ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2013:
(Actually published on November 20, 2013.)
A roadkill victim in Romania.
By Merritt Clifton, Animal People
Two days after Dutch animal advocate and rescuer Nathalie Klinge addressed the ICAWC conference in Barcelona about her observations of dog population control in Romania, I tested her findings by doing 1,500 kilometers of dog-censusing in Romania myself.
I covered a route from Bucharest to Cernavoda and Medgedea, by way of Brasov, Galati, Braila, and many smaller communities in southeastern Romania. Along the way I visited five animal shelters operated by nonprofit organizations, two large municipal shelters, three mostly vacant boarding kennels formerly used as dog pounds, and a zoo that temporarily housed dogs from the surrounding rural area.
I had previously visited three of the five nonprofit shelters and both large municipal shelters in 2004 and 2010, so could compare populations and conditions over time.
[pullquote]Observed roadkill mortality, projected over a full year, appeared to be so high as to equal the total dog population at any given time. But the roadkills are offset by a continuing high birth rate.[/pullquote]
As a benchmark for measuring changes in the carrying capacity of the Romanian habitat for dogs, I looked at the horse and donkey population, for which annual counts are published by the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization. The horse and donkey population does not have any discernible relationship to the dog population in developed nations, where equines are kept mainly for recreational use and dogs are kept mainly as pets. In nations where horses and donkeys are still heavily used for work, however, and most dogs are free-roaming, the dog population and the numbers of working equines are integrally related. Dung from working equines is a filler food source for street dogs. Street dogs also get much of their protein by hunting rodents who feed on grain stored for horses and undigested grain in dung. In addition, dogs may consume dead horses.
Finally, as communities become more mechanized, roadkills of dogs soar, and the street dog population declines, even as greater affluence enables more people to keep dogs as pets.
Romania at the fall of Communism in 1990 had about 705,000 working equines and probably about 2.9 million dogs, despite government culling. Among the first effects of increasing entrepreneurship post-Communism was that the working equine population jumped to 897,000 by 2001, peaking at 925,000 in 2004. By then the societal transition from equine to automotive transport was well underway, and Romania became a leading exporter of horses for slaughter in western Europe. Romania had only 611,000 working equines by the end of 2011, the most recent year for which the FAO has data.
The Romanian dog population rose to 3.7 million by 2001, parallel to the rising numbers of working equines, despite sporadic culling. The dog population dipped to 3.2 million after Vier Pfoten, the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, and other western charities introduced high-volume sterilization between 2001 and 2004, and appears to have fallen to 2.3 million by the end of 2006.
In 2007 Romania outlawed killing impounded dogs. Culling had achieved little toward reducing the street dog population, but had limited the numbers in pounds. Post-2007, the impounded dog population rose to about 20% of all the dogs in Romania––as many as 500,000––and the total dog population is now about 2.7 million.
Similar to U.S. in 1950
Currently Romania has about 4.1 equines per dog, and one car per 7.4 people, with urban areas still heavily reliant on public transit. This indicates that the habitat niche for street dogs in Romania today is about the same as it was in the U.S. circa 1950.
The U.S. in 1950 had 3.9 dogs for every equine, according research done by National Family Opinion Survey founders Howard and Clara Trumbull. The U.S. in 1950 had one car per 3.9 people, with use of public transit in steep decline. By 1960 the numbers of cars in the U.S. would triple, equines would all but vanish from farming and transport use, and street dogs would all but disappear as well.
Romania now has about five dogs for every 40 people, including one pet, one shelter dog, and three strays. The U.S. in 1950 had about eight dogs for every 40 people, with about five pets or working dogs and three strays. The resident shelter dog population was negligible, but the U.S. killed about three dogs for every 40 people. The U.S. still had about eight dogs for every 40 people in 1960, but by 1960 all eight of those dogs were pets or working dogs.
Klinge was correct that neither culling nor impounding nor scattered sterilization programs have had any lasting effect in Romania, much as they had little effect in the U.S., where the numbers of impounded dogs began to drop only after the introduction of large-scale sterilization programs focused on specific cities.
But there have been significant changes over the past decade in the distribution of Romanian dogs. In 2004, and probably historically, dogs congregated around inner city marketplaces, parks, and residential refuse disposal areas––just as researcher Alan Beck found that about 80% of the free-roaming dogs did in the U.S. circa 40 years ago. Some Romanian dogs still congregate in such areas, but as traffic has increased and sanitation has improved, most of the free-roaming dog population has either migrated to the outskirts of cities or has been dumped there––and, if dumped, the dogs have chosen not to make their way back to their former habitat.
In all five cities where I counted dogs in October 2013, about a third of the free-roaming dogs were not only at the outskirts of development, but were within a kilometer of a shelter, perhaps attracted by the barking of dogs who were being fed. More dogs were to be seen on the road approaching each shelter, without exception, than anywhere in the interior of any of the cities.
Observed roadkill mortality, projected over a full year, appeared to be so high as to equal the total dog population at any given time. But the roadkills are offset by a continuing high birth rate.
All five nonprofit shelters that I visited are sterilizing significantly more dogs each year than they impound––but not enough, after losses of sterilized dogs to roadkill, to reach the 70% level necessary to stabilize the dog population of their respective cities.
I found two hints that roadkills are not the only factor driving dogs out of Romanian inner cities. Another factor may be more aggressive rodent control, including extensive use of animal-proof dumpsters, becoming standard throughout Europe.
As of 2004, the interiors of many the same cities that I visited in 2013 hosted spectacular numbers of hawks and owls, who could be seen hunting mice and rats at dawn, in competition with street dogs. Urban birds of prey in 2013 appeared to be far fewer––although birds of prey are still easily seen in the rural Danube delta region, long known as a birding hotspot.
Usually, as the numbers of free-roaming dogs in a habitat decline, the numbers of cats tend to increase, a trend that I have seen everywhere else that I have extensively counted animals. In Romania, though, the ratio of cats to dogs appears to have slipped from about one cat for every 25 dogs in 2004 to only one cat for every 33 dogs in 2013. Only one shelter I visited had many cats in custody. Three others had nearly empty cat facilities.
Veteran ecojournalist Merritt Clifton serves as editor of ANIMAL PEOPLE.
A reporter, editor, columnist, and foreign correspondent since 1968, specializing in animal and habitat-related coverage since 1978, Clifton was a founding member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and is a four-time winner of national awards for investigative reporting.