimes the dogs snap.

The bites are usually more painful than dangerous.

Bucharest has not had a case of rabies since the 1970s, but most people still get the shots as a precaution, says Dr. Mariana Mardarescu of Colentina Hospital.

``It's not the poor animal's fault,'' she says. ``They're protecting their territory and are hungry and thirsty.''

But not everyone is so forgiving.

More than 1,000 complaints a month pour into the city's Animal Protection office. But the cash-strapped city has only eight dog catchers, two trucks and one pound with space for 300 animals. A third truck was put out of service this month by dogs who chewed up the wiring.

Killing the stray dogs, as done elsewhere, is not an option. Local authorities once proposed that solution, but dozens of organizations protested. Brigitte Bardot even wrote to Bucharest's mayor to plead for mercy.

Opposition politicians exploited the issue, accusing the mayor of having no heart; residents resoundingly told newspapers that killing the dogs would violate Christian values.

So, the canines that are caught are kept until they can be given checkups and sterilized. Then they're let go, says Codrut Visoiu, a vet who took over the office Nov. 3.

``They're not so aggressive after sterilization,'' he says. ``True, it doesn't stop their barking, but until we can build more space to shelter them, there's nothing else we can do.''

Adoptions from the pound are rare; most Bucharest residents look down on the mutts, preferring a purebred.

Mardarescu, the doctor, is an exception.

``My daughter came in from outside with a little puppy and said `Momma, I want this to be my dog,'' she said. They live in a house with a yard and make sure that the dog ``Johnny'' never leaves it now.

People should be able to walk the streets without fear of being attacked by a dog, the doctor said - but she's torn about what should be done.

``I love animals,'' she says. ``But human beings have rights too.''

© Copyright 1997 Globe Newspaper Company