(AP) They roam the streets of Bucharest, sad-eyed, scraggly mongrels that shelter in demolition sites, rifle through garbage and increasingly attack humans. The capital's massive stray dog population, a legacy of communism and its aftermath, can have lethal consequences: In recent years, a Bucharest woman was killed by a pack of strays, and a Japanese tourist died after a stray severed an artery in his leg.
Now, after a 4-year-old boy was fatally mauled last week, the city wants to take action. The controversial plan that has divided Bucharest? To capture and kill Bucharest's tens of thousands of strays, blamed for dozens of attacks every day that need medical treatment. Animal lovers and dog-wary citizens are at such loggerheads that the city has called a referendum next month on whether to go forward.
"We will do what Bucharest's people want, exactly what they want," Mayor Sorin Oprescu said last week in announcing the Oct. 6 referendum.
The stray dog population of this city of 2 million rose rapidly as the city expanded into once rural areas after communism ended 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 spokesman Catalin Apostolescu. It was the death of the 4-year-old boy playing with his older brother in a park that sparked a new impassioned debate over putting down strays.
A day after the fatal attack, President Traian Basescu, a vocal supporter of stray dog euthanasia, called on the government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta to pass a law that would allow for stray dogs to be killed. "Humans are above dogs," Ponta said.
Hundreds have demonstrated both for and against the measure and have vowed to continue rallying in coming days. The current law only allows the killing of stray dogs that are sick. Animal welfare group Vier Pfoten says the city has 40,000 stray dogs, while City Hall claims there are 64,000 strays. No figures are available for the end of the communist era, but Bucharest 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 soccer championships. And in the Kosovar capital of Pristina, officials gunned down nearly 200 strays over the course of three weeks as part of a culling campaign.
Many Bucharest residents simply fear they are being overrun by street mongrels.
"We want a civilized capital, we don't want a jungle," said Adina Suiu, a 27-year-old hairdresser. "I will vote for them to be euthanized. I drive a car most of the time, but when I walk around my neighborhood, I am always looking over my shoulder. If we don't stop them now, we will be taken over by dogs."
Vier Pfoten counters that the solution isn't killing strays but sterilizing them. The group has sterilized 10,400 dogs in Bucharest since 2001 but says the problem needs to be tackled on a mass scale that is beyond the capacity of animal welfare groups.
"We sterilize one, and five more are born in the same time," said Livia Campoeru, a spokeswoman for the organization. "We need mass sterilizations."
Basescu, who says he is an animal lover, has adopted three stray dogs and urges others to do the same. But he says that strays that aren't taken in should be put down.
The controversy has reached such a fever pitch that Brigitte Bardot, the French screen siren-turned-outspoken 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 Basescu, published on her foundation's site.
Bucharest has historically had a thriving stray dog population. The problem became acute in the communist era when former Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu razed large swaths of the city and residents were forcibly moved into high-rise apartment buildings.
"When the great demolitions came, many houses were knocked down and owners moved to apartments and could not take dogs with them," Campoeru said. "People are irresponsible, they abandon their dogs, and there is a natural multiplication."