It was a PR nightmare for Sochi, the picturesque Russian resort town hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics: the revelation that the city government intended to exterminate the packs of stray dogs that roam its streets as a part of its beautification process. Now these dogs are admittedly a rag-tag group – small and large, furry and hairless – with a genetic heritage consisting of a-little-of-this this and a little of Who-Knows-What? Much like strays you find in your local shelter. Independent and sometimes spooky, these street dogs are mostly feral and tend to shy away from people – preferring instead to scavenge at garbage or construction sites. But they are dogs – those trusting creatures with the soulful eyes that the world loves. Or most of it anyway.
When confronted with questions about the canine pogroms, the director of the pest control company tasked with the job told reporters that the dogs had been “biting children.” Dog bites or no, street dog removal had long been an unofficial policy in the town. And besides, what would the world think if a stray dog sauntered through a live Olympic telecast, as it did during a rehearsal of opening night ceremonies in the Fisht Olympic Stadium? It would be, as one official put it, “a disgrace to the whole country.”
The disgrace, as it turned out, was shooting the strays with poison darts and carting them off for an undignified disposal. The story was one of the biggest to emerge from the Games, generating widespread condemnation from animal lovers and rivers of indignant ink in the global media.
Stung by the criticism, Sochi officials grudgingly acknowledged that there might be a more humane way to keep its dog population in check. Et voila…within days of the opening ceremony, the city announced on its website that it had opened its own showcase shelter for 100 dogs. Funny thing though, animal activists could find no evidence of that city-run shelter.
Russians and Dogs: A Love-Hate Story
There are other international capitals – Bangkok and Mexico City for example – where you will see dogs wandering the streets. But in no other megalopolis is the stray population bigger than in Moscow where it is estimated that there are about 35,000 homeless dogs. Of those, about 500 or so have become residents of the Metro, the city’s sprawling subway system. There they perambulate the stations, negotiating escalators and automatic doors just like other seasoned riders. These are dogs that “commute” from one location to another – usually in the search of food, but sometimes, it is believed, simply to explore new places. And then there are the more laid-back types that stake out their territory in a particular car or station and spend their waking hours ingratiating themselves with humans in hopes of being rewarded with a little touch, or better yet, a snack.
It was not always this way in Russia’s capital. During the Soviet era, the stray population was tightly controlled by government teams. This policy didn’t offend the average citizen. On the contrary, they were often responsible for calling in the hit squads. While dogs weren’t a part of the Russian cuisine as they are in some Asian cultures, it was not unusual back then for them to end up as a fur cap.
In the unregulated civil aftermath of the Soviet Union, there were no longer controls in place to manage the packs. In Moscow, most could be seen roaming the city, but other more resourceful types began to winter underground in the tunnels of the subway. They soon became known as “Metro Dogs.”
Russia’s burgeoning oil economy of the 90s was not only good for the average Russian citizen, but for its canine citizens as well. More consumption brought more garbage, which meant more food for canine scavengers. With more to eat and less harassment by the law, the strays’ numbers expanded and they became a familiar site both above and below ground. In the Metro, workers and riders fed and petted them, and their mutual affection grew.
Though there is still no formal agenda for regulating the population of Russia’s homeless dogs, the future of Moscow’s Metro dogs appears to be growing grim and grimmer. For now, the day-to-day strategy is simply to make them less welcome. Subway guards chase them away from escalators and gates instead of letting them slip by. And above ground, vigilante squads take animal control into their own hands, scattering poison in parks and other canine gathering places. As a result, the overall stray population appears to be declining and fewer dogs are seen riding the subway.
How Smart Are Russian Mutts?
Here’s how smart: it was a stray dog named Leika, collected from streets of Moscow and trained for space travel, that became the first Russian cosmonaut. As for the Metro dogs, their survival mechanisms have become so sophisticated that they almost seem to be evolving before human eyes. Take, for example, behavior observed by many subway riders wherein smaller, cuter members of a pack are dispatched to panhandle. Those most likely to be approached are often single older women whom the dogs evidently see as a soft touch. They may not be cosmonauts like Laika, but they are pretty darned smart.
A Touching Postscript
It was recently reported that a local woman has now opened a shelter for 100 dogs outside of Sochi. Hearing of her efforts, a billionaire oligarch, who had been involved in the lucrative Olympics construction, unexpectedly came through with substantial financial support. The sad story of Sochi’s strays, which had come to his attention via a Facebook campaign, prompted him to organize a team of workers to save as many of the dogs and cats as possible. So far, 140 have been rescued and all because the oligarch had grown up with a stray he found on the streets of his small village, a dog that had become his “good friend.”
Maybe these rescue missions shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Except when they don’t, Russians have a live-and-let-live attitude toward the homeless dog population. And the Metro dogs have practically attained the status of personal pets with subway riders – so much so that they erected a statue of Malchik (Little Boy), a Metro dog that was stabbed to death by a mentally unbalanced woman in a subway station. For years now, it’s been deemed good luck to touch the statue on the way through the station. That is the reason why, they point out, his nose is so shiny.