Saving dogs from– the Vampires of Bucharest
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2004:
BUCHAREST–Bram Stoker (1897) and Bela Lugosi (1931) got Romanian vampires all wrong. Real Romanian bloodsuckers resemble neither the fictional Count Dracula nor the historical Vlad the Impaler (1431-1476), whose deeds inspired Stoker.
“Vampires” hostile to street dogs may vacation in Transylvania, but they keep their offices in Bucharest.
Real danger in Romania, for both dogs and humane donors, comes through the actions of bloated ex-Communist bureaucrats and bribe-seeking politicians, assisted by freebooting friends from the west who rushed in to help them loot what remained of the country after the December 1989 fall of the Nicolai Ceaucescu dictatorship.
Figurative vampires and their henchmen preying upon Romanian animal control and humane work hide not in the ruined castles and medieval villages that dot the countryside, where work horses may still outnumber tractors, but rather behind the guards and closed gates of some of the worst canine concentration camps that ANIMAL PEOPLE ever saw.
The vampires are seldom seen. Some may not have inspected their canine concentration camps in years.
The vampire slayers are an inspired and talented younger generation of animal advocates whose chief weapon is their hope of introducing their traumatized nation to the joy of happy dogs.
Romania has been raped and plundered by successions of conquerors and robber barons since the fall of the Roman Empire. Even the Romans fought two bloody wars to subjugate the Dacians, with whom they then mingled for about 150 years until the Goths invaded. Yet, surrounded ever since by Slavs, Huns, Turks, Bulgars, and Cossacks, the Daco-Romanian ethnic majority have preserved their Latin language and culture.
As in all of the former Soviet-dominated police states, public affairs–including ordinary business transactions–are rife with suspicion, jealousy, corruption, and intrigue. Despite the hardships of World War II and the Communist era, however, Romanians resisted “socialist realism” in architecture, fashion, art, and literature, refusing to yield to the conformity, gloom, and depression that came to characterize the soot-blackened industrial cities of Poland, Bulgaria, and the Ukraine.
Even the Romanian coal smoke is uniquely colorful, yellowed with potentially deadly sulphur dioxide. By treaty, the smoke must be cleansed before Romania enters the European Union in 2007. Meanwhile, the yellow plumes are a characteristic gesture of self-destructive defiance.
Daco-Romanians resemble Italians more than their closest neighbors, including the ethnic Hungarians who make up about 9% of the Romanian population, and dress to accent the difference. As a people, Daco-Romanians have internalized the belief that no matter what else befalls them, they are scions of Rome at its height, while their neighbors, no matter how affluent, are barbarians.
Other Romanians tend to be at odds with the gypsy minority, about 2% of the population, many of whom still live in horse-drawn wagons. Calling themselves the Rom, the gypsies also seem proud to be who they are, even downright cocky about it, after surviving half a century of Nazi and Communist efforts to exterminate or assimilate them.
Among the enduring social problems in Romania is the open pride of many Rom in their ability to exist as virtual outlaws, illegally occupying abandoned buildings and earning livings through low-level organized crime. The reflected attitude may be similar to the expressions of U.S. inner city “gangsta rap.”
There is no clear ethnic division in Romanian attitudes toward animals. Gypsies’ animals, especially horses, tend to receive very good care–but ANIMAL PEOPLE found gypsies among the management and line staff at the worst canine concentration camps.
Despite pervasive fear of theft by gypsies, Romanian shelters–both good and bad–tend to be cultural meeting points. The shelters are among the few community institutions located often in gypsy neighborhoods. Some non-gypsy shelter directors enjoy cautiously positive relations with gypsies.
“They let us sterilize their dogs,” said Fundatia Daisy Hope founder Aura Maratas. “We have much more trouble about that with most Romanian men. And the gypsies don’t complain about barking dogs. Perhaps it is because they know that they too could be evicted,” as alleged squatters.
Romulus & Remus
Romulus and Remus, the reputed founders of Rome who were suckled and raised by wolves after being abandoned in the woods to die, may be depicted more often in Romanian art and statuary than in the city of Rome. Clearly, their story has greater resonance with Romanians than that of Vlad the Impaler, who seems to be remembered chiefly as a magnet for tourists.
