10/07/2013 14:48 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 18:58 EST

Stray dog numbers spur state euthanasia plans

The sight of a mangy dog covered with fleas is a common sight in the streets of Bucharest, Romania.

"Ever since I was young, I remember there being stray dogs everywhere," says Ana Cristina Enescu, a resident of Romania.

The problem has gotten so bad, Enescu says, that when people give each other directions, they include details about which streets to avoid because of feral dogs.

But when a four-year-old boy was attacked and killed earlier this year by dogs near a park where he was playing with his older brother, city officials decided to take action. Two weeks ago, Bucharest's city council implemented a bill that legalizes the euthanization of the capital's estimated 65,000 strays.

While many Romanians welcomed the decision, animal rights groups criticize it.  

“People are angry [at the boy’s death] and I think it prompted the government to rush through this kind of legislation that would allow the killing of dogs. It’s a regrettable situation,” says Elizabeth Sharpe, a spokesperson with the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA).

Romania is hardly the only country plagued by an epidemic of homeless dogs.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there are 200 million stray dogs worldwide. Countries such as Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Mexico have in the past, taken reduction measures to control their large populations of stray dogs. While estimates vary, India may have as many as 25 million stray dogs.

In Detroit, it's not just the buildings that were abandoned. As residents struggled financially, many abandoned their pets, which resulted in the city's population of 50,000 stray dogs. 

“In 2012, we had over 900 reported dog bites,” says Harry Ward, manager of Detroit's Animal Control Unit.

The biggest problem is with mail delivery. Ward says animal control works closely with the U.S. post office to keep neighbourhoods safe enough that letter carriers can deliver mail.

"Not a day goes by when we don't have a report of another address that is causing maybe even a whole block not to get its mail because a dog is running around."

Managing populations

It is not unheard of for countries to manage large stray dog populations by killing the animals. During a campaign to end tapeworm infestations, Cyprus culled its stray dog population from 46,000 to 6,000, according to WHO.

Following a rabies outbreak in 2008, Bali, Indonesia, reduced its stray dog population by 100,000. Even now, Bali has around 500,000 strays.

In the state of Michigan, a stray dog captured by animal control is held for four business days, or longer if the dog has ID. At the end of the holding period, the dog is assessed for adoption and is either placed in an adoption program, or euthanized.

Even in Canada, stray dogs that are neither claimed nor adopted are euthanized.

Out of 43,000 dogs admitted to shelters across Canada in 2010, 14 per cent were euthanized, according to National Shelter Statistics by the Canadian Federation of Humane Society.

In Bucharest, hundreds of people rallied in support of the new bill prior to its passing, but not everyone is in favour of the law. Over the years, many Romanians have become attached to the local strays and protested to save the dogs.

Under the new law, stray dogs will be gathered, taken to shelters, and if they are not claimed or adopted within 14 business days, will be euthanized.

Harry Ward of Detroit's Animal Control Unit says that for a stray dog, that is a generous holding period.

“It’s not good for the dogs to be held in shelters long term and it’s also a major burden for the local municipality.”

Strays exist throughout Romania, but the bill only allows euthanasia in Bucharest.

While Sharpe recognizes that action is required, she does not think culling is effective.

“This knee-jerk reaction in one city is not going to solve the problem,” Sharpe says, explaining that usually, people bring dogs in from elsewhere.

“We’ve seen it happen in a few other communities and without a formalized, long-term solution for population management, it’s not going to address Romania’s long-standing issue with stray dogs.”

Mass abandonment

People believe the problem started in 1984, when former Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu tore down entire neighbourhoods in central Bucharest to make room for the 350,000-square-metre Palace of Parliament.

During relocation, many families abandoned their pets.

Abandoned dogs often come from rural areas where many people do not sterilize them, either because there isn't information available or because they cannot afford the operation, Sharpe says.

Whether it’s in Romania or the U.S. or anywhere else, Ward says it's common for people not to spay or neuter their pets.

"They feel that it detracts from the reasons they own the pet, or that it's cruel to their pet," Ward explains, adding a third reason: "a misguided idea that they will make money from selling puppies."

When the puppies don't sell, they're left out in the street, Ward says, a practice that's also common in Romania, Enescu adds.

“What’s most important is to realize that strategies of capturing strays, holding periods and euthanizing dogs that can’t be re-homed is treating the symptom of the disease of being irresponsible owners,” Ward says.

He says people need to put less effort into protesting about euthanizing dogs and put their resources to promote responsible pet ownership, spaying and neutering of dogs.

“What people who are opposed to the euthanization of dogs don’t understand is that there is not a person in this world who likes to euthanize dogs,” Ward says.

The solution lies with public education initiatives, strong notification and adoption programs, the availability of low-cost spaying and neutering for pet owners and legislation, Ward says.

“But to get ahead of the public safety menace, you are going to have to go out and actively remove dogs from the street.”