Solving stray dog problem proves difficult in Balkan countries


Efforts to resolve the problem of huge armies of stray dogs roaming the streets of Athens, Bucharest and Sofia have failed to yield results.

By Svetla Dimitrova and Maria Paravantes for Southeast European Times in Sofia and Athens -- 25/04/12


Romanian officials passed a law last year that would have allowed authorities to euthanise wild dogs, but the law was overturned by the Constitutional Court. [Reuters]

The gruesome mauling death of an elderly man in Bulgaria has drawn new concerns about packs of wild dogs that frequently roam Southeastern Europe, despite efforts by several nations to bring the packs under control.

While the majority are friendly and harmless, sporadic violent incidents involving the street dogs push the problem to the fore, stirring a broad public debate.

Botio Tachkov, 88, who emigrated to the United States in the early 1960s and returned to Bulgaria several decades later to spend the final years of his life in his homeland, died on April 8th from multiple organ failure after he was mauled by a pack of dogs in Sofia.

Tachkov was a former professor at Columbia University in New York, and also had a successful career on Wall Street and worked for the US State Department.

His death triggered a huge public outrage and widespread criticism of the authorities' failure to deal with the long-running problem of Sofia’s growing population of stray dogs, which is believed to number 10,000. Some even called for quick, radical solutions, including the mass extermination of the homeless dogs.

There have been similar efforts in Romania, where a woman died last year after being mauled by street dogs. Parliament adopted a law in late 2011 that would have allowed authorities to kill thousands of strays, but the legislation was immediately challenged by NGOs and was eventually overturned by the Constitutional Court.

"Humans are to blame, not the animals," Zornitsa Zaharieva told SETimes. Zaharieva works at an accounting office in Sofia and owns a Labrador retriever.

Bulgaria's Animal Protection Act says that the Sofia-based municipal company Ekoravnovesie (Ecobalance) and animal protection organisations must place stray dogs in shelters, where they must be neutered, treated for parasites and vaccinated against rabies. Those that are not adopted must be marked and accommodated in special provisional shelters or returned to where they were caught. Very sick and aggressive dogs are euthanised.

A similar "trap, neuter and release" programme is in place in Greece as well. But like in Bulgaria, the existing shelters do not have the capacity to accommodate all the strays. Greek authorities' hands are further tied by the financial constraints imposed on the country due to its debt crisis.

According to Vassilis Papantoniou, who is in charge of the municipal dog shelter in Rafina, eastern Attica, the number of abandoned dogs in the area doubles at the end of summer every year. Most are hunting breeds.

"Many of these animals cannot return to the streets because they have been domesticated and will simply not survive," Papantoniou told SETimes.

Mark Jones, the director of the UK office of Humane Society International (HSI), which has worked on stray-dog programmes in Asia and Latin America, says that shelters, which tend to fill rather quickly, can be part of the solution if they are well managed.

Any solution must be based on a clear understanding of the true scope and reasons for the problem and tailored to the particular situation, he said.

"You have to establish where the dogs are coming from and why you have so many street dogs in the first place," Jones, who is also a veterinarian, told SETimes.

Many in Bulgaria blame the large stray dog population in Sofia on a legal provision, under which a homeless dog can be returned to the street if an individual or an organisation submits a written statement, vowing to supervise it following its release.

"But they are then not held accountable if they don't take care of the animal," Anna Gospodinova, a veterinarian with the Blue Cross veterinary clinic in Sofia, told SETimes. "As the recently released official data showed, there was an individual acting as a supervisor for 149 dogs. Obviously, a single person cannot take care of so many dogs."

Other weaknesses she pointed out included the lack of a legal provision to make the neutering of pet dogs mandatory, as well as the "ineffective" neutering programme for strays.

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Furthermore, there appears to be a growing number of Bulgarians who can no longer afford to keep their pets because of the current economic crisis in Europe.

"I see more and more ads on Facebook everyday of people offering to give away their dogs for free," Zaharieva said.

The situation is similar in Greece, where many families cannot afford the food and medical fees for their pet so they abandon it. Local governments thus do not get the resources they need to fund shelters.

"The only way to stop this crime is to change the mentality through the media and education," Yiouli Mavraki, president of the Rafina-Pikermi Animal Welfare Society, told SETimes. "But it is also vital that pet owners understand the significance and the obligation of neutering their animals so that the number of abandoned animals decreases."

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