Vlad was known for cruelty. Romania has suffered unspeakable cruelty. While political life is no longer as violent as it was for most of the past few centuries, violent crime is still common and domestic violence is an evident national problem.
But Romanians do not seem to celebrate cruelty and violence. And many are visibly fond of their dogs, cats, work horses, and even the ubiquitous street dogs that others hope to exterminate.
Pet-keeping skills are weak, yet are not remarkably different from the common level of knowledge in the U.S. circa 1980.
The latest screen version of the Dracula legend, the 2004 film Van Helsing, got the Romanian geography completely scrambled, placing mountains where there are plains and a fjord where miles of grassy marshes ripple into the Black Sea.
Van Helsing also misidentified the other quasi-mythical monsters who still cast menacing shadows over the nation. Romania might welcome a biotech entrepreneur as advanced beyond his peers as Dr. Frankenstein, and a few packs of werewolves would be relatively easily handled, as Romanian animal control problems go.
The names Romanians who care about animals might mention in whispers are Trian Basescu, the recently re-elected dog-killing mayor of Bucharest, and Wolfgang Ullrich, serving a 12-year sentence in Germany for embezzling $28 million donated to help animals–especially in Romania.
That was more than enough money to solve every animal care-and-control problem Romania has. Most of it allegedly vanished into Switzerland and Thailand.
Basescu ran successfully for re-election in June 2004 by pledging to re-escalate the purge of street dogs that shocked the world in April 2001, after international donors had paid for five years to have tens of thousands of street dogs sterilized and vaccinated.
Officially, the dogs were killed with injections of magnesium sulfate, a method condemned as inhumane by the American Veterinary Medical Association Panel on Euthanasia since at least 1993.
Video obtained from inside two Bucharest animal control facilities by the Austrian organization Vier Pfoten reportedly showed workers stomping dogs to death and acknowledging bludgeoning dogs in order to steal the few cents that each dose of magnesium sulfate cost.
“If they do this without my knowledge, it is not my responsibility,” Bucharest animal control director Razvan Tiru told freelance reporter Chuck Todaro, who interviewed him for ANIMAL PEOPLE.
Basescu charged that the sterilization program had been ineffective, because the dogs were still breeding. Indeed, the surgeries funded by the Fondation Brigitte Bardot, Vier Pfoten, and other organizations from Europe and the U.S. had proceeded at the rate of only about 5,000 per year, less than 10% of the volume believed to have been necessary to reduce reproduction to the replacement level.
In March 2001, however, the foreign organizations negotiated a two-year contract with Basescu calling for a much more intensive effort to sterilize dogs. Approximately 3,000 street dogs were reportedly sterilized in the next six weeks.
Then Basescu abruptly broke the contract and initiated the massacre.
Only much later did word trickle out from former sterilization program staff and volunteers that much of the surgery supposedly done by Romanian veterinarians, especially during the March 2001 push, might never have been performed.
According to rumor heard throughout Romania today, many dogs were simply captured, shaved as if prepared for surgery, marked as if the surgery had been done, and released, while corrupt administrators pocketed the money supposed to have been spent on drugs and operations.
Rumor also has it that some nonprofit organizations did not want to lose their source of puppies, who were transported to western Europe and adopted out at high fees.
Basescu, the story goes, found out about the duplicity and concluded that none of the pro-animal organizations could be trusted.
Some believe it; some don’t.
While dogcatchers hired by Basescu killed more than 200 dogs a day for many months, the few established local humane organizations in Bucharest rescued as many dogs from the streets as they could. The largest, called White Fang, built a no-kill shelter for 150 dogs on the west side of the city. It was filled almost immediately. Though well-regarded by other Bucharest activists and rescuers, White Fang had exhausted its capacity to help, and is no longer seen as a source of leadership.
Some new organizations formed as magnets for foreign donations. Others were started by shocked Bucharest citizens who wanted to save their local street dogs.
Thousands of dogs were crowded into canine concentration camps improvised from former stables, dairy barns, and warehouses, typically located just beyond the two-lane “ring” road that denotes the city limits, and is eventually to become a major highway.
Soon the horrors of the concentration camps came to rival those of the killing facilities–and still, thousands of dogs who eluded the dogcatchers and rescuers bred up to the considerable carrying capacity of the Bucharest habitat, virtually unrestrained.
