Since January 2007, Romania has been a member of the European Union. A year later came a new animal welfare law in force: The killing of street dogs was forbidden. But what has changed since then? DOGS spoke to the Romanian veterinarian, Aurelian Stefan of the animal welfare organization "Romania Animal Rescue".
Dr. Stefan, Romania still has problems with animal protection policies. What is the current situation?
Romania is a country with lots of light and a lot of shadows. It has very well-to-do people, but at the same time it is still the poorest country in Europe. Very many people have hardly the money to go to the doctor. If you have to go somewhere else, somewhere else using a car, it is not unusual here a rattling horse in front of a cart. Many people's view on animals: They are work. And the dogs?
And the dogs?
We have officially about two and a half million strays in the country. But the darkness is high and I personally believe, that there is much more. Previously, there were hundreds of thousands of state dogs caught and killed with cruel methods. That [policy] was done away with, with [Romania's] entry into the EU. In 2013 two small boys were attacked, one of whom was killed by feral dogs. The hunt for the dogs started again. Today it is officially banned again, but certainly stray dog are here.
As a doctor he leads one of the few private animal clinics in the country in Craiova.
Yes, and in fact hardly a day goes by when we do not have at least one emergency. Also we treat and operate many dogs, when their owners cannot afford an operation. For although some Romanians view animals as something one can use and throw away at will, it is not so. Here also many people are very attached to their animals, but do not have the money to treat their ailments.
Recently they celebrated the 50,000 spay/neuter of their team.
We are very proud of this figure because I am honest about it. I am convinced that we have dog misery in this country. The medical situation can only be alleviated if the animals are no longer left to propagate uncontrolled. Of course you must also be on the political level to change, and also many people in society must rethink. But I'm not a politician, I'm just a veterinarian, as such, I do what I can.
What do these sterilization events look like?
We call it "Spayathons" and we started them in 2008. The name consists of the English "to spay", sterilize, and "marathon" together, and we came up with it, because on such days, actually every doctor is involved in between 30 and 40 castrations. This is a highly concentrated assembly line work and at the end of each day, I am not only physically exhausted, but also incredibly proud of the team.
The dogs are brought to your clinic?
No, we created a fundraiser on Facebook for a delivery van, which we converted into a mobile clinic, in which that we drive around. Moreover, we transport a lot of voluntary helpers in it, without which we could not afford to do it. Over time we have developed an extremely committed group.
Together with an American woman, the founder of the association Romania Animal Rescue, you are working on building a "Center of Hope". What exactly is this?
There will be a second clinic. The construction work took place in October 2015. Nancy Janes, the founder of Romania Animal Rescue, and I met in the States, and together we said, "We do what?!!
How does an American woman focus on Romanian strays?
It happened many years ago. She was hiking, and as it were, stumbled over the stray problem. She is a pretty dedicated, very effective woman and as I deeply believe that we are the only fault if we stop the animals from uncontrolled propagation. Animal shelters bring about no change, and for animals to land in a Romanian Shelter, honestly, this is a death sentence. Whoever visits one must have a thick skin, because everything you see is emaciated, completely apathetic animals, from which the last will of life has been omitted.
And what do you think about the protection of foreigners.
I admire the people who are taking part in it. Commitment and their logistical skills, but don't believe that that is the solution. Dogs adopting from Romania to Germany may help the individual dog yes. It brings a great happiness, but does little to change the situation for the country.
And what exactly is going to happen at the Center of Hope?
We will also build a team there to help the spayathons. And of course we will continue to treat animals whose owners can not afford to pay us. This is, so to speak, our social project, and the good thing is that we have enough room in the second clinic to help treat severely distressed animals even over a longer period of time. In addition, we will have a training camp for veterinarians, in which we will discuss our minimally invasive sterilization methods. Because when I put a stray after the surgery back into its area, it should not have any great wounds. Besides, we want to expand our school project.
Your school project? What's this?
We go to schools, or invite some school classes to visit us in the clinic and we teach them something about animal care. The club has a small book, in which the children are shown in an entertaining way how much fun life with a pet should be, what it needs, what hurts it. The program is supported by pupils, teachers and parents. We have already distributed 18,000 books.
Why become a veterinarian in Romania? There are more pleasant jobs.
Oh yes, there is definitely. But my brother and I are in the country, and we have both already in a small way, taught people how to deal with animals here. It may be considered a helper syndrome, but studying animal medicine was for us both the only way to help the animals. And in the end, we help many of the people, because as I said, "There are also many Romanians who love their animals but are too poor to take care of themselves properly." Without wanting to be cliche, the job here is already more than just a job, it is my hobby! And who can pursue their hobby every day?
And what does your family say?
My daughter is still too small to have an opinion, but my wife is happily behind me. She has to be, for it is not easy to be married to me. Our clinic is located in Craiova, but I live in Bucharest. These are 250 kilometers (155 miles) away. I get up at five in the morning so I can catch the train at six. The trip takes three hours, and when I'm around nine, I still have an hour to prepare the teams. When we arrive at 10am, there is scarcely any planning, because besides the normal patients we are always getting new emaciated, parasite-infested strays that someone on the road has brought to us. Dogs running in front of the car, perfect neglected dogs by animal protectionists from the local animal shelters. There are lots of emergencies, which must be operated on immediately. No veterinarian, no doctor can have a regular lunch break. I can not even promise my wife when I'll be back home in the evening. We often work here until late into the night, and I stay for several days in the clinic.
If you had three free wishes, what would they be?
Three? So first of all, I would wish that policy changes and the EU is responsible for would better control certain funds for animal welfare in Romania. Here money infiltrates into a lot of pockets, where it does not belong. Secondly, I would get more people by my side wanting the need of sterilization. And lastly, I wish many animal lovers ciukd help us with our work through donations or assistance. Only then can we finally make a difference. Until then we are on the spot.
And when do you think we could see first successes?
Apart from the individual fates? I think in ten to fifteen years when we do our spayathons across the country. To do this we have to have more veterinarians who work at our level and host such "Spayathons" in their communities. And you must not forget that a better deal with animals also presupposes a social rethinking. Not least we must help the coming generations to help animals. An approach that is characterized by respect and empathy. Because children are good multipliers and can convince their parents. The economy has already long-recognized this and I'm sure, that works synonymously with the animal care.
And if we ask you for a vision?
A world without strays. There are quite a few countries that have done this, or are on the right path. And I'm sure we'll make it one day!