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The city of dogs

It happened that I left my house in the middle of the night. I passed quickly down a
field road on the outskirts of vast Bucharest in streams of orange streetlight, and was just
about to squeeze between the cars when dogs crawled from underneath them and stood in
front of me. They had long, wiry paws, emaciated sides and motionless faces. They seemed
deadly tired. As if I'd met them at the moment they decided to take some rest after a long
journey. Nobody's dogs. A handful among many homeless orphans wandering around this city
of strays.
So they stood, looking at me with dull eyes. They didn't know if they wanted to attack
me. There were three of them, then suddenly there were seven. They approached me and
stood still musty, taxidermy animals, mock-ups with shredded fur. I couldn't believe they
were dogs. They didn't believe I was human. In the moonlight and dim lamplight, they
seemed to be bluish. Then the one stood at the front made a few small steps towards me and I
understood that I had better leave. I quickened my pace I had been training this in the
evenings, coming back down an empty street among scattered mound-like dogs, through this
still, scary landscape. A quick, mechanical stride, with clenched fists and the appearance that I
was merely walking now, but could shout and kick if necessary. And they could kill me after
all, they know where to bite. There's the entire history of post-war Bucharest in their blood:
the city raised them, destroyed them, brought them back to life again; the city taught them
how to fight, bite and survive. They're immortal.
Luckily they grew indifferent to small provocations and they let people live. When I
go to the supermarket, I meet at least thirteen dogs on the four-hundred-metre stretch. I start
with two residents living under a juniper bush, the luckiest in the whole neighbourhood: they
have shade in summer and protection from the cold in winter. Beyond them, there are no
lucky ones: a few lollygagging dogs by the car park, with no blankets or even a piece of
cardboard; two beggars near the church, guarding or hiding under the cars. I walk down Mihai
Bravu Street and pass alongside the wall of blocks: there's a short-legged, greyish mongrel
near the bookshop, a scruffy trio by the butcher's, and a dog that I feel especially sorry for,
even though he's got a luxury house in comparison with the others a cardboard box with a
blanket. In winter, the girls who work in the shoe shop put a sleeping bag inside it for him and
build a roof from another box. The more new floors and extensions to his cardboard house,
the more miserable and unhappy the dog becomes. It seems that he used to have a normal

home, and still remembers what he's been deprived of.


Only once have I seen a really sickly dog in the very heart of the city. I bought some
processed meat for him, but he wasn't impressed; then I realised how ill he must be. A hooting
car passed and the dog ran off, leaving only the memory of bones peeking through the skin, of
despair and death.
But when it's warm, the dogs usually emanate buoyancy and satisfaction, and their
stomachs are puffed up. For example, I walk down Mihai Bravu again and I see a thirty-kilo
fluffy carpet: a dog taking advantage of the sunny weather. The pavement is three metres
wide, one third of which is taken over by the dog, enjoying his leisure time. He's so
unceremonious and enormous with his belly up that I have to take a picture.
- He's on a beach - laughs an older gentleman behind me.
I look at the man. Everything about his face is round his eyes, nose and cheeks
even his smile is round. The dog responds to this roundness with the swell of his belly.
Once I asked my friend, whose father was stabbed to death by unknown attackers,
what he's most afraid of. He said that he's afraid of dogs.
Because I've heard it many times Romanians aren't aggressive; it's the Gypsies and
homeless dogs who are.
- I'm four, and I'm running as fast as I can, screaming my lungs out, and a pack of dogs
follows me, ready to kill. I ran, and all of a sudden, I fainted out of fear. This is my first
memory - says Daniel, the manager of a bookshop chain.
Daniel arrived in the world in the familiar, pastoral, small-house Uranus district. But
the incident with the dogs happened later in working-class Militari, where his family was
resettled. By that time, nearly the whole of Uranus had been burrowed by bulldozers to make
space for the headquarters of the Father of the Nation. The burrows were haunted by
abandoned dogs, hungry and disorientated, hopelessly searching for familiar places and faces.
The dogs who occupy Bucharest today, who rest on grass, in phone boxes, in rubbish
bins and under cars, on thrones made of cardboard and rags, are mainly the descendants of
those dogs who didn't fit into the thirty-metre bedsits where the families were repacked. So
the homeless keep loitering, sometimes thin and collapsing, sometimes ample and round a
bored, miserable troupe, exploding every now and then with fierce anger.
Dogs are everywhere. They occupy sofas left near the estate waste containers, walk
near cemeteries, lie in the sun by the Arch of Triumph or in the old town. Sometimes they
visit the church courtyard, sometimes take a walk in the shopping mall. Recently I met a
comely mongrel stretched nicely on a bench in the National Park. Whenever I walk up the

