MOSCOW, August 23 (Alexey Eremenko, RIA Novosti)
It only costs $0.30 to kill a Russian dog.
All you need is a morsel of liver or sausage and several tablets of Isoniazid, a tuberculosis medication. Feed the combo to an excited stray, walk away, and let the street cleaner dispose of the body in the morning.
That means, of course, that the dog and its mangy buddies will never attack you or your loved ones in the street.
An untold number of strays, estimated by some animal rights activists at 1 million, are living on the streets of Russia, thriving on garbage and scraps from compassionate babushkas and proliferating in the absence of a clear state policy on homeless animals.
The situation results in regular, if not widespread, attacks on people – which, in turn, led to the “doghunters,” a tag slapped on grassroots activists set on killing “excess” or arguably dangerous strays.
A small-scale civil war is being waged between doghunters and radical animal rights activists both in the streets and cyberspace. But both parties blame the government for neglecting the situation and officials on the ground for thinking primarily about benefiting from money flows intended to solve the problem.
Meanwhile, experts say there is no surefire solution short of euthanizing tens of thousands animals or investing billions in shelters – and even that may not be enough.
A dog being neutered in St. Petersburg. The northern city also adopted the neutering-and-release policy.
The Occasional Killing
The man who uses the online nickname Dogmeat says he sometimes kills 20 dogs over the course of a single night with an air gun, accompanied by a single friend.
“The main thing is not to be afraid. Adults can make themselves feel no fear,” he said in an interview.
Dogmeat – who refused to provide his real name to avoid exposure – killed his first dogs when strays almost “ate out” an eye of a small boy in his neighborhood in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk about a year and a half ago.
Now he sometimes helps out management of various industrial enterprises across the country whose premises are the prime breeding ground for homeless dogs. He says he never accepts money and himself keeps an old grey dachshund.
Most Russian doghunters, however, are more like Maxim, who said he sticks to Isoniazid, which he only used four times since 2006, keeping the yard of his apartment building in St. Petersburg free of encroaching packs of strays. He said the poisoned treat costs about 11-12 rubles (some 33 cents) per dog, and no risk is involved.
Maxim said the number of “active” doghunters is capped at a combined 100 or so for Russia and Ukraine. Dogmeat failed to estimate the community, though he said the doghunter movement’s one and only Web site, now available at Vredy.org, numbers 10,000 users – including occasional visitors, journalists and provocateurs.
“I don’t think it influenced me,” Maxim said when asked about the killings he carried out. “I have no nightmares over it.”
“People won’t understand it until they face it,” Dogmeat, a lawyer by day, said about his occupation. He said his wife knows about his activities, but he never told his friends.
Climbing Up the Food Chain
Two boys aged 7 and 11 were attacked by stray dogs in separate incidents in Vladivostok in August. Both were saved by adults, one of whom suffered severe bites all over her head and body.
In July, homeless dogs attacked a nine-year-old girl in the Siberian city of Chita, tearing out chunks of flesh from her body and arms. The girl survived, but had to be hospitalized and sustained lasting psychological trauma.
In June, two districts in the city of Tyumen had to be quarantined after a string of attacks by a rabid dog, which bit two people before it was captured.
In May, a 13-year-old teenager was boiled alive in Kemerovo region after he fell into an open heat pipe when running away from stray dogs.
In April, stray dogs attacked two grown-ups in separate incidents in Kaluga. One managed to run away, but another, a 19-year-old student, died from the bites.
In March, a pack of dogs attacked a woman outside a factory in Smolensk. The victim died of blood loss.
There are no nationwide statistics for attacks by stray dogs on humans in Russia, same as there are no reliable figures for the number of stray dogs. But incidents make headlines on a fairly regular basis.
“A pack of five to ten dogs can already attack, giving bites,” said Dogmeat. “The biggest packs, which reach 50 dogs, can hunt people for food.”