Old buildings, accessible sewers, and haphazard refuse collection in many neighborhoods make much of Bucharest a rat haven. Hawks, owls, and street dogs hunt the rats with conspicuous success.
Separately, business entrepreneur Aura Maratas and her friend Daniela Ristea, and architect Carmen Milobendzchi and her friend Roxana Macoviciuc reached the conclusion that someone had to show Bucharest a better way to deal with dogs.
Maratas and Ristea opened the Fundatia Daisy Hope shelter in March 2001, in anticipation of the dog massacres that began just a few weeks later.
Milobendzchi and Macoviciuc formed the Asociatia Natura, with help from Italian veterinarian Laura Pontini.
The idea they had in common was to build model shelters that would operate on a much smaller scale than the canine concentration camps, would promote pet sterilization and adoption, and would try to work at the neighborhood level, rather than attempting to be dominant institutions in a sprawling city of more than two million people–plus another 1.5 million people living in suburbs.
Neither the Daisy Hope founders nor the founders of the Asociatia Natura have had large numbers of foreign supporters. That may have been fortunate. With little to steal, their projects did not attract the opportunists who have reputedly robbed many foreign-funded organizations blind.
Working mostly with their own limited resources, they have grown in the shadows of the older and bigger animal aid projects. They have become more successful, from an animal welfare perspective, precisely because they have not tried to compete for the same support base. They have each received some support from abroad, and need more, but their roots are Romanian.
A positive Aura
Aura Maratas, 47, named the Fundatia Daisy Hope after one of her first rescued dogs. It is believed to be one of just two shelters in Bucharest which has obtained all the permits needed to work inside the “ring.” As such, it has the best chance to grow into a western-style high volume adoption center.
Participating in the May 2004 Adoptathon coordinated by the North Shore Animal League America, and planning to join the Home 4 the Holidays campaign coordinated by the Helen V. Woodward Center this winter, Maratas is trying hard to learn high-volume adoption technique. She knows high-volume adoption can be done in Romania, especially as affluence rises and and the numbers of street dogs diminish. She is positioning Daisy Hope for future success at adoption, and meanwhile, with the shelter full, is emphasizing outreach sterilization.
Among her most evident successes is a sterilized factory dog pack just down the street. Maratas would like to obtain a mobile clinic to better serve her section of Bucharest, where relatively few people have cars and pets are not allowed on public transportation. She also would like to find $10,000–or $20,000–to buy one or two of the adjoining lots, doubling or tripling her working space. The first priority would be building a first-rate clinic. Next would be adding training and exercise space for the dogs.
Maratas does not wish to add more dog pens, for now. Providing longterm care for dogs is not her ambition. What she wants to do is rehome more dogs, faster.
When calls came in asking her to intervene because the Bucharest dogcatchers were at work a few blocks a way, she sadly shook her head.
“There is nothing I can do,” she explained. “I cannot take in more dogs and still provide a good life to the dogs I have. Until I can rehome more dogs, it would be irresponsible to take in more than I can properly house and feed.”
Like other Romanians who reached adulthood during the Ceaucescu regime, Maratas has had to learn the arts of sales and promotion through often painful trial and error. A typical American child may have had more exposure to merchandising technique at age 10 than Maratas had at 30.
Advertising, during the consumer goods shortages of the Communist era, was limited to propaganda. No one tried to sell anything because there was nothing to sell. Certainly no one tried to adopt out dogs.
Maratas and her husband were quicker to learn the knack of commerce than most. Soon after Ceaucescu fell they started a business that exports Romanian-made furniture and imports sugar. They are successful, by Romanian standards, but there is nothing complacent about Maratas’ outlook. Now Maratas and Ristea have invested everything they can in the Fundatia Daisy Hope. It must succeed and become self-sustaining soon. Failure is not an option.
Maratas, Ristea, and their three hired staff members spare no effort to keep Daisy Hope attractive. At a glance, it resembles an urban gardening project, with wooden palisade fences enclosing parallel rows of square plots.
The layout is similar to that of the North Shore Animal League in the late 1950s, when founder Elizabeth Lewyt and friends were rehoming dogs from a large yard, just developing the methods that would eventually enable them to place tens of thousands of dogs and cats per year.
Daisy Hope encourages greenery. Prefabricated portable tool sheds serve as the office, kitchen, supply room, and makeshift surgery. Everything is painted, clean, orderly, and secure.
