Romania is one of a few countries where the attitude towards animals is horrific. We have talked about saving the dogs, dog population management and ICAM 2015 which was protested in Turkey.
Thanks to Sara and Saving The Dogs Foundation for being so brave.
BP: Could you introduce yourself to our readers? Before you’ve founded Save The Dogs foundation, how do you describe your relation with animals? Are you always an animal activist? Or does the miserable situation of Romanian stray dogs trigger your movement?
Sara Turetta: I have always been an animal lover, but adopting my first dog – at the age of 16, with my parents – pushed me to get involved and I became a volunteer in Milan (Italy). After University I went to work for a big advertising agency, called Saatchi&Saatchi, and even if my spare time was mostly dedicated to dogs, my career was a priority. In 2001, when the mass cull of stray dogs started in Bucharest, I decided to go there bringing materials and money to some local activists. It was a shock. I had never seen anything like that before, even if I had traveled in Eastern European countries. I went back to Italy and could not stop thinking about all the dogs in agony in the street, ignored by people passing by, and the ones I saw starving and dying in shelters. It was a nightmare and I decided I had to do something. Romania needed me more that Milano. After living in Romania almost 4 years, I moved back to Milan, opening a small office and founding Save the Dogs and other Animals Italy, to fund the projects of my charity in Romania. I travel almost monthly to Romania.
BP: You had a regular job in Italia, I think. You quit your job and moved to Romania and started to save the dogs. Lots of people feel more than being sorry however only you did sth to stop this cruelty. This is inspirational, please tell us how you managed and took others’ support, funding etc? How did you go on and not give up, I assume you have seen indifferent attitudes, disinterest from local people besides terrible animal deaths.
Sara: You are right. Everything you write is true. It was a crazy decision: I had little funds collected in Italy, I didn’t know the language and the mentality of the people. I knew very little about dog population management. Everything I learnt “on the way”, while we should study before starting a project. I have been desperate many times and I felt very lonely, but I started sending e-mails to a small community of animal lovers in Italy, who spread the word about me. Press became interested in my story and I had some very good articles, which boosted the fundraising. That’s how things started. At this stage it was me, an animal keeper and a part time vet. Now we have 55 staff members employed in Romania and 6 in Italy.
BP: In the website, it is written that “The association was born to give an answer to the tragic emergency that affects stray dogs in Romania, hundreds of thousands of animals exterminated every year by the authorities in a climate of general indifference and an endemic strayness, completely out of control.” I read your letter to the prime minister of Romania, Klaus IOHANNIS. Could you give a brief summary of the situation in Romania about stray animals?
Sara: Dogs are killed almost everywhere (very few exceptions, including our 2 towns). Only official numbers we have are Bucharest (2014, 30.000 dogs killed) and Costanza (4.000). Nobody can check how “euthanasia” is performed. Releasing the dogs is forbidden and all TNR programs have been stopped (including ours). Public shelters are hell, while private shelters like ours struggle to keep the numbers down, but we all suffer of overcrowding and we are obliged to send dogs abroad as adoptions are almost non existing. The situation is very sad and we hope that the new President will ask for a review of the law. No news from him so far.
BP: STD founded in 2002, in 13 years what has changed? What is STD doing to stop this cruelty in Romania?
Sara: We have neutered more than 27.000 animals, preventing hundreds of thousands to suffer and die. We have given a family to over 5.000 dogs abroad. We have stopped the killings in 2 towns which were constantly poisoning the dogs and we are working in the villages around with our mobile unit, improving the welfare of chained dogs. We are promoting responsible ownership in schools, involving the children. We are saving lives and driving the change in mentality, even if it will take a long time, but we started the process. In many other areas nothing has started yet: it’s the middle ages. We are stepping out from them in our area.
BP: You are operating in 2 cities in Romania, CERNAVODA and Medgidia. What is written in Cernavoda link that hundreds of dogs were killed and streets were full of them is same, what we lived in Ankara. 400 dogs were poisoned in Bademlidere, and 100 in Çayyolu. Local authorities denied their involvement. In the link, it is stated that in 2001 you made an agreement with city council and they stopped poisoning. You started TNR implementation. How did you plan? Is TNR a part of a large dog population control program?Did you implement at first in small districts in the city and then spread city wide?
Sara: First you need to find somebody within the authorities and convince him that they are doing the wrong things. Offer cooperation and support, but also asking for their financing and involvement. They must be informed about other experiences abroad and the position of the WHO, OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) etc. on dog population management, as they are normally not aware of the researches done in other countries. We focused on the town first, especially in the gipsy neighborhoods, the poorest. Then we expanded our action around the town, in nearby villages. The plan shaped up in time, not from the very first moment. We focused on females and we still do, but we also castrate males.
BP: In Ankara, in my district, we are trying to implement Trap-Neuter-Return approach with the support of municipality. However, what I observe that the municipality and other local authorities don’t have a robust political stance. They don’t state explicitly that they support TNR and not the other method such as poisoning etc. I think while they are supporting one district’s TNR activity, they are supporting other’s illegal or horrifying killing actions. What are the critical success factors of a TNR program?