The current number of strays in Moscow alone has been put at between 20,000 and 100,000, and 1 million for the entire country, a figure cited by Bolshoi Gorod lifestyle magazine in November.
But the latest scientifically solid estimate for Moscow – 26,000 – is from 2006, said Andrei Poyarkov, a dog expert from Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences. No reliable nationwide statistics exists.
Some 16,600 people were attacked in Moscow by stray animals in 2008, the latest year for which statistics are available, according to the city branch of the Federal Consumer Protection Service.
A sweeping legislation on animal rights, including stray dog policy, has been stuck in the State Duma since 2010. The current draft has no review timeframe and was de-facto mothballed after heated debates between moderates and radical rights activists, which even resulted in some tussles on the parliament’s grounds.
Fear the Zoo-Schizo
One day, Svetlana Los and her friends, all of them animal rights champions like her, tracked a doghunter in St. Petersburg and “let him have it.”
She stops short of saying physical abuse was involved, but notes, her triumphant voice quivering, that “the cowards can piss themselves even if you just wave a stun gun near them.”
Doghunters speak Los’ name with loathing, and their only definition of her fit for publication is “zoo-schizo.” But the activist, who keeps 10 dogs and 35 cats – “not because I want it!” – is defiant.
“They’re a bunch of nutcases who crossed the line,” she snapped. “We need to protect animals from people.”
Doghunters are accused of killing pets, endangering humans by spreading poison around neighborhoods and outright sadism. The doghunter code prohibits all of the above, but there is no way of enforcing it, admits Dogmeat.
At Vredy.org, some users openly brag about their kills, with one claiming that his personal Isoniazid-based death toll exceeded 1,000 recently.
Dog protectors – predominantly female, judging by their communities on social networks – put tremendous effort into exposing doghunters, sifting through tidbits of personal information in forum posts, trying to provoke them into killing someone’s pets or luring them out with fake requests for help.
Only one court case against an alleged doghunter took place in Russia in recent years, ending over a statute of limitation in June. Current legislation only criminalizes animal abuse driven by profit, sadistic intent or hooliganism or committed in front of minors, which are almost impossible to prove. The maximum punishment is two years behind bars.
However, not even privacy laws are able to stop hate campaigns against alleged dog killers raging all over Russia’s biggest social networking Web site, Vk.com, where online walls of suspects span pages of nothing but furious curses in caps.
Most people who agreed to speak to RIA Novosti for the article refused to provide their real names or asked to have them changed. The anonymity spread even to moderate animal rights activists, who can easily become anathemas among peers if they dare entertain the notion of, for example, euthanizing stray dogs.
“We’re the same, doghunters and dog defenders. We’ve gone insane over the same problem, just from different sides,” said Nadezhda Vorobyova, an ex-journalist who runs a small dog shelter outside Moscow.
Dogs at an animal shelter in the Moscow region.
Everybody Else Was Doing It
In most Western countries, homeless dogs are to be put into state-run shelters where they are euthanized if they do not find a new home in a few weeks.
In reality, most animals are handed over to private shelters instead of being put to sleep. But the humanitarian paradise did not exist forever: in Europe, for example, elimination of strays that multiplied after World War II lasted well into the 1950s. Some 90,000 dogs were euthanized in Britain as late as 1987.
In the Soviet Union, a special service was tasked with culling the dog population, not caring much for humanism – guns or improvised gas chambers were utilized – but getting the job done, said dog expert Poyarkov.
But the service stopped functioning after 1991. Since then, the task was handed over to the regions, which are free to reinstate old practices, put dogs to sleep, try to fit them into animal shelters or experiment with new approaches.
“Ordinary people do not kill dogs in regions where the problem is not ubiquitous,” said doghunter Dogmeat. “But it’s just dismal in some places.”
Who Let the Dogs Out?
Moscow is a standout, as could perhaps be expected. Between 2002 and 2008, the capital tried to neuter strays and then put them back into the streets, hoping that they would not breed.