Daisy Hope is never left unattended. Light standards ease night supervision.
The 230 resident dogs are housed in compatible groups of up to ten. Maratas prefers to keep them in smaller groups, but forced to choose between giving them smaller groups or more space for each group, she opted for more space. The dogs have houses, with bedding, windbreaks, and toys.
Virtually all of the dogs we saw were friendly, most were small to medium-sized, and all of them, even 30 “special needs” dogs who mostly had lost limbs to traffic accidents, would be considered readily adoptable by most U.S. shelters.
Evaluated on a 100-point scale that puts most U.S. shelters in the 70-80 range (see sidebar), Daisy Hope scored 79, tied for best among the 16 eastern European shelters that ANIMAL PEOPLE visited in May 2004–14 in Romania, one each in Poland and Slovakia.
Though not a person who particularly enjoys putting herself forward, Maratas has taken the initiative of organizing a delegation to visit Bucharest mayor Traian Basescu in early July 2004 in hopes of persuading him to give sterilizing street dogs an authentic try. She hopes that Basescu resorted to killing dogs in 2001 simply because he saw no viable alternative, after corruption in the sterilization program came to his attention.
If that is not what happened, if the dogs Basescu killed really had been sterilized, Maratas still hopes to convince him that sterilization rather than killing is the way to go. Brigitte Bardot failed in that effort, but Maratas will be a new voice, a Romanian voice, and a person who has demonstrated that she can achieve in an environment where achievement is as often met with envy and sabotage as with admiration and praise.
Carmen Milobendzchi, 43, and Roxana Macoviciuc, 41, began their collaboration as university students with a shared interest in mystical religion. Little information was available under the Ceaucescu regime. Imported books were banned. Smuggled editions were beyond their means. But Milobendzchi and Macoviciuc were creative, and determined.
Collating fragments of Buddhist and Hindu teachings from sources as random as Beatnik poetry and Hare Krishna literature discarded by foreigners who passed through the Bucharest airport, Milobendzchi and Macoviciuc held secret chanting ceremonies in their rooms and became vegetarians, all the while risking arrest by the secret police.
Post-university, their personal and professional lives diverged, but they remained close friends.
When Basescu began killing dogs, Milobendzchi became a frequent donor and volunteer for the existing Bucharest animal shelters. She recalls trying to help all of them she knows about, except Daisy Hope, which she did not yet know about. She transported 400 dogs, a few at a time, for one organization founded in response to the Basescu massacres, and paid to board 200 dogs she personally rescued at a privately funded shelter called Arca Lui Noe, which translates “Noah’s Ark.”
There, she learned later, those who did not die from starvation and cold were poisoned by neighbors. Altogether, Milobendzchi told ANIMAL PEOPLE, more than 700 dogs died at that facility.
Severely disillusioned, Milobendzchi founded the Asociatia Natura. Macoviciuc assisted.
Unlike Maratas, who plans conservatively and starts nothing without knowing how she will finish it, Milobendzchi designed a world-class complex of four parasol-type dog shelters, a cat shelter, and an animal hospital, modeled after photographs she saw of the newer Dogs Trust shelters. She finished the exterior palisades, the largest parasol shelter, and foundations for several of the other structures before running out of money.
Planning too big and then running out of money, usually when foreign support drops off, is a familiar pattern in eastern Europe. In Bratislava, Slovakia, ANIMAL PEOPLE visited the municipal pound, operated by the local humane society Sloboda Zvierat. It was chaotic, crowded, noisy, and foul-smelling, with plugged drains, rusty cages, and hallways cluttered with dysfunctional equipment and obsolete used paraphernalia that should have been discarded years ago. Dogs struggled with kennel cough.
The Sloboda Zvierat staff promised that all their problems would be solved when they completed a new shelter a block away on the grounds of an old Communist era sports camp. An abandoned tennis court housed some dogs and cats, who were lucky to be outside the pound building. They may be the only animals who live there for some years. The new shelter consists of a two-floor roofed concrete and brick superstructure, with only some windows installed, and no doors, plumbing, or electricity. If ever completed, it would be among the largest indoor animal care facilities in the world.
It is not even close to done. Work was suspended from lack of funding at least a year ago, maybe longer. Several million dollars have already been spent on it. Finishing it could cost as much more.
