"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Stray Dogs, Sochi, And Why They Are Loved In Bucharest

Bucharest just after the fall of Ceausescu was a Western European city of the 1950s – an old city of charm, tree-lined neighborhoods, and wide boulevards.  It was also an Eastern bloc Soviet city of unremittingly ugly apartment blocs, cranky streetcars, trash, and urban poverty. Finally it was a post-USSR no-man’s land struggling to find its own identity for the new century. 

I travelled to Romania over 25 times in the early stages of post-coup independence, and became familiar with the old residential neighborhoods of Bucharest with their grande dame early 19th century buildings, chestnut trees, parks, and a definite feel of Paris, especially in the Fall. Faded elegance to be sure, but a glimpse into a more sophisticated and cultured time.

Ceausescu had razed entire city blocks to make way for his grandiose palaces and government buildings, and given the dictator’s megalomania and absolute power, I was surprised that any old neighborhoods had survived at all. 

Romania outside the capital has mountain resorts, baths, spas, and vineyards; and especially the extraordinary churches and monasteries of Suceava. Romania was part Swiss Alps, part Tuscan vineyards, and part seaside; and I travelled from the Carpathians to the Black Sea.

I witnessed the transition to democracy and a market economy, saw the dislocation of older Romanians who had lived most of their lives under Communism and saw their socialist world dismantled.  From cradle-to-grave to every-man-for himself.  Individualism, free enterprise, and aggressive self-promotion replaced community and a neatly-woven social fabric.  No matter how poor the health care; no matter how bare the shelves, there was at least a comfortable predictability to life.  After the fall of Ceausescu, families survived on the pickled peppers and salted fish from rural relatives. They traded and bartered, made ends meet, and struggled to figure out what was expected of them in the new market economy.

The fundamentals of capitalism, internalized and second nature to Americans, were mysterious concepts.  Taxi drivers were losing money because of suddenly high gasoline prices, but they had no idea how to re-price a ride.  The simplest free market precept – private ownership – was foreign to workers who grew up under state control.  I was hired to work with a small group of well-drillers who had had been given equipment by the US Government;and I was contracted to teach them how to set up a small business.  They were flummoxed and totally in the dark. The head of the drilling team introduced me to his workers – the bit man, the drill operator, the excavator, and the hose-man. “Are these guys now owners?”, he asked; “or managers, or workers?”

The Bucharest Symphony Orchestra – one of Eastern Europe’s best - charged less then fifty cents for admission to its first-rate concerts; and only gradually and hesitantly raised their prices.  By the time that the price of the ticket was reasonably in line with European standards, the orchestra had disbanded, resettling with symphonies in London, Paris, and Vienna.

During another visit I had the chance to review some of the early drafts of the new Romanian Constitution.  The drafters had included a Bill of Rights which included the right to work, the right to health care, affordable housing, and social welfare.  “Who guarantees these rights?”, I asked, suggesting that a Constitutional right was different than a legislated program.  I explained that American rights enshrined in our Constitution came from God himself and that our rights were inalienable because of that divine origin. In the old days, the drafters reasoned, the State guaranteed these rights, so it was logical to write them into the new Constitution.  Who could argue, for example, that the right to work was fundamental to society?

There was only one incongruity in this versatile, agile new social democracy – only one feature which fit no mold, could not be characterized as a transitional or painfully necessary; or explained as the expected ragged edge of capitalism.  Wild packs of stray dogs.  Thousands of stray dogs roamed the streets.  They took over parks, street corners, benches and walkways, bus stops, and piazzas.  They were mangy, skeletal, and nasty. Their coats were skinned, patchy, and scrofulous.  They salivated and growled, bit and snarled, yelped and barked deep into the night.  The streets of Bucharest were never completely quiet.  Not in the hours before dawn, not in the depth of winter was there quiet.  These wild, feral dogs never slept. 

Each pack had its territory and defended it with blood, tooth, and claw.  Dogfights would erupt at lunchtime and send people running.  One dog would attack an interloper and the rest of the pack would set on him.  The noise of 50 savage, territorial dogs sinking their rabid teeth into the scarred flesh of intruders was wild and terrifying.  The ruckus would erupt without warning.  One minute the pack would be quiet, licking its wounds or chewing on bits of shoe leather and pork rinds; the next it would be all tense muscle and tendon - a vicious collective thing.

