(CN) - The European Court of Human Rights found the Romanian government responsible for preventing feral dogs from attacking people. Though nearly 20,000 Romanians are attacked each year by feral dogs in the capital city alone, one of the seven judges wrote in a partly dissenting opinion that countries should not be told how to allocate limited resources for public services.
Georgeta Stoicescu, 71 years old in 2000, tried to sue local authorities after a pack of seven feral dogs attacked her outside her home in Bucharest.
The dogs knocked her down and bit her, causing a head and thigh injury. She was left with amnesia and reduced mobility, and said she lived in a constant state of anxiety, and never left home out of fear of another attack.
Stoicescu and her husband, who were retired and lived on just over $100 a month, were stymied in their attempt to sue by filing fees that came to several times their monthly income, and by difficulty in identifying the defendants responsible for the stray dogs.
Mrs. Stoicescu filed her claim with the European Court of Human Rights in 2001; she became homebound and disabled by 2003. Her husband carried on her claims after she died in 2007.
The Strasbourg-based human rights tribunal ruled this week that Romania violated her right to life and unduly restricted her access to courts.
The European Court of Human Rights said the Romanian government was well aware of the problem of stray dogs attacking humans, but hadn't done enough about it.
Feral dog attacks gained media attention in Romania in the mid-1990s. By 2000 an estimated 200,000 dogs were living on the streets of the capital city, Bucharest.
The mayor of Bucharest decided in 2001 to implement a euthanasia program, which killed some 80,000 animals before it was stopped in 2003, partially in response to animal rights concerns.
Romania's inadequate addressing of the issue amounted to a violation of the right to life of a private individual, the court ruled.
The Stoicescus also suffered undue difficulties in access to Romanian courts, the Strasbourg tribunal said. It ordered Romania to pay Mr. Stoicescu about $13,000 in compensation.
The court noted that to this day, Romania has failed to address its feral dog problem.
The feral dog population in Bucharest peaked again in 2005. Newspapers reported there were 40 to 50 complaints of dog attacks every day.
Data from the Bucharest health agency indicated that stray dogs bit more than 9,000 people in the first half of 2009. Nearly one-fifth of the victims were children. The population of Bucharest is about 2 million, so by some estimates nearly 1 percent of its residents are attacked by feral dogs each year.
In his partial dissent, Judge Luis López Guerra wrote that individual country members of the human rights treaty should be able to establish their own priorities for public services.
Results of a questionnaire by the World Organization for Animal Health indicate a clear connection between intensity of a stray dog problem and the development status of a country, with less developed countries having greater problems.
Poor countries are also more likely to implement euthanasia programs rather than trap-fix-and-release programs, which are considered more humane, the report says.
Canine experts say stray dogs may be aggressive because they lack training, and difficulties in daily survival trigger a fight reflex.
If stray dogs attack, experts recommend using sticks or rocks to defend yourself, and deflecting bites with your arms. The last thing to do is to show fear or run - this triggers a hunting reflex, and dogs will try to bring a person to the ground, where they are more vulnerable.
The Humane Society of America has said a person in the United States is more likely to be struck by lightning than to be attacked by a feral dog.