Milobendzchi did not overestimate her capabilities by nearly that much. In some respects she may have anticipated future prosperity. The Asociatia Natura is presently remote from central Bucharest, but is near a key intersection on the eventual ring highway, and may be right where WalMart would go if WalMart began building stores in Romania.
But the Asociatia Natura has changed directions. Milobendzchi and Macoviciuc recently won a contract to sterilize all the free-roaming dogs in a major Bucharest suburb.
Becoming aware of the “no-kill, no shelter” strategy advocated for the underdeveloped world by Gerardo Vicente, DVM, of the McKee Project in Costa Rica, Milobendzchi and Macoviciuc have de-emphasized completing their shelter, in favor of completing surgical facilities.
They also intend to begin sterilizing cats, before the local cat population explodes in response to reducing the numbers of dogs.
“We have now the courage to begin TNR (trap/neuter/return) for cats,” Macoviciuc e-mailed to ANIMAL PEOPLE after attending the International Companion Animal Welfare conference in Warsaw.
“As soon as we arrived back in Bucharest we told some other people about TNR, and they are waiting impatiently to begin. We have almost 100 cats and kittens in five nests,” Macoviciuc continued.
“We have two beautiful traps, donated by Alley Cat Allies and Rivi Mayer from The Cat Welfare Society of Israel. We have two very good and inexpensive veterinarians. Now we just need to raise the money to pay the vets,” at an average rate of $13 U.S. per cat sterilization.
The Asociatia Natura scored 71 on the scale of 100, third best among the shelters we saw, likely to do much better when completed.
ANIMAL PEOPLE visited five other Bucharest shelters, each with reputedly much more foreign support, that did little more than warehouse dogs.
The Asociatia Prietenii Animalelor Romania, also identified by a door plaque as Adapostul Christi, stands just a block from the Fundatia Daisy Hope. In early 2003 the German organization Tierschutzverein fur den Kreis Kleve E.V. published a photograph of Daisy Hope with a fundraising appeal on behalf of “Tierheim Christi,” but there is no relationship or resemblance between the two.
Prison-like walls surround the Christi facility, but ANIMAL PEOPLE was able to look over the top, after the manager refused to admit the ANIMAL PEOPLE delegation when we asked to see inside. The manager threatened to “get physical” with publisher Kim Bartlett for taking photographs–which she took anyway.
Two women walking by on the street shouted that the Christi shelter “makes dogs into salami.”
ANIMAL PEOPLE saw about 60 dogs lounging in and around dog houses and peering out from apparent line kennels. The conditions were bleak, dirty, and noisy, but the same could be said of the industrial plants nearby. There was no obvious reason for the obsessive secrecy.
The Christi facility was founded and is reputedly chiefly funded by one Ms. Faust, said to have come originally from Cernauti, once part of Romania but now in the Ukraine. She is believed to have emigrated to Germany with her husband and son in the 1980s, but returned to Romania after the fall of Ceaucescu to reclaim property in Bucharest and Moldava.
She has told other Bucharest activists that she became involved in dog rescue after working as a radiologist in a primate research lab.
Her closest associates are said to be Hotea Ianos, a Romanian who emigrated to Germany, and Bruno Marconi, reputed director of the Tierschutzverein fur den Kreis Kleve E.V. shelter in Germany.
The Christi shelter has exported puppies to Germany for adoption, and is believed to be still doing it. ANIMAL PEOPLE was unsuccessful, however, in repeated attempts to contact the principles to obtain information directly from them.
Back editions of German humane publications indicate that “Tierheim Christi,” along with White Fang, was among the purported recipients of aid from the fundraising fronts operated by Wolfgang Ullrich. Mrs. Faust reputedly received dry dog food from the Ullrich organizations in such volume at one point that as well as sharing some with other shelters, notably Arca Lui Noe, she spread bags of food on Bucharest streets to feed strays.
But Ullrich, 59, was collecting much more than just the price of dog food.
German and Thai coverage of his criminal conviction and the events leading up to it indicate that Ullrich gained effective control of the 230,000-member German animal welfare society Deutsches Tierhilfswerk in 1985, after making his fortune in various ventures in Thailand. In August 1994 Ullrich became the Deutsches Tierhilfswerk board chair, serving in that capacity until 1999.
