Sprawling in the sun or barking and chasing cars, stray dogs have become part of urban life in Bulgaria but after a pack mauled a U.S. university professor to death, the mood of tolerance is over.
The 87-year-old man, who chose to spend his retirement in his native Bulgaria, was attacked in a Sofia street late last month by some 25 dogs who knocked him to the ground, tore at his face and bit his legs and arms to the bone.
He died in intensive care 10 days later, prompting the government to suggest a large-scale euthanasia program for aggressive animals and construction of emergency shelters to remove other strays from the street.
Rights groups struck back, accusing authorities of weak control over pet owners who do not register their animals and often abandon them or their litters on the streets.
"This spring there are about 1,000 more stray dogs than last year," said Aksinia Bosneva of the "Care for the Stray Dogs" non-governmental animal rights group.
She also blamed corrupt practices when it comes to castrating dogs.
"Some dogs are only partially neutered so that castration squads can return and get double money. Dogs already neutered are captured twice and workers get paid for something already done," Bosneva charged.
For Lolita Radeva, head of the Sofia municipal council's environmental committee, the economic crisis has made things worse.
"The current economic crisis has forced people to increasingly abandon their pets. Many dogs were also let go from abandoned construction yards they used to guard," Radeva said.
She put the total number of stray dogs roaming the capital, which counts two million people, at about 9,500.
A new city hall program aims to halve this number within two years and get rid of all the animals by 2016.
Current legislation only allows authorities to put down sick and aggressive animals, while others must be neutered and returned to the streets.
Many animals are fed by locals -- as was the case with the pack that mauled the elderly professor -- out of pity or so they might guard their apartment blocks or parking lots.
-- 'Dogs have the predator's instinct' --
Since the professor's killing, Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandakova has called for a ban on people feeding stray animals unless they take them home.
The government's talk of all-around euthanasia caused an uproar among dog lovers, while animal rights' experts have been offering advice on radio and television on how to avoid being attacked by dogs.
"Dogs have the predator's instinct to chase which manifests itself even more strongly when they are in a pack," Ventsislav Techevski of the Animal Rescue group told state BNR radio.
Above all, people confronted with dogs should "keep calm," he urged.
The case involving the elderly professor was exceptional, as people generally escape with light leg bites, according to medical doctor Plamen Bechinski of the anti-rabies vaccination center in Sofia.
The number of bite cases treated at the center has also been decreasing, he told Agence France Presse.
"The bites we recorded in Sofia fell to 445 in 2011 from 584 in 2010, and 772 in 2009... We are also far from the 1994 peak when there were 6,606 registered cases," Bechinski said.
But people, especially the elderly, are afraid.
"Dogs carry diseases. Humane treatment of stray animals must have its limits," pensioner Vera Dancheva said indignantly as she accompanied her granddaughter through a park.
Another pensioner, Nikola Dimitrov, who has twice been bitten by dogs, accused authorities of not doing enough to solve the problem.
"I don't believe them any more. This spring I see many more stray dogs in my neighborhood, which is right next to some of Sofia's best hospitals," he said.
The dog problem did not exist under communism, when strays were regularly culled.
But their number grew out of proportion amid dire economic times following the regime change in 1989, with up to 20,000 dogs roaming the streets of Sofia in 1997.
Municipal authorities and animal rights groups have managed to reduce numbers through neutering program, but both recognize more must be done.
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