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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dogged by the Cold? Not Always

They don't read "Sovietskaya Rossia." They're not going to vote in June. They don't even drink. But they're having just as hard a time as the rest of us in the cold.


They're dogs. And though they're able to withstand temperatures better than human beings, the homeless among them in Moscow are still freezing to death at about the same rate as the city's homeless people.


"We pick up between five and 20 a week to take to the pound, and about the same number are found dead every week in winter," said Vyacheslav Terekhov, director of the city's dog-catching program. "There's not a whole lot we can do."


While Terekhov couldn't place an exact figure for the number of exposure deaths among strays, he did say that the city's homeless dog population is about 10,000, and, like the human homeless population, growing slightly every year.


But unlike homeless people, whose numbers grow mostly due to increased immigration, homeless dogs prosper out of sheer hardiness.


"Dogs don't die easily," said Alexander Korobov, a professor at the city Veterinary Institute who keeps two "serious" pit bulls at home. "They will eat almost anything. Even now, after 15 years as a vet, I'm still surprised sometimes by what they'll eat. Plus, they're not stupid. They don't drink themselves to death, don't kill each other too much and they walk in front of cars less often than people."


Dogs also benefit, Korobov said, from physical peculiarities which make them one of nature's tougher animals.


"Their body temperature is several degrees higher than that of people, about 39 degrees," he said. "Plus, they're able to withstand temperature extremes much better than human beings."


Nonetheless, a key reason homeless dogs survive in the city is that human beings are more effusive in their sympathy for dogs than they are for people, and will often go a lot farther to keep them alive.


For instance: Is there any human being who would even consider taking 40 homeless people into his two-room apartment? Probably not. But there are people who take in that many dogs -- and these people aren't as rare as you'd think.


"I can't help myself. I see a homeless dog, and he's so adorable, I can't leave him outside. When I get too many, I find friends to take them in," said Nina Starotsina. The word "din" could have been created to describe the noise in Starotsina's apartment; in a telephone interview, she was barely audible above the cries of her 40-odd roommates.


Starotsina, who describes herself as a born dog lover, said that dogs benefit from being naturally lovable. "People can be afraid of a homeless man passed out in their doorway," she said. "But most people feel sorry for a sick dog."


Starotsina said homeless dogs in Moscow have an average lifespan of about six months. "Once they lose their owners, they don't last long," she said. "Some breeds can handle the weather. But the greater part can't."


Korobov agreed that human goodwill, and dogs' success in soliciting it, was one of the key reasons why the canine homeless community is able to survive brutal winters. "Often, elderly people will give a dog food when they have none themselves," he said. "That's because a dog repays a lonely person with love, and doesn't notice whether a person is old or alone."


Another reason Russians are so endeared to strays is that they've attained, through literature, a sort of humanity of their own. In the famous satirical novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, "Heart of a Dog," the rich bourgeois Professor Preobrazhensky captures a stray named Sharik and transforms him into a man by implanting the brain and testicles of a proletarian worker.


As a result, Sharik is transformed into a repulsive party functionary, renaming himself Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov and finding a job as the city's official cat-catcher. A Bolshevist committee he organizes nearly succeeds in turning the professor's apartment into a kommunalka before the professor, preferring Sharikov's canine incarnation, turns him into a dog again.


"Every time people see a stray, they think of Sharikov," said Korobov. "You can't help thinking that there's a person in there."