The practice had little visible effect on dog population despite a price tag of 200 million rubles ($6.3 million). Afterwards, the City Hall launched a new program to take homeless dogs off the streets and put them into shelters for life. A dozen city-run shelters operate in the city, their budget in 2011 totaling 780 million rubles ($24 million), or an estimated 28,000 rubles ($880) per dog.
However, even animal rights activists express dismay at the shelters, calling them concentration camps. Hundreds of dogs live in cramped spaces, overseen by a handful of volunteers who struggle to feed them, let alone take them for walks or give them veterinary checks.
A typical example is a shelter in Moscow’s eastern Kozhukhovo district, where nine volunteers cared for some 700 dogs as of 2009. Volunteers at the Krasnaya Sosna shelter in the city’s northeast claimed online last week that the dogs can only be fed once a week.
All experts and animal rights activists say that at the same time, animal control is a small gold mine for the savvy. Some allegedly neutralized bitches have later been found breeding, indicating fraud, and in July, police accused a shelter in the city's southeast of embezzling 9.3 million rubles ($290,000) of city money, though shelter managers denied all accusations.
The City Hall has no unified policy on strays, relegating the job to the 11 city districts, a spokeswoman said. An expert at the prefect’s office of Moscow’s Northeastern administrative district said on Wednesday she needs authorization from her bosses to comment, but a faxed request to the purpose went unanswered in time for publication.
Despite the fact that Moscow abandoned the neutering-and-release program, the legislation stalled in the Duma proposes to spread the policy to the entire country, though the bill is yet to undergo critical revisions.
In absence of any governmental action, “the doghunters are starting to look like rebels against stupidity and hypocrisy, which boosts their popularity,” said Vorobyova, who runs a dog shelter.
Stray dogs are kept in shelters reminiscent of concentration camps, but some say euthanasia is a better solution.
No Dog Is an Island
It is impossible to cull a dog population without killings, said animal rights activist Anastasia Komagina. Several of her colleagues interviewed for the article agreed with the statement, but refused to publicly associate with it.
A widespread and well-functioning system of shelters, complete with strict regulation of pets, may help, though many strays will have to be put to sleep anyway, said an animal rights activist who only identified herself as Margarita, who was echoed by Komagina.
But mass euthanasia could ruin Russia’s image in the West, even despite global animal rights groups such as PETA endorsing the method, which is why the government may be reluctant to implement it, Vorobyova said.
What is worse, even state-supervised dog killings may provide no solution, said animal experts.
“The problem is social, not ecological,” said Yelena Korneva, academic secretary of the Moscow-based Urban Environment Research and Design Institute.
“Remove their food base – garbage dumps and the like – and they will go away,” she said.
She was echoed by Poyarkov of the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, who pointed out that when homeless dogs in Moscow were eliminated for the 1980 Summer Olympics, their population recovered in a year thanks to new animals migrating from the country.
Poyarkov, a specialist on wolves who spent the last 30 years studying stray dog habits across the nation, used to endorse Moscow’s neutering-and-release program, but said he has since changed his views.
“If you really want to fight the problem, you need to organize efficient garbage collection,” Poyarkov said.
“But we know it’s unreal,” he said. All campaigns to civilize garbage handling in Russia over the past two decades have fallen through, the latest nationwide attempt decreed “inefficient” by the Federal Consumer Protection Service in July.
Moreover, the strays may be getting as much as half of all their food from numerous compassionate old ladies feeding the packs, Poyarkov said.
“But try to tell such old ladies what they do is evil,” the expert said. “Even if you have the heart to, they just won’t listen.”
“Strays suffer throughout their short lifespans,” Vorobyova said. “But I see no good solution to implement.”
An earlier version of the article did not list animal abuse for profit as a punishable offense. It also mistakenly said that Anastasia Komagina refused to disclose her name for the publication.
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