Each dog pack had its preferred territory. One liked the shaded mini-park near the concert hall.  Another the roundabout which divided the downtown from the first old residential neighborhood.  Many more parked in front of the housing blocs, in doorways, and on playgrounds.  Pedestrians knew where they were and were able to give them wide berth.  My trip from my hotel to a favorite restaurant either took fifteen minutes or a half hour depending on how many dog packs I had to avoid. 

Like anything, residents of a place get used to nastiness, learn to avoid it, incorporate it into their daily lives, and marginalize it within their consciousness.  Yes, Bucharest-ites had all been bitten at one time or another, but had learned the dogs’ habits and let them be.  Some housing blocs even adopted dog packs as security.  Residents airmailed buckets of tripe down 12 floors to the courtyard below, got to know the dogs who in return snarled and threatened all outsiders.

I carried a big stick whenever I walked in Bucharest.  I was terrified of these dogs after so many years in countries with endemic rabies.  Dogs, monkeys, cats, and lemurs all had to be treated as rabid, and in the first days of my travels, the only cure was 12 daily shots in the stomach with a veterinary needle filled with horse serum and rabies anti-bodies. They were painful and only partially successful.  I have always carried rocks and sticks when there are unleashed dogs around.  The maids in my hotel laughed at me when I left my room with an old stick of lumber, but I felt better.

The doggies in this picture may look cute, but looks are deceiving.  At as moment’s notice and with little provocation they can– and do – become savage and vicious. 

Finally late in the 90s, the municipal government decided it had to do something.  The dogs were reproducing at an alarming rate and were everywhere.  Residents had the uncomfortable feeling that the dogs had taken over the city and people were no longer masters of their own environment.

The city floated a number of proposals, the best being the recruitment of private dog patrols who would deploy at night, shoot the dogs, scoop up the carcasses and incinerate them at the local dump.  Patrolmen would be paid by the carcass, and proof-of-kill in the form of tongues or paws would be required.  Many council members thought this solution too barbaric, so they proposed the India beggar model – round up the dogs like Bombay beggars, cart them off to some remote area in the Carpathians, and be done with them. 

Certain jurisdictions outside Bucharest had tried this strategy, but the dogs – like Bombay beggars – were too smart and quickly found their way back to town.  Other proposals were to poison them (scotched because of concern for the street urchin population who would be at risk), or to pen them up on the outskirts of the city without food or water until they died.  None of these ideas caught on.

At about this time, Brigitte Bardot, the well-known French sex kitten, had turned to animal rights as a passionate avocation. I had a big poster of her on my wall at boarding school for four years, and I thought she was terrific.

Her idea, however was as cockamamie as they come.  Night patrols would be sent out, but would only round up strays for neutering and spaying.  Once fixed, these dogs would be released back on the streets and in a decade or so, without reproduction, their numbers would dwindle to nothing.  The residents of Bucharest would have to put up with these rabid, mangy curs for a while longer, but it was the only humane thing to do.  Bardot was insistent and came to Romania with cash.  She was not to be denied.  The pouting starlet of the 50s had become an animal rights harridan, still pouting but scary.

She got her way, and for a while the dogcatchers were making good money; but they could only catch so many, and while some got altered, many escaped the knife.  The dogs also caught on, and when they saw, heard, or smelled the dog wagon coming, they scattered throughout the neighborhood.

I haven’t been back to Bucharest in a long while, but I am told the dog packs still roam the streets.  The fact that they roam the streets of Sochi – a city cleansed of everything that doesn’t belong to the Russian brand – suggests that they must still be on Romanian streets.  I think that the round-‘em-up, shoot and incinerate them is still the best idea; and so do most city councilmen, but in this age of terrorism, they are concerned that the sound of gunfire will be misinterpreted.


  1. Outstanding photos collection here. I am so wonder after visit your collection. A big thanks for sharing with us !!

  2. What a stupid piece. That's five minutes of my life I'll never get back.


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