Friday, 24 May 2013

Stray dogs of Europe, Unite!

Strays in the square: Sarajevo



It was nearly Christmas in Palermo, Sicily, and all along the city's major thoroughfare shoppers thronged, dominating and dissecting the lines of honking traffic. Via Maqueda, a howlingly intense tantrum-fest of a boulevard, serves almost every imaginable municipal function: home to cafes on tumble-down piazzas; grubby, cluttered markets; crumbling residences decked in tangled washing strings; and glossy, anonymous shopping centres - rare, sterile oases poking out of the simmering congestion. In the chilly evening a stranger appeared, slipping lazily out of the shadows of some half-forgotten piazza, winding his way, contra-flow, past the noisy tat-hawkers on Principio di Belmonte. He walked slowly, not limping, but with unnatural deliberation. His head hung low as if counting his steps. He weaved between shuffling pedestrians with what appeared at first as a graceful remove from the throng, an impression only defeated when he stumbled carelessly off the pavement and into oncoming traffic. This was one of the city's stray dogs, disoriented and possibly starving. Cars panicked around him; drivers bawling - weeping! - with rage over the sound of their screeching tyres. A few shoppers paused and looked on nervously, hoping not to see an accident.

While 95% of rabies incidents occur in Africa and Asia, with more than 15 million people worldwide annually receiving post-exposure vaccines,1 the consensus is that Europe's own stray population is increasing.2 Estimates, however, give a foggy impression. Some internet sources claim the Mafia is extensively and profitably involved in the kennelling and maltreatment of Italy's vast stray population, yet owing to a dearth of research on the subject these reports are difficult to corroborate.3 One oft-cited reason for the boom in strays is long-term domestic economic problems. According to setimes.com, many Bulgarians can no longer afford to feed their pets and instead turn them loose. A prominent former Columbia, NY, lecturer, returned to Sofia for his retirement, was recently mauled to death by a pack of dogs. Sofia's "growing population of dogs... is believed to number 10,000."4 Who cooked up that number? According to Wikipedia there are "roughly" 17,000 stray dogs in Belgrade alone.5 These journalistic distanciations testify to a deep uncertainty within Europe about strays, which stretches right up to legislative levels. There is no comprehensive approach to the problem because we have no coherent picture either of their numbers or where they are coming from. In fact, numbers are floated - after interviews with vets and shelter-workers - which then bounce around and end up being cited by people like me who have no real clue as to their reliability.

Of course, regardless of reliable information, you could, like Ukraine, forge brazenly ahead and embark on a year-long killing spree in the build-up to a major sports tournament. With the world's eyes on Kiev for the 2012 European Cup, it was apparently decided that a massive stray population was unsightly and not very European at all, so the obvious response was to kill them off as quickly as possible. Needless to say, in terms of actions that might endear you to, say, the average gentle natured Swede, making a mass dog sacrifice ahead of their visit probably ranks quite low. In the event it was a British pressure group called Naturewatch who made the government back down, not anyone in an official diplomatic position or with, say, actual legal clout.6 Romania passed a law to similar effect in 2011 following the mauling of a woman in June of that year. In a continent without rabies, in which the stray population is likely the result of neglect and abandonment on the part of pet-owners, such reactions look like the thoughtless attempts of an elite to shoo away a problem they would otherwise like to ignore entirely.

In my mental global map I had always consigned the presence of stray dogs to dusty Indian hinterlands, never anticipating the sight of them trotting merrily around European cities. This mental consignment had them operating in skinny, feral gangs, their leanness a bodily metaphor for cunning and finesse rather than starvation. Yet stray populations are also a dominant presence on the streets of Belgrade and Sarajevo. The Czech Republic apparently has a huge stray population, though they don't hang around in the centres of cities. Those in Belgrade are only nominally street dogs, their fur plush and trimmed, chests puffed out as they parade in formation down grand boulevards, some even verging on paunchy. In fact, it is often the most popular domestic breeds that are dumped.

As Siobhan and Robin argue over a swing, a group of strays plays in the distance


In Sarajevo the strays were in such rude health they looked to be in charge. In the main square of the old town they scrapped and played with each other, drawing in the occasional errant street kid (of which, we should recall here, the Balkans also has plenty). Every now and then a heavy-coated, headscarfed shop owner would scold them, but mostly they were left to their own devices. It's strange to watch these usually domestic, isolated animals form complex, hierarchical communities of their own, largely free of direct human input. Most would normally never meet so many other dogs without quickly being dragged away. The trepidation and playful curiosity that characterize the occasions when most dogs meet are absent. On our first morning in Sarajevo the city's pockmarked valley was bathed in brilliant sun. The winter ice had begun thawing over the warm cobbles, a mass of winding tributaries fanning out from the rooftop's glacial decomposition. Amid the iridescent shimmers of this sudden spring the dogs splashed gamely with each other, oblivious to the daily workings of the city around them.

The reason for their bullishness probably has something to do with a law, passed in 2008, that banned outright the slaughter of strays. This sudden attack of moral feeling was not, however, accompanied by the requisite cash. As Sarajevo is the only place in the country where the ban is rigorously enforced, activists and volunteers have taken to gathering up dogs from around the country and whisking them away to relative safety in the dead of night. Vast numbers of Bosnia's strays are now emigrating to the city. The choice facing governments, charities, and social organisations is usually presented in stark terms: either slaughter or neuter. Both consume resources; both imply a certain amount of suffering. The only clear answer lies in formalising the ad-hoc system which presently, though ineffectually, prevails: that is, by offering aid and resources to communities willing to take some responsibility for the well-being of the dogs, providing food, shelter and basic healthcare for the animals. Until the majority of citizens and governments reach that epiphanic realisation, the great Bosnian dog migration will presumably continue apace.


1statistics available at: who.int/mediacentre/factsheets
2www.scielo.org/scielo.php
3see: occupy for animals
4see: setimes.com, 'Solving stray dog problem proves difficult in the Balkans,' Svetla Dimitrova and Maria Paravantes
5see: Wikipedia,org, article on 'Free-roaming urban dogs'
6see: guardian.co.uk, 'Ukraine to stop killing of stray dogs ahead of Euro 2012'

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