Sara: TNR must be do in a humane way: never release sick or weak dogs, so having a backup shelter is mandatory. You need to engage the community, demonstrating that you have good intentions and that you are not going to hurt the dogs (involve different stakeholders, use the media, etc). Beside this, you need to focus on the owned dogs in yards: at least in Romania they represent the first source of new dogs abandoned on the streets. Ask for mandatory sterilization of mongrels/guard dogs to the municipality.
BP: We are a small organization operating in our own district. We have started TNR program 6 months ago. Up to now more than hundred dogs have been neutered and released. However, people don’t stop complaining. They are claiming that the program does not work. We guess that there are at most and worst 300 dogs in this district. How long should these programs continue, or up to how many dogs or what is the ratio of the dogs that are neutered to total dog number, in order to state that this program achieve the goals? How do you measure it? Is there a standard for applying TNR programs?
Sara: To answer to all this questions the best would be to see the ICAM Guidance on dog population management: http://www.icam-coalition.org/. You can also contact Dr. Elly Hiby (email@example.com). The programs should be long term, with and intensive 5-6 years and then maintaining the situation under control. People expect sudden results: that is impossible. Time is necessary.
BP: What you are doing is very similar to what we are trying to do. STD’s website is a very good resource. Do you also cooperate with other organizations and guide them?
Sara: We strongly believe in networking, both within Romania and in EU to find support. We invite Romanian groups to visit us and take inspiration by our work, we give advices when we are asked. Unfortunately time is limited..
BP: How do you campaign, reach people, persuade authorities?
Sara: Keeping good contacts with the municipalities and with other stakeholders (teachers, doctors at hospitals, journalists). Working in schools with children is another way.
BP: What are the organizations that supports STD? How can we help?
Sara: We have partners (links are on our website). No need for you to help us, you should ask for help to the following foreign organizations:JEANNE MARCHIG TRUST http://www.marchigtrust.org/grants.htm DOGS TRUST https://dogstrustinternational.com/grants/
BP: Is there a European Union funding for the organizations that are working for animal welfare?
Sara: No, there isn’t so far. EU has no legal competence on pets/strays.
BP: In the website, it is stated that STD proposes to promote in Romania and, in general, across Europe a legislation that:
* excludes the elimination of stray animals as a method to control the canine/feline population and that implements bloodless methods to face the problem of endemic strayness. ” You are promoting TNR…Could you classify and rank European countries according to their attitudes toward stray animals?
Sara: 1) Germany 2) Austria 3) Holland and Scandinavia 4) Check Republic. Complex question, I can dedicate a speech to this.
BP: After animals are neutered and vaccinated, what happens to them when they are released to their local areas? Aren’t authorities killing them ?
Sara: We cannot release dogs anymore: the new Romanian law (258/2013) does not allow it anymore. A real disaster.
BP: Thoughts on practical dog population management…
Sara: Some countries have an endemic (like Romania and Turkey, certain areas of Greece and Southern Italy), others do not have an endemic. You cannot compare a country with an endemic to one without it: it’s a huge difference and tools to be used must be different. Some countries decide they want to keep the dogs in shelter (maybe sometimes in bad shape like in Italy or Greece) and not kill them, others decide to kill them mostly to save money (France, Portugal, Spain). Nobody in Western countries ever got to an endemic like in the Balkans or in Turkey, so euthanasia is a way to manage abandoned animals, not a way to keep the streets clean (I hope I make myself understood). Of course we do not agree with this, but it is a different situation and things should not be mixed up.
BP: You have attended ICAM 2015 in İstanbul. There were protests against ICAM by animal activists. They thought ICAM was an organization that aimed to gather stray animals and kill them in big shelters like Kısırkaya.
Sara: Nobody at ICAM supported big shelters or killing of the dogs. This is absolutely wrong… There was a presentation from Istanbul municipality presenting the situation, this does not mean that the ICAM coalition supports the strategy of the city: a conference is a moment of dialogue, discussion, sometimes even arguments. The presentations were from charities but also officials from other countries, to exchange experiences and debate. The perception of local groups was absolutely wrong and Turkish people who attended can confirm this. I don’t know how people can misunderstand in such way. I was pretty shocked. Unfortunately if animal welfare groups will not listen and will get to conclusions based on prejudices, authorities will become very suspicious and stop dialoguing. It’s a totally wrong strategy. I would have achieved nothing in Romania if I had behaved like this.
BP: Will presentations be available for us to download?
Sara: All presentations of the ICAM will soon be available online, so just check them out. The guidance to measure impact of TNR and DPM projects is extremely good: https://ifaw.parseapp.com/. It was presented at the conference. People should read instead of wasting time shouting in front of the conference location: the ICAM has promoted a comprehensive/holistic approach to manage stray dogs, not culling or imprisoning.
BP: What is your message to Turkish animal activists?
Sara: Keep working hard, never lose hope and keep communication open with the authorities if you want to change the country.