Ullrich soon established a series of parallel foundations and separate companies, including in Switzerland and Thailand, and became involved as a donor with many Romanian shelters, whose activities were the purported beneficiaries of his funding appeals.
Ullrich apparently first ran into trouble in Thailand in July 1997. Then-Thai interior minister Sanan Kachornprasart on December 31, 1997 declared Ullrich persona non grata, and attempted to expel him, acting on information from former national police chief Pornsak Durongkaviboon and then deputy drug suppression bureau chief Noppadol Somboonsab that Ullrich was involved in drug trafficking and in exporting Thai women to Germany to work as prostitutes.
Sanan Kachornprasart was eventually accused in the Thai parliament of accepting a bribe of nearly $1 million U.S. to quash the deportation order, which in August 1998 was quashed by the Thai Supreme Court. Implementation had been delayed for more than six months by a purported series of computer problems.
“Some high-ranking immigration police officials were transferred as punishment, and other high ranking government officials were brought to court,” reported the Pattya Mail.
In August 2002 an attorney hired by Ullrich told the Bangkok Post that Ullirch would sue Sanan Kachornprasart, Pornsak Durongkaviboon, and Noppadol Somboonsab for allegedly acting on erroneous information.
Meanwhile, in September 1998 Ullrich was arrested for allegedly attempting to smuggle a yacht into Thailand from Cambodia without paying duties. He reportedly served two years in jail in lieu of paying $1.8 million in fines and taxes.
Ullrich was then deported to Germany, accused of embezzling $45 million from Deutsches Tierhilfswerk and associated pro-animal charities. On April 1, 2003, he was convicted in Munich of 137 counts of fraud involving the diversion to his own use of an estimated $28 million. Ullrich was sentenced to serve 12 years in prison.
The unanswered question involving all of the charities with which Ullrich was involved is how much his many associates knew, how soon, and how deeply were any of them knowingly involved in enabling his operations?
ANIMAL PEOPLE asked as many of Ullrich’s Romanian connections as we could find a way to contact, but received no informative replies.
We also asked Arca Lui Noe founder Michaela Eremia to explain the dog deaths at her facilities, reported by Carmen Milobendzchi and affirmed by others. Arca Lui Noe, like Adapostul Christi, has reputedly exported hundreds of puppies to Germany for adoption. We saw no puppies when we visited –but we did see several hundred dogs penned inside former stables on a cul-de-sac near Dragomirestri, a northwestern suburb of Bucharest. Other dogs were chained to makeshift dog houses in front of the building, or directly to the exterior walls. Many had been left without water on a warm day.
Arca Lui Noe stands just a few hundred feet from the Bucharest District #2 municipal pound, occupying other buildings that once belonged to the same stable complex. Though ANIMAL PEOPLE did not go inside, much of it is visible from outside. The facilities appeared little if at all better.
At the end of the cul-de-sac, the Asociatia Pas-cu-Pas (Step-By-Step), funded by Monika Stampfli-Muller of Switzerland, seemed to be well-intentioned, and contrastingly well-managed, at least to the extent that the couple managing it knew what to do, but the organization seems to be more interested in providing vocational training to orphans, now being discharged in large numbers from group homes at age 18, than informed about the needs of dogs.
The Pas-cu-Pas dogs are given time to exercise in a large semi-outdoor run. A fortunate few receive special training on an agility course.
A former stable serves as a quarantine-and-obstetrics facility, with a room for surgery. But when ANIMAL PEOPLE visited, this “hospital,” far from offering sick and birthing dogs peace and quiet, was being blasted with spasmodic shrieks from a red-flashing alarm supposed to deter rats.
The main dog housing consists of rows of metal cages, packed with barking dogs who barely have room to bounce, snapping at each other over constant, inescapable jostling. The cages stand inside a former riding ring, more-or-less open to the elements. The dogs get fresh air and sunshine, unlike those at Arca Lui Noe and the Bucharest District #2 pound, but stinking puddles form under and around the cages.
None of the Dragomirestri facilities took responsibility for as many as 50 dogs, either escapees or abandonees, who roamed freely up and down the cul-de-sac between hunting rats in the surrounding fields.
The Arca Lui Noe attendant made an exception after Daniela Ristea treated several of them for mange and decided to adopt one of them herself. After Ristea had the dog in her car, the evidently inebriated Arca Lui Noe attendant insisted the dog was his. He tried to prevent Ristea from leaving by dragging a log across the cul-de-sac and standing by with a chained German shepherd.
