City Grapples With Thousands of Strays

Feral dogs have become a common sight in Moscow. They sleep in packs in empty lots and underground passages; they are fed by the kindhearted and abused by the cruel.

Click here to see photo essay (All photos were taken at the Bim Charity Fund's animal shelter in Khoteichi.)

The latest study commissioned by the city puts the number of stray and feral dogs on the street at a minimum of 23,000.

Despite an effort in recent years to reduce the stray population through sterilization, their numbers have not come down in part because people are increasingly abandoning their pets, city officials and animal rights activists say.

Such neglect has been accompanied by a number of gruesome attacks against homeless animals.

In August, a 22-year-old Muscovite, Nikita Golovkin, was sentenced to one year of corrective labor for setting his American Staffordshire terrier upon a group of stray puppies.

When asked by a building supervisor to call off his dog, Golovkin reacted by grabbing two of the puppies, slamming one to the pavement and throwing another against a metal window frame. Four puppies died in the incident.

In 2002, a model, 22, stabbed a stray dog to death in an undergound passage. A court declared her mentally incompetent and confined her to a hospital for the criminally insane in the Tver region.

Such horror stories highlight the need for the city to come to grips with the problem of stray animals and to adopt adequate animal protection laws, activists say.

At present, Moscow's four animal shelters can only handle 1,000 dogs per year, said Marite Arent, head of the city's Wild Animal Collection Service, which is in charge of finding private companies to run the shelters and the sterilization program.

Arent said the Northern Administrative District was operating an additional seven shelters, with a total capacity of 2,300 dogs per year, at its own expense, and that a Vneshtorgbank-sponsored shelter in southern Moscow was scheduled to open in December.

The city's other administrative districts have been reluctant to open new shelters, however, because local officials prefer to reserve land for more profitable enterprises, Arent said.

Charitable organizations have attempted to step in and fill the void left by inadequate city services for animals.

The Bim Charity Fund runs four animal shelters, including one in the village of Khoteichi, 100 kilometers southeast of Moscow, that houses some 600 dogs and more than 200 cats.

Nurik Turakolov, a caretaker at the Khoteichi shelter, said 10 percent of the animals in his charge were not mongrels, but purebred animals abandoned by their owners.

Fund director Darya Taraskina said purebreds often end up in the street when a breed goes out of style.

Many of the Doberman pinschers, Rottweilers, Staffordshire terriers and bulldogs that wind up at Bim's shelters have been poorly trained by their owners, Turakolov said. The shelter's caretakers retrain the dogs and attempt to place them in new homes.

Anyone who wants to adopt a pet from Bim must undergo a thorough evaluation, promise to care for the animal properly and to bring it back if he or she can't manage, Turakolov said. The shelter, in turn, provides free veterinary care and boards the animal for free when the owner is away from home.

Turakolov added that the shelter regularly takes in animals that have been abused, a crime that goes largely unpunished.

At present, cruelty to animals is only punishable when it is carried out for material gain, in the presence of minors or in cases of hooliganism. The Criminal Code provides for a maximum sentence of six months in jail or one year of corrective labor.

"It may seem that there is a legal basis [for protecting animals], but in reality it's nothing," said Irina Novozhilova, head of Vita, an animal rights organization. The Criminal Code allows for prosecution "only if the animal was maimed or killed," she said. "But what about depriving it of normal living conditions?"

The environmental crimes division of the Moscow police department received more than 270 complaints about cruelty to animals in 2005 and 2006, but only five cases made it to court, division head Grigory Kibak said at an animal rights conference last month.

The environmental police, an experimental force that has existed in Moscow, the Moscow region and Tatarstan for nearly 10 years, ends up responding to such complaints, which are outside their jurisdiction, because the regular police rarely do.

"When you call the local precinct to file a complaint, they say things like: 'I've got two murders and three rapes, and you expect me to deal with a bunch of kittens?'" veteran animal rights activist Ilya Bluvshtein said.

A bill that would have expanded the definition of cruelty to animals to include beating or unlawfully killing animals, abandoning pets and failing to care for them properly nearly became law in 2000.

The bill would also have banned the killing of animals with certain poisons currently used in the fur industry and the breeding of fighting dogs; and it would have introduced tougher regulations for the handling of animals across the board.

The bill was approved by both houses of the parliament but was vetoed by President Vladimir Putin, who insisted that most of its provisions were covered by or contradicted existing laws. The bill was returned to the State Duma for reworking and it is still there six years later.

A powerful lobby made up of dog and cattle breeders, furriers and others who profit from the current regulations fought the bill and won, Bluvshtein said.

Yevgeny Tsigelnitsky, a spokesman for the Russian Dog Breeders Federation, said his organization had opposed the bill because it would have banned fighting breeds.

He said the federation would also fight a bill coming up for a vote in the Moscow State Duma this fall.

The bill, which has been debated for years, would beef up the ban on killing stray animals and create a register of domestic animals, among other measures. City Duma Deputy Ivan Novitsky of the Yabloko party, who supports the bill drawn up by Moscow's Housing and Communal Services Department, is also a proponent of banning fighting dogs.