staircase of the block at Piata Iancului where my friend lives, my nose is assaulted by the
stench of digested matter mixed with rotting rags. The stench of the dogs who live on the
stairs.
The maintenance lady in the block explains to me:
- We need a dog on the staircase, not because he needs warmth, but because he guards
our people. The dog knows who is friendly and who is a thief. Once I was stupid enough to
get rid of the dogs, and God punished me we had two flats burgled. So now I know that a
dog is a guardian angel.
I hear it many times: dogs guard the flats. In the countryside, a dog's job is to mind the
house, and this is the same in the city. They are given food, but not overfed, so they don't lose
their alertness.
I asked my friends many times whether they would adopt a dog from the street or from
a shelter. No. A homeless dog is traumatised and can be aggressive. It will bite everyone
first the child, then everybody else.
When I arrived in Bucharest for my first extended stay, I had the impression that the
city wanted to break me. A man on the bus missing the tip of his nose. An older man in the
park, swiftly browsing a sports newspaper despite missing his thumbs and parts of other
fingers. And one more image from Piata Romana: a wobbling dog walking around with no
purpose, behind him a man with a tiny Chihuahua in a leopard-print coat on a leash,
followed by an elderly man with no legs, moving on his outstretched arms in short forward
bursts.
When I walk in the city in the evenings, I see small, happy dogs on colourful leashes
and large, mangy shapes observing the aristocracy. Large dogs make people think of poverty
and homelessness, so maybe this is why they're so keen on miniature breeds, and ready to
dress them up in leopard-print and collars with pink sequins. They care for the lapdogs so that
they won't become too familiar with the homeless ones.
The same people who refuse to acknowledge everyday canine trauma praise the dogs'
intelligence.
- The street made a selection, the cleverest ones survived - says an acquaintance, who
wouldn't ever adopt a street dog.
He shows me a YouTube film with a tiny mongrel who jumps onto a tram and stands
by the door. The tram stops, people get in, the dog takes a few steps back. Another stop, legs
going in and out, the dog looks out of the window, melancholy. Finally, he departs at his stop.
He only needs to learn how to validate his ticket.

Dogs can be as aggressive as people. In 2006, a certain dog later named Bosquito
decided that he didn't like sixty-eight-year-old Japanese businessman Hajime Hori, who was
just leaving his car at Piata Victoriei, near the government buildings. He was only a few steps
away from the doors. But Bosquito knew how to attack, and bit the man in a thigh artery.
Scared neighbours didn't know what to do, while the man bled to death, begging for help.
As usual with murderers, Bosquito had his five minutes of fame. In court, he was
represented by a famous lawyer who usually rescues celebrities from trouble, and this time
she was successful enough to save the dog from being put down. Later, Bosquito followed the
Romanian dream of emigration and moved to Germany, where he found a new home with a
nice family. At the peak of his career, he posed for "Our Pets" calendar.
Meanwhile in Romania, outrage spread: how come in a European capital like
Bucharest they underappreciate dogs killing Japanese businessmen in the international
districts? Scandal, shame, loss of reputation and the demand for change, which didn't arrive
after all.
The problem of dog packs has been there for at least two decades. When the current
president of Romania, Trajan Bsescu, became the capital's mayor, he decided to show who
was boss and announced a mass cull of the poor mongrels. Animal activists protested on the
streets, and eventually "the dogs' friend from Paris", as the Romanian media called Brigitte
Bardot, decided to have a say in the case. Romania caught fire.
First of all, because the great star visited Bucharest.
Secondly, because the star reminded Romanians that they're neither European nor
humane, scratching right in the middle of an unhealed wound. Romanian Europeanness is
overlooked and somewhat unfinished it requires polishing and repairing, and when someone
points to the Europeanness and backs the Romanian into a corner, he immediately apologises
and rings the bells.
The third thing is that Brigitte Bardot paid a high price for Romania's resolution to
improve: she pulled five hundred thousand euro from her purse to pay for sterilising the
homeless dogs. Voila! Now we like this, said Romanians we're glad to be humane if Europe
pays. Everyone liked the French big sister's support for their little brothers.
It quickly transpired that the sterilisation policy didn't work correctly. According to
statistics, in 2006 there were two hundred thousand homeless dogs on the streets of Bucharest.
Simultaneously, ten thousand patients were waiting in hospitals for a vaccine against rabies. It
meant that there was one dog for every ten people in the city, and every day, twenty-seven
people discovered what it meant to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Still, sometimes even the right place turns out to be wrong, as proven by artist Matei
Branea, who, after being bitten by a dog, had to undergo a series of anti-rabies injections, and
upon arrival at the hospital for the last one, was bitten by a dog in the courtyard. Matei
stopped caring about the injections, which he didn't especially care for in the first place
anyway. On one of his drawings, a scared cyclist runs away from an angry dog on a leash,
followed by the dog's owner shouting: "Don't be afraid, he won't bite!"
A similar situation, albeit a bit more radical, happened to me, when I biked around
Bucharest and lost my way, carelessly taking a turn into the first asphalt road in the Tei
district. So I rode, happy to have finally found my way, when all of a sudden I came across a
dog lovers' dream: a whole pack running towards me from the side. Around me the quiet of
the afternoon everyone is at work, the small, neat houses are locked. I sped up. The dogs
began to flow from everywhere like angry lava, from the front, back and sides, increasing to
the tens and dozens. All of them equally furious, with frothing faces saying that they're ready
to kill. They surrounded my bike from all angles. I knew that as soon as the first one bit, the
rest would follow, that I wouldn't be able to ride away, and later I would probably be unable to
do anything at all. Suddenly, I made a sound an instinctive, inhuman wail which
disorientated the dogs for a moment. I kept riding and screaming while the dogs chased me
and barked. Never before had death tugged at my sleeve as it did then. I thought that it would
be quite tacky to die this way, but suddenly a man with a stick appeared from behind a fence,
a small but wonderful man, who saved the unity of my body.
- How many dogs are there? - I asked after I had finished my awkward thank-yous,
and the dogs had backed off, at least by the length of the stick.
- About forty - he said. - They don't like you because you're on a bike. If you walked,
they'd leave you alone.
Mm-hmm.
Everything would be fine if dogs didn't go crazy and didn't bite. It would be a pity to
kill the dogs, to send so many canine souls to the netherworld. Especially as they say that
dogs don't have souls which I can only accept because I doubt humans have them either.
It's a pity when the dogs bite kids on their hands, legs and faces, when they make holes
in their cheeks and mutilate helpless pensioners. Cosmin's face displays vague traces of dog's
teeth. Mr Gheorghe Cucos from Vaslui, seventy-five, ceased even to be vague dogs
successfully divided his body into untraceable elements.
- We're missing the torso - said the prosecutor. - The body was in pieces, but we
couldn't find the torso. Dogs eat them, as far as I know.

Things would be great, except that they're not. Contrary to the sight of dogs, progress
isn't immediately visible, even though it is still said to exist within four years, the number of
dogs decreased. Some people waved sheets of statistics: down to one hundred thousand.
Others say forty thousand. But in 2010, the number of people bitten by them rose to thirteen
thousand. A yellow clip on an ear doesn't immediately mean that the animal has been
sterilised sometimes it means that there was no surgery but someone put the clip on to
maintain appearances. If there's any doubt, I recommend counting the dogs on the streets in
the daytime. For example, today I met twenty-one. When I pass them at night, my instincts,
tension and awareness walk ahead of me. I keep thinking about the woman who entered the
courtyard of the Public Domain Office in 2011. She walked towards the containers which
stand near the entrance, unaware that she had stepped into the dogs' area. She was so
disfigured that doctors were talking about complete devastation of tissue. Despite three
operations and a skin graft, she died after a few days.
Bucharest is a city which loves and hates dogs. I've seen many old ladies carrying
heavy bags, walking from one place to another, feeding the dogs soup with a bit of meat. My
friends told me about a girl who spends half of her Praktiker salary on feeding several dogs
which guard the car park in front of the supermarket. I've heard stories of drivers who speed
up when they notice dogs on the crossing. The city strokes the dogs and destroys them.
In the summer, I thought that the mongrels were the kings and queens of Bucharest.
By winter, I understood that these shadows on unsteady paws were its weakest link.