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After boy mauled, Balkan animal cruelty in focus

BUCHAREST, Romania — A litter of puppies wrapped in a blanket and set on fire. A dog roaming the streets with its jaw hacked off. Cats found at the bottom of an apartment block, spines snapped.

It's part of a catalog of cruelty in recent months that has gone barely noticed in Romania.

The struggling EU country has seen a spate of brutal attacks against animals following the deadly mauling of a 4-year-old boy in August by one of Bucharest's tens of thousands of street dogs. Police and animal welfare officials say the attacks were fueled by relentless and "hysterical" media coverage of the case.

The Four Paws animal welfare group registered 15 cases of people savagely attacking animals in the six weeks after the boy's death, compared to six cases of similar cruelty in the previous nine months.

But animal cruelty has long been a problem in Romania — where animal protection laws are weak, people still grapple with the trauma of a brutal communist regime, and anger builds over economic misery and government incompetence.

"As social tensions grow this leads to aggression against animals, particularly as people are not afraid of the laws," said psychologist Florin Tudose. "When a dog kills a child, people think that animals should be punished."

Vladimir Manastireanu, chief of the state authority in charge of animal safety, supports a new law that requires stray dogs to be captured and — if not adopted within two weeks — euthanized.

"We need to take these dogs off the streets and stop these emotional reactions," he told The Associated Press.

Across Eastern Europe, where rural traditions are strong, there is little awareness of animal rights.

Even after Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007 — committed to pledges to kill livestock humanely in line with EU norms — farmers still slit pigs' throats without anesthetic according to pre-Christmas traditions, welfare groups say.

"They think, 'you can't just put a pig to sleep,'" Tudose said, "'it has to know that it is having its throat slit.'"

Despite entrenched attitudes, animal cruelty is not universal — especially in Balkan capitals.

In Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, people publicly pamper their pooches and cosset their cats. Many people in these cities offer shelter and care for stray dogs.

Animal lovers vociferously protested in Bucharest after Parliament voted in favor of the stray dog euthanasia law.

"Not everyone is a scoundrel," said Kuki Barbuceanu, project manager of Four Paws. "The problem is the media influence which is manipulative and animal haters then have the courage to be cruel."

Associated Press writers Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.