BUCHAREST - They cross the street at crosswalks, stroll through parks and occasionally take the bus. Stray dogs are part of daily life in Romania, where plans to put them down have triggered a howling debate.
Big or small, black, brown or spotted, some 40,000 homeless canines live in Bucharest alongside a human population of two million, according to authorities and animal rights groups.
Their numbers started proliferating in the 1980s when then communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had some of Bucharest's oldest residential districts razed and replaced with apartment blocs, causing many owners to part with their pets.
Though unwanted puppies are still abandoned since sterilisation is not systematic, many are fed and even vaccinated by animal rights groups and dog lovers.
But the growing numbers roaming the streets led local authorities to take action between 2001 and 2007, when some 145,000 stray dogs -- called 'maidanezi' in Romanian -- were put to sleep. Angry animal rights groups cried "dog genocide" and a ban was imposed on euthanasia against healthy dogs.
Now, a draft law is under debate in parliament to contain the number of strays roaming Romania. It would allow local authorities to decide whether to put down adult dogs that have been rounded up into refuges and not claimed or adopted within 30 days, or whether to keep them in the shelters.
"The local authorities' foremost duty is to look after the people's integrity and health," Bucharest's regional authority Mihai Atanasoaei told AFP.
"Forty thousand stray dogs led to 13,000 people sustaining bites in 2010 and 11,000 in 2009," he added, while four or five deaths due to dog bites have been recorded since 2004.
The stray dog debate revived in January when a woman was bitten to death by several dogs as she tried to enter a warehouse they were guarding.
Atanasoaei said the draft law is "democratic" in that it gives local authorities the choice between killing the dogs or keeping them in shelters.
A familiar presence
But in times of crisis like today, he conceded, municipalities have limited funds to maintain the upkeep of such dogs.
Animal rights groups have staged daily protests against the bill, arguing that sterilisation is a better solution.
"Authorities say euthanasia is the cheapest and fastest way to deal with stray dogs. But soon other dogs will occupy the place left vacant and this will go on forever," Kuki Barbuceanu of Vier Pfoten (Four Paws) animal group told AFP.
The issue has struck a chord outside Romania.
Former French movie star and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot urged Romanian lawmakers to vote against this draft, saying that slaying dogs would not solve the problem.
The stray dogs have gotten bad press in some travel guides that warn visitors against "the risk of being attacked by packs of famished dogs."
Dominique Toujas, a French tourist who has visited Romania several times with his family, said this left him apprehensive ahead of his first trip.
"But on coming here we saw that they were well fed and not at all aggressive," he said. "Soon they were just a familiar presence and more than once we met stray dogs begging only to be stroked."
Animal defence group Vier Pfoten argues that stray dogs can be put to work, for example in therapy programmes for disabled people. Since 2004, the NGO has run a programme called "Dogs for People" that helps children's communication and mobility skills.
Non-governmental organisations plead for adoption -- even abroad -- and since 2007 one NGO, GIA, has arranged for the adoption of 1,500 strays in Romania, Germany, France and as far away as the United States.
"Things have started changing as we can see more and more 'maidanezi' being walked on a leash," GIA's Raluca Simion said.
One is Picou. Georgiana Pirosca, a 31-year-old administrative assistant, took pity on a stray puppy half-paralysed by winter cold and gave it shelter for a night. Thirteen years on, Picou is still living in her two-room apartment.
"He is part of the family," she said, before heading out on her daily round, like many Bucharest residents, to feed the stray dogs in her neigborhood.
Image: Dan Phiffer / via Flickr