With the passing of April’s NATO summit in Strasbourg, it is an appropriate moment to recall last year’s Bucharest affair. Even before the Russo-Georgian War made the proceedings prematurely obsolete, it was not a happy history for the Transatlantic relationship. The allies publicly disagreed in Romania about expanding the Alliance to include Ukraine and Georgia, about what to do and who should do it in Afghanistan, and about more besides. Those disagreements still persist.
Important stuff, to be sure; but my attention at the time was drawn instead to a small item in the April 2, 2008 New York Times, indicating that Romanian officials were concerned that Bucharest’s well-known packs of stray dogs might harass delegates to the summit. Well, they should have worried: To illustrate the seriousness of the problem the dogs posed (and still pose), note that a 68-year old Japanese businessman, Hajime Hori, was actually killed by one of them in January 2006 as he entered the hall of his apartment in the affluent Palatul Victoriei neighborhood. With an average of more than eighty people per day reporting for medical treatment and anti-rabies shots after dog attacks in 2006 and 2007 (the numbers have since come down some), it is surprising that more people have not been killed.
The only official Romanian government response to the stray dog menace has been to increase the number of two-person dogcatcher teams with tranquilizer guns from six to 12. This has helped some, but it’s hardly sufficient to deal with about 200,000 strays, which works out to about one free-range dog for every ten humans in Bucharest (population around 1.9 million).
Why hasn’t the state acted more forcefully? One reason is that animal rights groups, including one championed by no less a figure than Brigitte Bardot, mobilized to make a celebrity out of the dog accused of killing the Japanese businessman. The dog appeared on TV from his jail cell and local lawyers mounted a defense that he was elsewhere at the time: The police, they alleged, had nabbed the wrong pooch. The police and dogcatchers looked like buffoons, the dog became a hero and the Mayor (now President) Traian Basescu, who had earlier ordered the culling of thousands of dogs from city streets, was forced to negotiate. Bardot advised that the dogs should not be eradicated but castrated instead, whereupon the then-Mayor of Constanta replied, “Madam, dogs bite with their teeth, not with their balls.” He offered to export all of Constanta’s local stray dogs to France. Bardot glared, most Romanians applauded her, and the Mayor was in due course turned out of office.
This has become a pattern. Yet another canine hero was the local dog who ran through cars during a Formula One race last year and survived. In April of last year, too, a 6-year old girl was fatally mauled by a pack of stray dogs near Constanta. The current popular Mayor told the bereaved parents that their daughter should not have been playing in the field near her home, which, he claimed, was off-limits to trespassers and dogcatchers alike. And most people seemed to be outraged more at the violation of the territory of the Canine Republic of Romania than by what happened to the little girl.
Romania isn’t the only country in the region with a dog problem: The countries of the former Yugoslavia and Albania suffer similar woes. But Romania’s problems are worse, and Bucharest’s are the country’s most severe. Why? Where did these dogs come from in the first place?
The answer is not as simple as it may seem. Most people blame the late Nicolai Ceaușescu—and why not? After all, he did cause many problems, and he is much too dead to defend himself.
The standard story is that back in the 1980s Ceaușescu decided to destroy a huge swath of Bucharest to build palaces and recreational sites for himself, his family and their sycophants. Whole neighborhoods were destroyed in and around Bucharest in what was quaintly termed “rural systemization”, and standard Communist-style high-rise monstrosities were thrown up to house the displaced. In most of these buildings, dogs were not allowed. In others, the state tried to impose a dog tax to keep an animal in a residential building, but few of the displaced were willing or able to pay the tax, so most decided to let their dogs roam free.
All true, but this is only part of the story. To understand how dogs can become heroes in contemporary Romania, one must know that Romanians, like most East and Central Europeans, are inveterate dog lovers. A visit to any art museum in this region will illustrate the deep cultural reverence through elegant oil paintings of old royal families in their castles stroking or walking their dogs, hunting or fighting alongside them in wars, sitting next to their lofty thrones on fluffy couches and so on. A close look at the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in His Brussels Gallery (1651) by David Tenier the Younger, for instance, finds the Archduke and his associates conducting elegant business while two terriers ham it up on the other side of the room with a long stick in their mouths. Most of the famous paintings feature dogs somewhere in the frame, sly, obedient, always ingratiating and usually as deliciously corrupt as their owners.
