Battling multiple sclerosis, volunteer rescue driver Nathalie Klinge became street dog population ecologist

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  October 2013: (Actually published on November 20,  2013.) 

BARCELONA,  BUCHAREST–– “Stray Dog Ecology:  Back to the Basics” is for Dutch humane volunteer Nathalie Klinge not just the title of a talk,  but a summary of her way of life. Addressing the 2013 International Companion Animal Welfare Conference,  the ninth Klinge has attended but the first at which she has spoken,  Klinge brought to her presentation the experience of 13 years on the road in Romania,  Bulgaria,  and Turkey,  observing the lives and sometimes the deaths of street dogs from an actuarial perspective. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000,  at age 30,  Klinge resolved to spend the rest of whatever time she had left to live working for animals.  Klinge left her career in the life insurance industry to become a driver for eastern European animal charities,  helping to relay dogs to western Europe for adoption. At first Klinge just drove,  looked,  and listened.  But eventually Klinge realized she was recognizing realities that seemed to elude the credentialed experts,  government officials,  and directors of animal charities who kept failing to resolve street dog issues.     Neither catch-and-kill nor catch-and-impound animal control was lastingly reducing the numbers of dogs at large––but neither were neuter/return programs that failed to focus their efforts so as to maximize the population control benefit from each sterilization surgery. Klinge became an international ambassador for the Foundation for the Protection of Community Dogs,  founded by British garment maker Robert Smith. Initially funding a conventional shelter on the outskirts of Istanbul,  where he had garments manufactured,  Smith later developed a mega-sized “open shelter” in the same neighborhood.  Coming to realize that no shelter could ever be big enough to impound every dog on the streets,  Smith moved his manufacturing operations to Romania and made his first large-scale effort to do neuter/return in Campina,  encountering conflict with municipal officials who preferred to try to impound all of the strays. Smith then relocated to Oradea,  in far northwestern Romania.  There,  beginning in 2004,   Smith developed the most successful neuter/return program in eastern Europe,  the most successful local adoption program,  and a 400-dog open shelter,  for dogs who could neither be returned to wherever they were captured,  nor be adopted into suitable adoptive homes. (Smith’s own description of his work appears in his commentary on page 4 of Animal People’s October issue (2013).) But when political balance of the Oradea city government changed in 2012,  the neuter/return program was dismantled in favor of catch-and-kill.  The street dog population began to rebound from about 250 back toward the estimated carrying capacity of the habitat of 7,000. Klinge debuted as a public speaker in October 2010 at a seminar in Sofia called “Implementation of sustainable practice in solving the dog overpopulation in Bulgaria.” Charged Klinge,  detonating controversy in Bulgarian media,  “The existing stray dog problem is caused by lack of proper governmental support.  The Ecoravnovesie Sofia Municipal Animal Control neutering activities fail because they do not return the dogs to their original community.  Ecoravnovesie doesn’t educate children,  promote responsible dog care,  or offer low cost neutering…From 1998 to 2008 Sofia wasted over four million Euros on dog population management.”  


Klinge spoke about Sofia at ICAWC 2013,  pointing out that seven years of intensive culling had reduced the dog population by only 32%.  But Klinge centered her discussion on Romania,  which may have more animal charities than the rest of eastern Europe combined,  has received more western humane investment,  and yet is commonly believed to have made little progress toward reducing the largest stray dog population in Europe. First Klinge outlined the reasons why municipal governments and most of the public want the stray dog population to be eliminated.  These include avoiding road accidents,  reducing barking and fecal deposits,  controlling zoonotic diseases (especially rabies),  avoiding bites,  protecting livestock,  and protecting wildlife.  Also,  residents and visitors dislike seeing hungry dogs and dead dogs. Animal advocates are concerned that stray dogs may be starving,  diseased,  suffering from human abuse and untreated injuries,  and subjected to cruel control measures. Municipal governments and the public tend to be concerned that stray dogs exist at all,  Klinge explained,  while animal advocates are concerned chiefly about the dogs’ quality of life.  This frequently leads to people involved in dog population control talking past each other,  advancing proposed solutions which seem to meet their own interests without meeting the concerns of other stakeholders. Experts in dog population management distinguish among free-roaming dogs who have homes,  abandoned dogs,  “community” dogs,  feral dogs,  and family dogs who are kept at home,  Klinge continued,  but reality is that all of these categories of dog may have approximately equal roles in filling the carrying capacity of the habitat.  For example,  the dog who is fed at home and never goes out on the street may nonetheless consume table scraps which would otherwise be discarded to become part of the sustenance of street dogs. Only when the carrying capacity of the habitat for dogs is fully reached,  Klinge demonstrated with diagrams,  will the dog population stabilize and drop.  Improved sanitation and  competition from other scavenging species may reduce the carrying capacity for dogs.  Sterilization slows the rate at which dogs can reoccupy habitat vacated by culling or impounding dogs,  and buys time to reduce carrying capacity;  but abruptly removing dogs altogether,  whether by culling or impoundment,  just creates a vacuum that attracts dogs from elsewhere to take advantage of whatever food sources remain. Both catch-and-kill and catch-and-kennel policies fail,  Klinge explained,  because they tend to capture the friendliest and least problematic dogs,  leaving the most evasive to refill the habitat.  Either killing the dogs or impounding them in ever-growing canine concentration camps is inhumane,  ineffective,  and destabilizes the street dog population,  causing more dogs to migrate from place to place,  increasing nuisance to the public and the risk of spreading disease. But scattered neuter/return programs also fail,  Klinge emphasized,  because if they do not sterilize at least 70% of the dog population,  they achieve no visible reduction in the numbers of free-roaming dogs,  and amount to merely choosing that the most evasive dogs will reproduce.  Though scattered neuter/return programs are perceived as humane,  superficially satisfying the concerns of people who care about animals,  they fail to resolve public complaints about the numbers and behavior of dogs and provide no practical evidence that neuter/return works.  This eventually enables politicians to revert to pursuing catch-and-kill or catch-and-kennel,  either of which can become a pretext for putting friends and relatives on the public payroll. Based on the Oradea experience,  Klinge estimated that in a city of 200,000 people,  with 8,000 dogs,  or one for every 25 people,  the cost of catch-and-kill projected over 10 years at current municipal operating costs would be about 1.8 million euros,  and would achieve a net population reduction of only about 25%.  An effectively targeted,  sustained neuter/return program would cost only about 995,000 euros over the same 10 years,  projecting from the cost of the Oradea program over the seven years it was sustained. The initial outlay for either approach would be similar––but catch-and-kill would cost the same amount every year,  while an effective neuter/return program would cost less each year,  and would level off after eight years at an annual outlay of about 20% of the cost of catch-and-kill. —Merritt Clifton

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