Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham
In an article recently published in Area, Remus Creţan’s (2015) study of dog culling in Romania provides a splendid example of a practical application of animal geography to a situation that will be familiar to academics and non-academics alike.
Creţan (2015) takes a more-than-human approach – that is, considering the ways in which humans and animals interact and co-habit in particular spaces – to the relatively recent debate surrounding the culling of stray dogs in Romania in 2013. In September that year, a 4-year old child was mauled to death in Bucharest by a stray dog. The ensuing government proposal for a dog culling policy was met with vigorous protest from both the public and animal rights activists, on ethical grounds. Stray dogs were abundant on the streets of Bucharest, and overcrowding led to poor conditions in dog shelters, so it became necessary for some form of action to be taken. Following considerable debate, the puppy dog eyes of anti-culling protesters prevailed; euthanasia of stray dogs is, for the moment, banned in Bucharest.
Human-dog relationships span across the spectrum, from pampered pets and trusted work colleagues, to pesky pests and feared beasts. A lot of work in animal geography is based around the notion that humans create imaginative and physical spatial categories in which animals are deemed ‘in place’. Any resistance against these spatial placings, or transgression from them, and animals are considered ‘out of place’. This is when they may become ‘pests’, threats to human order.This explains, for example, why your beloved family pet or the endangered giant pandas at Edinburgh Zoo are loved and treasured, whilst animals such as urban foxes or feral pigeons can provoke World War 3.
The issue of stray dogs, thus, becomes inherently geographical; dogs in western society belong in the home, and those that live on the street, therefore, become a risk to human society. There is also a moral argument underpinning this problem; do humans have the right to cull animals? Animals are, after all, sentient beings, making the line between euthanasia and murder increasingly blurred. The culling of animals has been against EU legislation on animal welfare since the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997. However, there have been occasions in the not so distant past when the British government has had to consider the culling of various animals; the foot and mouth crisis in 2001, for example, or the more recent debates about badgers.
The Dangerous Dogs Act was enacted by the British government in 1991, and outlines certain particularly troublesome breeds that it is illegal to breed or sell. Whilst dangerous dogs are not as prevalent in this country as they are in Romania, there are still more cases of dogs mauling humans than there should be. The difference in Britain is, however, that most of these are caused by pet dogs, often uncharacteristically, but also, sadly, sometimes by dogs that have been mistreated and misled by their owners. This raises a further ethical question that must be considered when the lives of dogs are being as freely tossed about and fought over as their chew toys. Whilst many look to blame dogs, should we not, in fact, be penalising the people who lead them astray? Surely aggression is something a dog learns, not a trait it is born with? Far from foe, dogs are, after all, ‘man’s best friend’.
Creţan, R. (2015). “Mapping protests against dog culling in post-communist Romania”, Area, doi: 10.1111/area.12155.
Clej P 2013 Bucharest dog cull plan divides Romanians BBC
Wensley S 2013 Viewpoints: What can be don about dangerous dogs? BBC