KILLERS ON THE ROAD

by Katherine Watt; photography by Elena Filipova

Both pet and stray dogs can be very dangerous in Bulgaria

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This horrific story involves a 26-year-old mayor, blood-thirsty domestic dogs and a British woman who was so immersed in Bulgarian culture that she spoke Bulgarian, lived in a traditional house and even owned a horse and cart. Ann and her husband had lived in the village of Nedyalsko for two years before a pack of dogs viciously attacked and killed her. This was not an isolated incident: scars on her legs testified to the ongoing problem that ultimately resulted in her death, yet her neighbours ignored her pleas to control their dogs. Locals allege that the owners killed the dogs, rumoured to be pitbulls, the night of the murder to hide all traces. A spokesperson from the German Castration Centre near Shumen said that Nedyalsko's newly-elected mayor, Todor Zhelezov, denies these claims and appears to be siding with the neighbours.

This hasty “cover up” of the crime exacerbates a problem that has been all too common in Bulgaria for years. Packs of wild dogs, as well as out-of-control “domestic” dogs, effectively render many beaches on the Black Sea coast and mountain areas out of bounds. Sofia alone is home to at least 35,000 street dogs, which become increasingly hungry, cold and therefore aggressive in the winter. In 1999, the capital's stray dog count reached 50,000. Despite intervention from Ekoravnovesie, a council-owned company that culled 40,000 dogs over three years to the tune of one million leva, their numbers have crept back up and still remain frighteningly high. Stray dogs are still being killed in Sofia and elsewhere, provoking protests from citizens and animal welfare NGOs that consider castration a more humane option. However, this begs the question: what good is castration and re-release for dogs that are instinctively vicious? Dobrich is taking alternative action to rid their streets of stray dogs, once they have been deemed friendly, by joining with Germany to create dog adoption programmes. In the last three years, over 700 Bulgarian strays have “immigrated” to Germany.

Every year nearly 2,000 Sofianites seek medical help after dog attacks. The prominent case of 34-year-old Elena Cholova, who almost died from multiple wounds inflicted by street dogs, led to legal action against the Sofia City Council. The case, which is still pending, could see the council fined up to 40,000 leva. In 2001 and 2004 two other bite victims successfully sued the city of Sofia, forcing authorities to start taking the situation seriously. Now, walking your dog without a leash or muzzle in Sofia can earn you a 10 to 15 leva fine. Outside the capital, however, attacks are more numerous, while local authorities often do not enforce the law.

Urban legends recommend various ways of fending off a dog attack, ranging from pepper-spray, which is available at Bulgarian hunting stores, to waiting until the dog bites to shove your hand down its throat Baron Munchausen-style, to pulling its front legs, supposedly ripping the heart. All of these seem rather unfeasible when you are being set upon by snarling, circling beasts. In “Stop Dog Attacks,” K9 Magazine's Ryan O'Meara says: “Generally, dogs prefer avoidance rather than conflict when it comes to encounters with humans. It's important to remember that dogs will show a number of warning signs. If they are nervous or uncomfortable they may lick their lips and yawn. If they are territorially dominant they may stand up straight with their ears forward with eyes making contact with yours. It is very important to understand what motivates and stimulates a dog to attack and to avoid these things. That would include running away, screaming or being overly aggressive toward a defensive dog. The best thing to do if a dog is in close contact is to turn side on, avert your eyes and very slowly and carefully walk – not run – in the other direction.”

In the event of an actual attack, there is no way to gauge how you may react, as Ken Rumble found out when his wife was set upon in their garden in Karlovo. The couple own five Chows, but are surrounded by 30-odd strays in the town. “We have complained to our mayor about the problem,” says Ken, “but he's not interested. One day last summer I heard my wife shouting. I ran outside to see a feral dog that had managed to get into our property. He had turned on my wife, snarling and biting at her legs.” Ken instinctively picked up a piece of wood and hit the dog over the head until it was dead. “It's not a pleasant thing for a dog lover to do, but the animal looked out of its head. It was obviously starved and didn't look healthy at all.” Ken has since faced criticism from locals, who tend to let their own dogs wander around, leading to irresponsible breeding.

Colin Finbow, another British expat, had a less harrowing, but nevertheless frightening experience while out walking in his village. “Two dogs ran down a bank towards me and started snapping at my legs. I shone a very bright LED light into their eyes and slowly backed away from them.” After a couple of minutes, the dogs gave up and loped off. Colin believes the incident could have been more serious if he had not been able to “blind” the animals. Colin and Ken, like many expats and locals, now carry air pistols, large sticks or pepper spray. You don't need a licence for a gun if it fires blanks, and usually the noise of the shot will scare dogs away. If you are unfortunate enough to be attacked, even in the case of minor injuries your first and foremost priority should be to get to a medical centre for injections and antibiotics. Once your health is taken care of, you should report the dog to municipal authorities and the police. Prosecuting the municipality if you are attacked by strays, or the owners if you are bitten by pets, is now a viable option. One precedent-setting case involved a 21-year-old woman who was mauled and killed by three German Shepherds in Sevlievo. The owner was found guilty in 2000 and subsequently served three years in prison. Since EU accession, successful prosecutions are expected to increase, particularly if cases involve expats, given westerners' familiarity with “compensation culture”. Paying substantial damages to dog attack victims is bound to spur local authorities to remove dangerous animals from the streets. Even in domestic dog attacks, the municipality as well as the owner could be held responsible for not enforcing responsible breeding and ownership.

These various cases show that the problem with dangerous dogs is not just with the animals, but with owners as well, who let breeding get out of hand, leading to many unwanted and anti-social canines. Emil Kuzmanov, founder of the Animal Programs Foundation of Bulgaria, or APF, notes: “The stray overpopulation is not a separate problem. It is a result of unrestricted and irresponsible ownership, breeding and abandonment.”

Emil campaigns for changes that would substantially reduce the number of homeless, hungry and therefore potentially harmful dogs. “First, there should be registration of owned dogs, legal sheltering of unwanted dogs and penalties for the abandonment of animals. The Bulgarian government needs to be tougher on unlicensed breeders – for example, the half a million fertile bitch owners – as well as in its pursuit of unlicensed dog catchers and traffickers. It should also focus on education and cheaper neutering for pet owners in order to restrict mass home breeding.”

Ironically, just a few days after the Nedyalsko tragedy, the government passed legislation imposing serious fines for harming animals, including fines of up to 3,000 leva for abandoning puppies and 1,000 leva fines for cruelty. Bulgaria seems to be slowly taking steps to tackle the problem, but in the meantime, you're on your own. So watch out for threatening dogs in your area to ensure that you don't become another fatal statistic.

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