Ristea drove around the log. Aura Maratas’ vehicle could not, so I jumped out, flipped the log end-over-end out of the way, petted the dog when he was made to lunge, and enjoyed a laugh as the attendant frustratedly threw rocks with less accuracy than a toddler throws a rattle.
The most appalling of the Bucharest canine concentration camps we visited was the Fundatia Speranta, occupying a former dairy barn complex in Berceni, south of Bucharest.
As at the other canine concentration camps, the staff tried to bar us, first at one gate, then at another. We could still see, small, and hear plenty. Our eventual negotiated entrance only confirmed the disaster.
The dogs were fed, nominally, but the Fundatia Speranta practice of feeding large numbers of dogs in small, densely crowded pens ensured that bigger and more aggressive dogs got most of the food, typically after vicious fights.
The pens were all on paved surfaces. Resting boards were provided, and doghouses, but the dogs had little to do but bark and fight, with virtually no room for normal exercise.
We saw and photographed both injured and severely ill dogs, who appeared to be receiving no veterinary care whatever. Sick dogs were not routinely separated from others, Aggressive dogs were housed together, indoors. Fighting among them had left one dog with a severe untreated bite wound.
The “sterilization clinic” we were shown was filled with debris, had a broken window, and showed no indication of having been actually used as a surgical theatre in many months.
The manager, a Ms. Pretorian, a former municipal employee who was not actually on site, met us at Dragomirestri. She told us that the Fundatia Speranta adopts out three to five dogs per month, and is limited in what it can accomplish due to lack of funds–although we were also told that it pays more in rent alone than the entire operating budget of any other Romanian shelter we visited, and also many times more than we were told should be the cost.
We saw no evidence of an active local fundraising program. The Fundatia Speranta does, however, have a fundraising web site, with solicitation pages in both Romanian and English.
Twelve apparent employees were on the premises when we visited. Only four appeared to be performing any sort of work. Three of them were burning trash.
The Fundatia Speranta was founded in 1996 by Florian Tomescu, mother of Vier Pfoten/Romania board members Ioana Tomescu and Anca Tomescu. Anca Tomescu’s husband, ANIMAL PEOPLE was told, is Vier Pftoen/Romania project manager Kuki Barbuceanu. The concentration camp opened in March 2001, just before Traian Basescu began killing dogs.
Contacted about the Fundatia Speranta conditions, the Vier Pfoten head office in Austria disclaimed responsibility. Ioana Tomescu promised a response, but two weeks later ANIMAL PEOPLE had yet to receive it.
Similar canine concentration camps exist throughout the world, wherever the promise of no-kill sheltering has attracted enough funding to keep dogs and sometimes cats alive, but not the perspective or leadership needed to sterilize sufficient animals to lastingly eliminate the dog or cat surplus, and then find good homes for every potentially adoptable animal in custody. That would easily be more than 90% of all the dogs we saw at the 16 eastern European shelters we visited.
Among them all, the Fundatia Speranta stands out, because it has received substantial outside help, has extensive connections both locally and abroad, and yet seemed to be making no effort to improve.
The Spoleczne Schronisko canine concentration camp outside of Warsaw, Poland, provides a close comparison. Spoleczne Schronisko houses as many dogs, with as weak an adoption program, and is easily faulted for much, but most of the dogs at Spoleczne Schronisko have room to run, on dirt rather than pavement, and the facility is surrounded by forest that offers some potential for eventually creating a pleasant atmosphere.
Someone who apparently at least thinks about enhancing adoption potential had housed numerous small dogs who get along with cats in a large cage with cats who are tolerant of dogs. These compatible animals were showcased with a few toys and some signage.
The most memorable aspect of Spoleczne Schronisko was the haplessness of the staff. We visited as part of a planned tour, with more than 60 other International Companion Animal Welfare Conference attendees. The Spoleczne Schronisko staff passed out candy bars, but had not a scrap of descriptive literature in any language to promote their programs. They eventually improvised a donation box at the suggestion of some of the visitors.
Spoleczne Schronisko might be redeemed by know-how. Redeeming the Fundatia Speranta will require introducing empathy for the dogs and a work ethic.