Just up the hill in this forgotten manufacturing town, it's feeding time at the rundown Buhusi Zoo, tucked behind a bouquet of Soviet-style apartment buildings. Mihai Gheorghiu, the deputy director, cracks open the freezer and the stench of meat tumbles out. As if on cue, a rumbling emerges from the cages.
He hauls out a few chunks of horse meat and drops them on the grass with a thud. A large bear peeks his snout through the bars on top of the cage. The caretakers stack the meat into a wheelbarrow and, as they do several times a week, roll it through the grounds to feed the lions, baboons, and bears.
But come Jan. 1, when Romania and its southern neighbor Bulgaria join the European Union, Mr. Gheorghiu's routine could come to a swift halt. Like many of the other 35 zoos in Romania, Buhusi doesn't meet EU standards for animal care. For three years, an organization of foreign volunteers – Lion's Roar – has been working to improve conditions for the animals, but its efforts often bump up against an apathy that many observers say is pervasive in Romanian society.
"What is the key to making them exercise the muscle of caring?" asks Laura Simms, the project's American director. "We can bring money and that will change something, but how much can you change without changing internal motivations?"
On the eve of its greatest political achievement in recent history, Romania looks poised for progress. In 2006, the economy grew by more than 8 percent, unemployment and inflation dropped, and, as of September, foreign investment was 30 percent higher than a year earlier. But many Romanians are doubtful that their country can surmount its status as one of the EU's poorest countries – an attitude that hampers everything from improving zoos to tackling corruption.
"Romania is perceived [by many citizens] to be in worse shape than it is," says Cristian Ghinea, a political commentator and a fellow at the Romanian Academic Society. "We are a people with a catastrophe-prone mentality because history proved that things can turn against us."
For much of its history, Romania was under the influence of European powers, from the Ottoman Empire to the Austrian Empire to, most recently, the Soviet Union. Though Romania ended World War II on the side of the allied powers, its support of Germany during much of the war compromised its negotiating position and placed it under Soviet influence.This history of hard knocks, Ghinea says, makes Romanians weary.
"There is an overall apathy that is deeply ingrained in the population," says Christopher Troxler, the American executive director of the Romania Think Tank in Bucharest. " 'Asta este' ["it is what it is"] is an institutionalized statement."
Four out of five Romanians are unhappy about their earnings – on average, they make about $300 per month – and close to 50 percent are dissatisfied with the overall direction of the country, according to the most recent Public Opinion Barometer of the Open Society Foundation, a pro-EU organization in Bucharest, the capital.
At the Buhusi Zoo, Ms. Simms and her fellow volunteers had hoped that making major repairs, buying hay and medicine, and providing uniforms and training to zookeepers would show people that little things can make a difference. Though Simms did mobilize some people, overall she found "an energy gap."
Buhusi's vice mayor, Vasile Zaharia, is not surprised. He says that the park fell to ruins not because of a shortage of money, but of heart. "There is poverty, but society is not that poor that it can't help a zoo," Mr. Zaharia says. "Someone who struggled and knocked on doors could have made a difference."
Even when the zoo is closed, it can't disappear until the animals find a home and Simms is helping authorities with that. She says she hopes saving the animals might help the town tell a different story about itself – a proud one.
Indeed, many in Romania say that cultivating national pride is key to changing Romanian attitudes.
Maria Duma, who runs a group advocating the preservation of Bucharest landmarks, says she wants souvenir shops and more marketing of Romania's natural beauty. Ms. Duma's infectious energy has pulled hundreds of people into the streets to protest the mayor's intention of razing city historic sites to make room for office towers.
"This is my calling today," Duma says, who works in a booming information-technology industry and is the first woman to serve on the executive board of the main Romanian association of software companies.But she adds that civic engagement alone isn't enough in a country where leaders at all levels of power often keep people stuck in bureaucratic mazes.
"The authorities don't do anything to encourage, motivate, or engage people," she says. "It's easy to give up amidst so much indifference and corruption."
Leaders "distrust energetic citizens unless they work within the tight system," says Tom Gallagher, a professor at the University of Bradford in England, who has authored two books on Romania. While the fatalism of the early 1990s that led many Romanians to abandon the country for better opportunities abroad has diminished a great deal, he expects that more will leave once borders open fully on Jan. 1.
"Romania has evolved in many refreshing ways, but ... until the cleavage between society and the state still exists," he says. "Until the state evolves, the story of Romania will likely be one of continuity with the past rather than one of progress," he says.
Zaharia, the vice mayor of Buhusi, says Romanians are slowly adapting to change. Though his countrymen have the second-highest rate of enthusiasm (68 percent) for the EU across the continent, he himself isn't fond of all the new regulations brought on by joining.
But he says there is no going back. "We are stumbling and dragging our feet, but we're moving forward."
• Part 1 of three. Next part: Tackling corruption.