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Child killed by dogs in Bucharest leads to tough new law on strays

The mauling to death of a 4-year-old boy in the Romanian capital has reignited a countrywide debate over what to do about the packs of stray dogs that roam Bucharest.

Strays attacked the boy, Ionut Anghel, and his 6-year-old brother in a park two weeks ago. The older boy escaped with leg injuries. Ionut wasn’t so lucky; his body was found a short while later in an abandoned lot, covered with bite wounds.

A recent census found that around 65,000 stray dogs roam the streets of Bucharest, a legacy of the Soviet-era government’s decision to relocate much of the city’s population to huge apartment blocks.

The residents abandoned their pets as they made the move. Those dogs ran wild and multiplied. Today, some areas of the city are considered dangerous after dark because of the packs of dogs. Even in the touristy center of the city, strays are a constant sight. In 2006, a Japanese tourist was killed by one while visiting the city

After Ionut Anghel’s death, Romania’s news media and politicians were quick to weigh in. The president, Traian Basescu, called for a law that would allow stray dogs to be killed, saying in a televised public address that "humans are above dogs." A local television station launched a “Stop killing the children” campaign aimed at forcing the authorities to rid the city of its strays.

Tuesday, Romanian lawmakers bowed to the pressure and voted for a new law that would allow stray dogs to be put down if they aren’t claimed or adopted within two weeks of capture. Hundreds of animal-rights activists demonstrated outside Parliament trying to persuade those arriving to vote instead for sterilizing the animals.

Official data shows that in the first four months of this year, 1,100 people in Bucharest sought treatment after being bitten by stray dogs. Some estimate the number of those attacked to be four times that.

Last year there were 16,000 recorded incidents of dog bites in the Romanian capital, with many more in other towns and cities across the country.

“It is a huge problem, with many deaths and disfigurements, yet nothing is being done on a local or parliamentary level,” said Ciprian Ciucu, 35, one of the main voices calling for government action.

“Many of these dogs are almost half-wolf,” Ciucu said.

Romanian public opinion has been divided for years between those who think the government should allow the mass killing of feral dogs and those who think there should be a more humane approach.

From 2001 to 2007, authorities were allowed to capture stray dogs and kill them, a policy that led to the extermination of more than 140,000 strays. But the overall numbers didn’t drop significantly, and the policy was revoked in 2008.

In November 2011, a law was passed that allowed local authorities to capture and kill packs of stray dogs, but it was annulled just two months later. Until the new law passed Tuesday, only sick dogs could be put down.

Efforts to sterilize stray dogs and return them to the streets in recent years have proved only partially successful. Upward of 6,500 strays were sterilized and released in Bucharest last year, at a cost of around $260,000.

But sterilized dogs can still become violent, argue those who call for stronger measures.

Still, many here don’t think that killing the dogs will be any more effective than it was in the first few years of the century.

“It is ineffective to try to kill all of the dogs,” said Kuki Barbuceanu, project coordinator for VIER PFOTEN Romania, an animal welfare nongovernmental organization.

Barbuceanu agrees that violent dogs need to be removed from the streets, but he doesn’t think that killing any stray that’s caught and that they can’t find a home for will reduce the overall numbers.

“It is a question of food and resources available to the dogs. If we take dogs off the street, the ones that remain will just breed and in a few months, a year, there will be the same numbers,” he said.

Compounding the problem is that in many parts of the city, residents feed the strays. Now they’re likely to hide them as well when the dogcatchers come around, rather than risk their being killed.

“Unfortunately, there is no miracle solution,” Barbuceanu added.