This forms the historical and cultural context for what happened after Ceaușescu knocked down neighborhoods and turned pets into urban vagabonds. While many Bucharest residents could no longer live with their dogs, that didn’t mean they couldn’t go outside to play with them and feed them. So many did, and police and lower-level public officials, understanding the origins of the whole business, stood aside sympathetically and watched it happen—in some cases protecting and facilitating it. Romanian stray dogs soon became receptacles for the projection of human frustrations. They were respected for their tenacity and boldness; dogs symbolized everything that average Romanians were not during this brutal period—heroic, fearless, nimble and, above all, free.
Thus before, during and after the Communist epoch in Romania and the rest of Mitteleuropa it has been normal for dogs to be the canine equivalents of the wily rascal Flashman of the late George MacDonald Fraser: They somehow turn up in every major event in history, or if they do not turn up as needed, people invent stories in which they do. Thus the writer György Dragoman once described his Communist teachers as joyless, strict and prone to shrieking; his soccer coach, too, conducted regular beatings during sadistic morning practices. Dogs, Dragoman pointed out, avoided such treatment and so occupied a special place in the minds of human sufferers. Some people began to wish they were dogs, and wishing hard enough made some act like dogs.
Not just Romanians, but other East Europeans used dogs as metaphorical foils during the Communist era. As anyone who has ever had a dog for a friend knows, dogs prefer to live with their human families and generally dislike change. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), Milan Kundera describes how the protagonist’s dog Karenin would be disturbed even by the arrival of a new chair or the displacement of a flowerpot. The insane policies of communist (and formerly, fascist) regimes in these countries disturbed dog rituals. Dog time, according to Kundera, moved in a circle like the hands of a clock, not in a straight line as humans conceive of time. Hence the romantic notion that dogs were somehow able to help humans cope with being uprooted and forced into a life that circled around from lies and moral compromises to interrogations, labor camps and even executions. In My Happy Days in Hell (1962), too, the Hungarian poet György Faludy recounts that in his early 1950s labor camp near Recsk, inmates shared scarce food with camp strays and protected them from the sadism of the AVO state security officers. The dogs were superior to the scum of humanity running the camps who tortured dogs and inmates alike. Feeding them was an act of inter-species solidarity.
Circumstances were not, however, identical in all Warsaw Pact countries, or even in different regions of the same country. There were (and still are) far fewer strays in higher-income countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic than in Romania. One potential explanation is that, to minimize disruption of the elegant, tightly regulated societies of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kremlin allowed its new subjects a cultural space not given to poorer countries. Of course, those grants of space were often filled with the brutal programs of local megalomaniacs such as Hungary’s Miklós Horthy. Nevertheless, there was an unwritten “social treaty” in higher-income Communist countries: You could have your privacy and even be an artist if you didn’t touch political issues—and privacy included the family dog.
Consistent with this treaty, dogs in Hungary were recognized as family members, allowed to wait with the rest of the family for the return of their masters from exile villages and labor camps. So ethnic Hungarians in the Romanian province of Transylvania, like György Dragoman’s father, who was suddenly “taken for a week to a research station by the sea on urgent business” in a gray van, could count on seeing their dogs if they returned. (He never did.) In the rest of poorer Romania, dogs and humans were uprooted together and usually shared a common fate. It is therefore not so unusual that today’s local officials and unbitten citizens often project missing personal qualities onto stray dogs, idolizing them and defending their freedom from dogcatchers and other sinister agents of the state.
So dogs to East and Central Europeans are not as dogs are to most Americans. They are historical characters; they are political metaphors; they are superior morally to most people. This is why the successors of the Ceaușescu’s canine heroes are still viewed as romantic victims, poor but honest insurgents fighting the corrupt state as their families and masters could not.
All this is very affecting, of course, even verging on literary. But things got completely out of hand after 1989. The dogs took over as hundreds of thousands of strays organized themselves into 20,000 to 30,000 packs living in cities, rural areas and even the marshlands of the Danube Delta, where they chased boats for food. Rabies, injuries and deaths from their attacks still remain a serious public-health problem. Indeed, the dogs even jeopardized Romania’s January 2007 EU accession, since authorities had to meet international health norms to comply with that regulatory chapter.
Somehow the health chapter mysteriously closed and Romania was accepted into the European Union, but the dogs have continued to multiply. The real problem is street-smart dogs, which are not at all like the one watching TV with you in the evenings. They react violently and pre-emptively to the slightest challenges, as I can personally atest. During a walk near Piata Romana a few years ago, a large mongrel on the sidewalk growled and gave me a nasty look. When I looked back at him, he lunged and bit the guy behind me.
