ROMANIA’S capital Bucharest is to hold a referendum over whether to cull the city’s 40,000 stray dogs following nearly 10,000 people needing treatment for dog bites this year.
The referendum, which will take place on 6 October, comes after a four-year-old boy died after being mauled last week.
“We will do what Bucharest’s people want, exactly what they want,” Mayor Sorin Oprescu said.
The stray dog population in the city of two million rose rapidly as Bucharest expanded into the countryside after the end of communism in 1989.
The Matei Bals Hospital, which handles infectious diseases, has treated 9,760 people for dog bites in the first eight months of the year, of which a quarter were children, according to a spokesman.
The death of Ionut Anghel, who was playing with his older brother in a park, has sparked an impassioned debate over putting down strays.
A day after the fatal attack, president Traian Basescu, a vocal supporter of a stray dog cull, called on prime minister Victor Ponta’s government to pass a law that would allow for stray dogs to be killed.
“Humans are above dogs,” Mr Ponta said.
Hundreds have demonstrated both for and against the measure and have vowed to continue rallying. The current law only allows sick stray dogs to be killed.
Animal welfare group Vier Pfoten said the city is home to 40,000 stray dogs, while the city council claimed there are 64,000. No figures were available for the end of the communist era, but residents remember the stray population exploding after the Soviet collapse.
Burgeoning stray dog populations plague other countries in the former Eastern Bloc – sometimes leading to extreme measures. In Ukraine, authorities in the capital, Kiev, were accused of resorting to poisoning strays as they prepared to host the Euro 2012 football championships.
In the Kosovar capital of Pristina, officials gunned down nearly 200 strays over three weeks as part of a cull.
Many Bucharest residents fear they are being overrun by mongrels.
“We want a civilised capital, we do not want a jungle,” said Adina Suiu, a 27-year-old hairdresser. “I will vote for them to be killed. I drive a car most of the time, but when I walk around my neighbourhood, I am always looking over my shoulder. If we do not stop them now, we will be taken over by dogs.”
Vier Pfoten countered that the solution is not killing strays but sterilising them. The group has sterilised 10,400 dogs in Bucharest since 2001 – but said the problem needs to be tackled on a scale that is beyond the capacity of animal welfare groups.
A spokeswoman said: “We sterilise one, and five more are born in the same time. We need mass sterilisations.”
Mr Basescu, who said he is an animal lover, has adopted three stray dogs – and urged others to do the same. He said strays that are not taken in should be put down. Authorities argue that mass sterilisations are not a solution because of cost and logistics – and that a cull eliminates the threat of attacks.
Brigitte Bardot, the French screen star turned animal rights activist, has stepped into the debate. “I am extremely shocked to find that revenge, which has no place here, will be taken on all the dogs in Romania, even the gentle ones,” Bardot said in an open letter to Mr Basescu on her website.
Bucharest has historically had a thriving stray dog population. The problem became acute in the communist era when former leader Nicolae Ceausescu knocked down large parts of the city and residents were forcibly moved into high-rise flats.