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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For My Next Witness, M'Lud, I Call a Coyote

Two doors down from the Asian Red Dog, around the corner from the lynx, four skittish coyotes are doing their best to acclimatize.

Amid the clatter of nearby construction, the country's first coyotes pace frenetically, ears twitching, eyes glassy. To the slack-jawed 7-year-olds touring the Moscow Zoo, the Utah coyotes are a simple curiosity. To the Interior Ministry, they may be a weapon.

The ministry's genetics unit -- whose past successes include the world's first drug-sniffing dog, in 1965, and a jackal-dog hybrid, in the 1970s -- has its sights set on a new breed of coyote-dog with an unsurpassed sense of smell.

Unlike American courts, Russian courts commonly admit canine testimony as corroborating evidence. And in the small underground laboratory that houses the genetics unit, an engineer named Klim Sulimov is developing the dogs that will take the stand.

If the Russians succeed in training a coyote hybrid for law enforcement purposes, they will set a precedent for trainers everywhere. Although wolf-dog hybrids have been used by American police, the handful of coyote breeding experiments have turned up unpromising results.

"During the Vietnam War, the Southwest Research Center did some research on a mix between beagles and coyotes," said Russ Mason, an official from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which donated the coyotes free of charge to Sulimov's effort.

"They came up with a little short thing that bit ankles. It was not a good dog."

The species does indeed have one of the keenest senses of smell in the animal kingdom, experts agreed. If Sulimov successfully breeds a young male coyote with a small female dog, he projects that the hybrid could identify a fugitive from the scent remaining in a footstep as much as 20 hours after the criminal departs.

Legally, Sulimov's dogs' testimony amounts to corroborating evidence, "about as much as a fingerprint," he said. "Alone, it couldn't prove a case, but you combine it with other evidence. All together, it's proof."

The small staff at the genetics unit is carrying out breeding experiments that have long since fallen by the wayside in other countries, said U.S. wildlife experts.

One reason is legal, since Russian courts give an unusual amount of weight to such evidence. Another is purely economic: The Russian police have had to make do without forensic instruments common in the West, where police scientists are "spoiled by technology," Sulimov said.

The third reason is Klim Sulimov. During the 1970s he devoted almost five years to breeding the jackal-dog, and he is approaching the coyote project with the same fervor. After securing the coyotes, he flew to Utah to rescue the four animals from an Animal Damage Control unit where they were

"scheduled to be destroyed," according to an official of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sulimov will carry out the experiment in a laboratory whose only entrance is through a barely visible door on the side of the 11th Precinct police headquarters

The office -- which he calls "a centrally located island" -- has no phone, so the only way to enter is by ringing a bell on a sheer wall on Ulitsa Barrikadnaya.

Underequipped, largely ignored by the Interior Ministry, the laboratory's scientists seem to work mainly to satisfy their own curiosity.

"Our main goal is not criminological," said Tamara Stegnova, who heads the genetics unit at the ministry. "We are mainly interested in creating new species."

Mason, of Fish and Wildlife, put it more bluntly. Russia's dog geneticists are highly skilled, if underfunded, and their results have more legitimacy than in the United States, so they can break ground with these experiments, he said.

"I think Klim just wanted to see if he could do it."

The main risk of the project lies in the nature of the coyote, which Mason summed up as "a really vicious, mean, nasty animal."

In contrast to wolves, coyotes have a very strong fear of humans, and cannot be disciplined the way dogs can. Sulimov, who had never encountered a coyote until he picked up these four, admitted that training may be a challenge.

"Compared to any of the work I have done before, the coyote has a very serious fear of humans," he said. "But if everything goes normally, I believe it will succeed."

From her ranch in Golden, Colorado, one coyote expert described the Russians' experiment as bold but risky.

"I think it's beautiful," said Vona Bates, who has raised more than 200 coyotes since she got her first pup as a young girl.

But she added that coyotes are, and will always be, wild animals. "When you get hybrids, and you treat 'em like dogs, they get quite vicious," she added.

"The coyote has a tendency to stay wild. That's why they have survived in this country."