Perhaps this was a perfectly nice dog that had temporarily succumbed to the accumulated effects of street hunger and deprivation. But most street dogs are thugs or will shortly become so under guidance from their canine superiors. The packs exhibit a loose vertical command structure with several pimp-like dogs supervising underlings to scavenge, turn over fair shares of acquired food, and defend a particular urban territory from other packs. I used to watch a dog commissar in Iasi sunning himself against a wall while keeping an eye on his lower mongrels trotting about, and paying me absolutely no attention. A stylish mongrel, he could have been wearing a cardigan sweater and sporting a timepiece.
Even if Romanian officials could summon the will to move against the strays in the face of all this history, it is questionable that they could find the means. Cities such as Bucharest used to be part of a unified Communist Party central apparatus. After transition in the early 1990s, they became politically and financially autonomous. This left fragmented, district-based regulatory structures with separate dog-catching units, muzzle laws, leash laws, databases to record numbers of strays and rabies infections—with no chain of command. This diffuse structure makes it impossible to rationally define the stray dog problem or come up with a policy solution for whole cities or regions.
In this regulatory vacuum, dogs, always sensing an opportunity, multiplied quickly and adopted Flashman-like roles as neighborhood guardians. As before, humans assumed sympathetic benefactor roles to help the worthy animals survive the onslaughts of fantasy Securitate agents dressed up as dogcatchers. In my Bucharest neighborhood of Dorobantilor, we fed “our” dogs because they usually protected us from dogs intruding from other neighborhoods—and “our” dogs might also attack us if we didn’t pay the protection fee. Traveling from one neighborhood to another, to catch the metro for example, required carrying a rug beater or an umbrella, even on a sunny day, for protection. This explains the many rattan rug beaters and large umbrellas still carried around town today; it has nothing to do with an abundance of dirty carpets or rogue weather patterns, as an unsuspecting tourist might suppose.
Not all Bucharest dogs are vicious, at least in my district. One followed me home late at night from the metro, barking proudly at intruder dogs along the way. But when he tried forcibly to enter my apartment and move in, I was barely able to keep him out. In rewarding him handsomely with food for his tenacity and implied future support, I know I contributed to the stray problem in this dog-eat-dog, dog-bite-human policy vacuum. I was merely shifting the costs to other neighborhoods, and I knew that ultimately I would probably have to pay some of those costs myself if deterrents such as umbrellas or rug beaters failed.
At a more basic level, officials are still complicit with citizens in keeping this problem going. In Braila, during a break from our training program (on how to improve local government performance!), my colleagues and I fed stray dogs in the alley alongside several police officers who had built them a home made out of wooden crates behind their precinct station. Thus, city governments operate in denial of stray dogs as a public problem, and the short-term bribery and naive fantasies of citizens enable the dogs to eat off the proceeds. The result is a populist spectacle in which would-be regulators who try to “manage” the situation are cast in the role of fascist human right violators by the media and public—which brings us back to Ms. Bardot.
Special preparations for the 2008 NATO summit notwithstanding, policy paralysis has since increased on the heels of popular dog-rights pressures. Pepper spray has always been illegal in Bucharest. There have always been always too few dog pounds, and they are full. Officials are currently prohibited from spaying or neutering the dogs and returning them to the street, or from euthanizing them. Before Bardot and company came to town a few years ago, dogcatchers used to catch about 1,500 dogs each month, put down 1,200 and get 300 adopted. Now they catch almost none. No local official or national politician wants to get their career bitten by attacking media celebrities and being branded as an atavistic fascist—one responsible for sending dogs to interrogation centers, labor camps or executions. The EU Commission in Brussels has been cautiously silent, preferring safer issues like the licensing of rural pig farms.
At the street-operations level, uniform incident databases and integrated metropolitan regulations would help. Since this is unlikely to happen soon, most residents will continue to rely on rug beaters and umbrellas, and maybe, in a pinch, pepper spray. But these are only incremental solutions. Until the state and its institutions can spread canine regulatory authority at least to city boundaries, neighborhoods will have few choices except to rely on informal compacts with the dog underworld. This means official bribery of larger urban agglomerations of dogs (dozens of packs covering many neighborhoods) with food in exchange for ID tags, temporary shelter, spaying, neutering and release on promises of good behavior. It may be a transitional policy and, of course, it would be technically illegal. But in the Romanian dog world today, what isn’t?