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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Bulgaria


A low growl is the only giveaway that I’m under surprise guerrilla attack from behind. Looking behind to gauge the distance of my pursuer, I’m suddenly aware that he’s not alone, and there is a pack of his companions flanking me. The beast in front of me bares its teeth and snarls. It is only meters away and looks hungry. My pulse quickens. My throat constricts. Fight or flight?
Realizing I’m hopelessly outnumbered, I choose the latter. My nerves are shot by this close encounter with ferocious wildlife. Continuing, I’m tense in preparation for my next potentially deadly brush with aggressive and territorial wild dogs. Every sense alert, perspiration dripping from my brow, I’m on edge with the knowledge that a split-second decision holds my fate in its hand. I’m questioning my sanity in deciding to bicycle through deserted, potholed streets in this part of the world, particularly after dark.
No, I’m not in Africa. Far from it. I’m actually in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, cycling home after work from the Centre to Kniajevo, a distance of some eight fun-filled kilometers (about five miles). It’s a twice-weekly event: faced with the post-11 p.m. suspension of public transport, I take my life into my hands and face the reality of Sofia’s problematic street dogs.
More than 35,000 dogs roam the streets of Sofia.
While the animals seem less harmful during daylight hours, the nighttime is their territory and they defend it aggressively. On one late-night taxi ride home, three dogs were fearlessly charging in tactical formation toward my high-speed taxi. The driver took little notice, not slowing or deviating, and darted through the gap left between their jaws. The dogs miraculously escaped this encounter unharmed; though some of their companions have not been so lucky, judging by the occasional roadkill on Sofia’s arterials.
Sofia counts among its many concerns a major street dog problem. The official street dog population stands at 35,000, but many estimate this number to be over three times that amount. There are four stray dogs for every human inhabitant.
Bulgaria ’s low human fertility rate, countered by its street dog population growth, and the battle for Sofia’s territory seems to have shifted from mafia maneuverings to canine gangland warfare. Attention has turned to Sofia’s “top dog.” Ineffective proposed solutions and other inaction means that the public is paying for the mayor’s blood. In the meantime, Sofia’s suburbanites are tackling the problem in the best way they can — by running.

The next pack of dogs lying in wait has had its attention roused by the indignant barking of the pack from which I just escaped. Knowing my only option is to imitate my taxi driver, I try to create some space for myself. Standing high on my pedals and growling threateningly, I launch into a tirade of woofs, barks, snarls and bow wow wows, praying that the Bulgarian dogs understand my Australian accent. The dogs, obviously having heard rumors about the infamous Crocodile Hunter, pause momentarily and I glimpse a glimmer of fear in their eyes. I lift my foot high, demonstrating intention to kick. The dogs part with respect and retreat to their hideout, discussing among themselves tactics for their next ambush. I live to ride another night.

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