-- Mayors like to declare war. On pigeons in London. On jaywalkers in New York. And, now, on man's best friend in Bucharest.
About 300,000 dogs run loose in this capital of 2.2 million people. They lounge outside the major landmarks, including the entrances to the parliament building. They encircle many of the city's apartment complexes. And when they rouse themselves and move in barking packs, they are capable of terrorizing even Dr. Doolittle.
Each year, 23,000 of the city's residents are attacked and bitten by dogs, according to Bucharest's rabies center.
So the city's crusading mayor, Traian Basescu, has launched a crackdown that could lead to the extermination of most of the roving animals. Dog lovers, including French animal rights activist and former movie star Brigitte Bardot, have condemned the plan. Earlier this month, hundreds of Bucharest dog owners, pets in tow, took to the streets to protest the planned killing.
"In my eyes, Bucharest is a symbol of courage and generosity," Bardot, who has visited here to defend the dogs, said in a recent statement. "I don't want it to become a symbol of death and shame."
Basescu isn't budging. On March 1, His Honor plans to send a legion of dogcatchers into the streets to begin rounding up the strays in an operation that is likely to last months because of the numbers involved. Dogs will be held for 10 days, and if no one claims them, they will be put down. Those that are claimed will be sterilized, deloused and turned over to their owners, but only if the owners accept full responsibility for the animal.
"There is no other solution," said Basescu, who has budgeted $17.5 million for the operation. "A dog must be treated like a child. Somebody has to take responsibility to feed it, to take care of it, to vaccinate it, but also to give it a home."
Bucharest's dogs, like so many of Romania's problems, are a legacy of communism. Nicolae Ceausescu, the dictator who was executed in 1989 following a popular uprising, began to clear large tracts of downtown in the early 1970s to make way for his gargantuan palace. As homeowners were forcibly moved into cramped apartments in new high-rises, hundreds abandoned their dogs or let them live on the streets.
Unsterilized, the dogs did as dogs do, and the population exploded. Their numbers now increase by 15 percent annually, city officials estimate.
"I'm afraid of rabies, and if there's one case among these dogs, it's a health bomb," said Liviu Harbuz, veterinary adviser to both the mayor and Romania's prime minister. To date, no rabid dogs have been detected in Bucharest.
Harbuz said that no European city, including any in Bardot's France, tolerates stray dogs. He said he cannot understand why the dog lovers are so opposed to the mayor's plans, which will eventually be expanded to deal with the estimated 2 million stray dogs in all of Romania. Each year, nearly 100,000 Romanians are attacked by strays, Harbuz said, and in a small percentage of cases require surgery. He said there have been no deaths as a result of dog attacks.
"I was trained by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in England," Harbuz said plaintively, "but it's like I'm in the middle of a war here. I don't hate animals."
The Romanian political elite, who have to step over strays to enter parliament, are firmly behind the mayor. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said the dog clearance is essential to civilize the city. "The French cannot say about Bucharest that it is a dirty city and then have Brigitte Bardot come here and defend the homeless dogs," said Nastase, according to the independent news agency Mediafax.
The prime minister acknowledged, however, that the process of "civilizing" Bucharest will have to include finding shelter for several thousand homeless children who live in the streets -- another of its grave social ills. Many of them sleep in sewers.
Animal rights activists argue that the dog problem is a human creation that obliges city authorities to come up with a solution that doesn't involve mass slaughter. Four Paws, a local group working with the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, said the dogs should be sterilized and then returned to the streets.
"In a few years, they will die anyway," said Anca Tomescu, manager of the Four Paws stray project. "The city had done nothing for years and just like that it wants to kill the dogs."
Noting that hundreds turned out for the recent demonstration against the mayor's plans, Tomescu said that "in Bucharest, people love dogs." Though dogs rummage for food in garbage, they are also fed by some of the city's residents. Protests against a 1998 plan to kill the dogs effectively canceled it.
But today, according to one newspaper opinion poll, the mayor has 70 percent of the city behind his project. In the White Swamp neighborhood in the eastern section of Bucharest, it is not difficult to see why.
Around apartment building after apartment building, stray dogs loll in the winter sun and pedestrians skirt them gingerly. Periodically, when another dog arrives or something disturbs them, the dogs jump up and start barking. At night, residents say, they sound like wolves baying at the moon.
"Kill them all," said Alexandra Staniov, a White Swamp resident. "It's outrageous to be afraid to walk out of your own home."
Two weeks ago, when Staniov, 76, went outside to go shopping, she was set upon by three dogs, one of which bit her on the arm, which still bears the puncture marks. Staniov's son and grandson have also been bitten. And as she talked, her neighbors came up, lifting their pants legs and pulling back their sleeves to show more bite marks.
"Everybody has been bitten," said Virginia Branzoiv, 46. "We can't go on living like this."