For the past two years I have been working as a journalist making a film about Romania’s problem with stray dogs. The east European nation has millions of the animals prowling the streets, hotels, car parks, blocks of flats and even the backyard of Parliament and along the corridors of a children’s hospital.
A UK national, for nearly a decade I have been a resident of the capital Bucharest, where the dogs are part of the fabric of the
city. So together with a local production team, we felt it was
necessary to record on film the phenomenon of a capital in the European
Union still plagued by wild animals.
We talked to animal and
social experts about this environmental disaster, chased dogs through
the streets, talked to victims and were attacked by a pack of strays in
an abandoned playground. Often I would hear extraordinary stories about
animals and their relationship with Romanians, but few of these could be
demonstrated for the camera. Some included the low-cost methods county
councils used to kill them, such as injecting the dogs with vinegar or
burying them alive in limestone. But there were incredible stories about
the dogs, including how they could use the buses, trams and underground
trains – one dog (now deceased) could slip under the barriers at the
Metro station, negotiate the stairs and enter the train, moving between
two different stations every day to a place where she could find food.
However these dogs were close to extinction at the beginning of the
last decade. In Bucharest, the mayor decided to organize a
mass-slaughter of the dogs. This move would have been simple in a time
of Totalitarianism, where the people rarely took a public stance against
the police. But in a time of a fresh democracy, where the public were
exercised at attacking the forces of order, this would prove difficult
to manage. Added to this was a huge problem that continues to undermine
Romania’s development—the fact that a scary number of people in public
service and business are on the take.
There was this one block
in Bucharest where a dog lived. He was a fat and shabby mongrel who sat
at the front entrance, eating leftovers thrown out of the windows by the
residents. Fed many times a day by different families, he lived a
content life, sunning himself outside in the summer and finding a home
in the basement of the block during the freezing winter.
with the mayor’s decision, a city dog catcher visited the block with a
mandate to catch and kill the animal. The fat creature put up little
resistance as he was trapped inside a metal loop and taken to the city
pound to receive a lethal injection. When one of the residents of the
block—an elderly woman—realized he was gone, she visited the pound to
plead with the dog catchers to let him go. They were intransigent until
she reached in her pocket, pulled out her purse and produced a few
notes—worth about ten dollars—to take him home. Within half an hour the
dog was back in his usual position, waiting for his next meal.
Now the dog catcher figured he was on to a good deal. Once a month he
would visit the block, threaten to take the animal away and the
pensioner would have to muster a ten dollar bribe to keep the dog alive.
But one afternoon, the dog catcher found the woman was not at home.
Instead another elderly pensioner who fed the dogs was sitting outside
in her dressing gown, cuddling the filthy animal. He asked her for money
and there was an argument, but soon she agreed to provide him ten bucks
to leave empty-handed.
The dog catcher began to increase the
regularity of his visits. He would come back every week at a different
time and encounter a different person caring for the dog and solicit a
payment. If they refused he would seize the animal, chuck him in the
back of his van and lock him up in the pound. Someone from the block
would have to come up with the cash to save the creature from the
The dog catcher ended up pocketing around 100 dollars
per month—close to the then average salary in Romania—for the job of
threatening to kill one animal. If dog catchers were replicating this
pattern across a city of two million people, with around a thousand
blocks, each with their own resident dogs, there was scope for a 1.2
million-dollar-a-year black market. It’s possible that corruption saved
thousands of vagabond canines.
This is a story I heard in many
places across many cities in the country. Unfortunately on camera I
could never catch someone taking or giving a bribe, but I thought this
was a great example of how a society was failing in a surreal fashion—by
doing nothing but sitting outside a block of flats, getting fat,
wagging his tail and being friendly to anyone with a bag of bones, the
stray dog in Romania had become a currency.
Please WATCH the DOCUMENTARY "Man's best friend", produced by Michael Bird, at:
and please read also Michael's article "Ten reasons why Romania’s
proposed mass-kill of millions of stray dogs won’t work and two reasons
why it might" on our website, at: