Man’s Best Friend or the World’s Number-One Pest?

With perhaps 600 million strays skirmishing for food on the fringe of the human world, street dogs are a common element of travel just about everywhere

A pack of street dogs naps on a traffic island in Bucharest, Romania. In spite of a culling program, the animals swarm the streets—and occasionally maul residents and tourists. Photo courtesy of Flickr user cod_gabriel

Stray dogs are a common element of travel just about everywhere in the world—and they are generally just a harmless nuisance. Hikers and cyclists are frequently swarmed by village mutts in developing countries, often on the outskirts of town where the animals are allowed to live—mangy mean rejects of society that scrape by on trash and seem bent on hassling anyone carrying a passport. But usually, the animals are easily sent scattering, tails between their legs, if a person only turns to face them. An even better shooing technique—and standard practice worldwide—is to reach over and pick up a stone. Before you’ve even suggested you might throw it—and I don’t suggest you do unless you need to—the dogs will be slinking away with their heads down, as cowardly as they are predictable. It works every time.

Well, almost—because occasionally stray dogs bite. Even more occasionally, a pack of them, encouraged and emboldened by their own numbers, may ascend into full-fledged attack mode as their lupine instincts show through the grime, fleas and bald patches. It has been reported that one in 20 dogs (PDF) will bite a person in its lifetime, and with perhaps 600 million strays skirmishing for food on the fringe of the human world, attacks on people are common—and for travelers to many places, dogs are a danger to be considered along with various other logistics of tourism. Though sterilization and controversial culling programs are underway in some countries, the dog problem may only be growing worse. Rabies outbreaks occur regularly, and the World Health Organization estimates that the disease kills 55,000 people per year. Dogs are the vector in 99 percent of these cases.

Asia and Africa are ground zero for dog-person maulings, but Eastern Europe—in spite of strident efforts to control the animals’ populations—also has serious problems with homeless, nameless mutts. Consider the headline,”Killer stray dogs put Bulgaria on edge,” which sounds like something out of a pulp fiction comic book. But that was a real headline in April, just weeks after a pack of more than two dozen dogs mauled an 87-year-old retired professor in the capital of Sofia, home to an estimated 10,000 stray dogs. The man, his face and limbs shredded, died after ten days in intensive care. Bulgaria, indeed, is swarming with strays, and a progressive government-funded sterilization program seems to be unable to curb the animals’ population. Most of the country’s street dogs seem gentle enough, sleeping away the days in the streets and plazas, many sporting the yellow ear tag signifying that they’ve been sterilized. But with dangerous regularity, the dogs turn mean. There was another death in 2007, when British tourist Ann Gordon was killed by a group of dogs in the village of Nedyalsko. And in 2009 a 6-year-old girl was reportedly “dismembered” by a pack of street dogs. In 2010, a pack of strays found its way into the Sofia zoo and killed 15 resident animals. Now, after the death of the elderly man in Sofia, the nation’s media are buzzing with dog talk. I even met a cyclist once in Greece who had just come from Bulgaria. I was on my way there—and he advised I carry a spear.

Just next door, in Romania, the dog problem is also out of control. Bucharest alone is said to be the home of as many as 100,000 stray dogs. In late 2011, lawmakers voted to allow euthanizing the animals by the thousands. Even though the decision was a timely, measured response to the January 2011 mauling death of a 49-year-old woman, animal rights activists grew livid at the suggestion of killing the animals. They protested in the streets and demanded alternative methods of dog population control, like sterilization. Meanwhile, Romanian dogs still bite 75 people per day, according to this blog—and there is still talk of the 2006 death of a visiting Japanese businessman, killed in what may have been a freak death; a single dog bit the tourist on the leg and chanced to puncture a vital artery. The man bled to death. Bucharest Deputy Mayor Razvan Murgeanu was later quoted as saying, ”When we tried to solve the stray dogs problem in the past, we were held back by sensitive people who love animals. Now, look what happens.”

Stray dogs
Stray dogs lurk and loiter in every nation on earth—and some, like this one in Egypt, live amid some of the most famous sites and scenery. Photo courtesy of Flickr user YoHandy

In addition to the many challenges of rebuilding a war-torn nation, Iraq has dogs to contend with—and the government isn’t being particularly compassionate toward the animals. With an estimated 1.25 million strays roaming the Baghdad area, officials launched a militant culling program in 2010 in response to increasing reports of attacks, some of which have been fatal. Using guns and poisoned meat left in the streets, officials killed 58,000 stray dogs in a three-month period in 2010 and some reports say that the effort aims to destroy a million dogs. The massive culling may remind one of America’s own grisly war on wolves in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, when the animals were poisoned, shot, blown up and burned.

Machismo in Mexico is to thank for a bizarre reluctance to neuter dogs, an operation which macho men supposedly believe will make a male dog gay. And so the dogs are generously left with their virility and fertility—and the population soars out of control. Millions reportedly wander Mexico City, where 20,000 per month are seized by government dog catchers and electrocuted, and for every 100 people in rural Mexican villages, there are as many as 30 mongrels. Mexico isn’t the only nation south of the Rio Grande where dogs run rampant, and where the efforts to manage them are archaic or primitive. “Every country across Latin America is about 40 years behind developed nations in terms of street dog welfare,” according to the Humane Society International. That means packs living at garbage dumps, trotting the roadsides, yowling all night across the cities, outnumbering people in places and, sometimes, attacking. It also means that public agencies and private businesses have their hands full with killing dogs, a joyless job that may never end.

The small Indonesian island of Bali, a tourist hotspot roughly 50 miles square and home to 3.8 million people, is also home to about 500,000 stray dogs. Between November 2008 and early 2010, Bali officials reported 31,000 dog bites, while another source reported 30,000 dog bites in just the first half of 2010. Though many Balinese love and revere dogs, the government has come down with a heavy hand on the stray population, poisoning the dogs, which, as of November 2011, had caused at least 100 rabies deaths in three years. The rabies outbreak is ongoing, and the governments of the United States and Australia have both issued warnings on traveling to Bali.

And, coming home, the United States has a stray population of its own. Consider Detroit, where the declining human population of this impoverished city has made way for homeless dogs, which now number 20,000 to 50,000, according to estimates. And throughout the country, dog bites send 1,000 people to the hospital every day. From January 2006 to December 2008, dogs reportedly killed 88 people in America. Fifty-nine percent of the deaths were attributed to pit bulls. Dogs, of course, know no political borders, and for travelers in America’s rural regions, dogs are a nuisance as noisy and ugly as they are in Bulgaria, or India, or Columbia. Cyclist and blogger Brendan Leonard rode his bike through the Deep South in 2010. Inspired by dozens of nasty dog incidents, Leonard wrote a column advising other travelers on how to safely deal with mean dogs. He suggests blasting charging dogs with pepper spray, or whacking them with a broomstick. He also says that simply shouting back to match a pack’s own awful volume can send them away.

Last note: Let’s not hate all stray dogs. Many of them just want a friend. I’ve had mutts stay with me overnight in my camping places in Greece and Turkey, and I’ve had them chase me desperately for miles the next day, driven by the sense of loyalty that has made canines the most popular of animal human companions. And the traveling cyclists that I met recently in France had adopted a street dog in Spain and another in Morocco. And in how many stories of travel has the protagonist teamed up with a canine companion?

stray puppy
The author teamed up for a day with this stray puppy last year in Turkey. He found the dog—a Kangal sheep dog—tangled in a roadside briar patch and left it in a friendly village. Photo by Alastair Bland

What do you think should be done about the large populations of stray dogs? Do they present a serious threat? Have you had any positive or negative experiences with strays in your travels abroad? Let us know in the comments below.

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