Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Moscow's Devolution Dogs

While you'd be hard pressed to find a major city without stray dogs, Moscow is somewhat famous for them. It seems that they've been around for as long as the city has existed, although they were first formally acknowledged in the late 1800's by famous Muscovite journalist Vladimir Gilyarovsky. During the days of the Soviet Union, the dogs were actively captured and killed by patrolmen. Some avoided death, but instead became participants in the Soviet space program. 57 strays were launched into outer space from 1951 to 1966.

After perestroika ushered in economic and political reforms in 1987, the dog-catching was ultimately done away with. This, combined with a new abundance of food that indirectly resulted from perestroika, resulted in a population explosion. Currently there is thought to be around 35,000 of them; 500 of which live within Moscow's metro subway stations (and around 20 of these dogs have learned to make use of the trains).

Biologist Andrei Poyarkov has been studying the stray dogs of Moscow since 1974, originally surveying the 100 dogs that dwelled within an area of 6.2 square miles near his home. Since that time, his investigation as broadened to cover the entire city. Over the years, Poyarkov has observed that these dogs are steadily losing the traits that were bred into them over the centuries by humans and are returning to a state similar to pre-domestication. While they retain special adaptations for surviving in their unique urban environment, they no longer interact with humans in the ways that we are accustomed to.

Poyarkov has documented four distinct classes of stray dogs, determined by their habitat. Those that live around buildings with security guards and groundsmen (such as hospitals and warehouses) are naturally the most comfortable with people. They often form a bond with the guards and respond to commands. Such behavior cannot be seen in the dogs that live within the heart of the city, which display indifference, but retain a keen insight of the human mind which they exploit regularly to get food. They target specific people for begging, knowing that old ladies are most likely to give them hand-outs.

The strays that form packs are even further removed from conventional dogs. They have minimal relations with people and rely upon scavenging for food, finding meals in Moscow's garbage bins. Finally, there are the dogs that live in the wooded areas and industrial parks that feed upon vermin and unlucky cats. These are truly feral and while they typically are not aggressive towards people, they avoid contact. They are nocturnal, taking advantage of the empty night-time streets.

While killing strays became illegal eight years ago, the city government has taken efforts to keep the population under control. Spaying and neutering pets isn't customary in Moscow, and the ranks of dogs are continually replenished thanks to hundreds of unwanted, abandoned pets. Modern dog-catchers bring the dogs to be sterilized and housed in animal shelters. There is a problem with insufficient adoption, and those dogs that are taken in as pets often don't take well to living in confined spaces.

However, by and large, the stray dogs aren't viewed as a pressing public dilemma. Moscow's attitude towards the dogs ranges from the ambivalent to the amicable. Meanwhile, foreigners regard the dogs with a mixture of confusion and amusement.

Would you like to know more?


  1. This is like the hyper kitchen equivalent of veal cutlets and shark fin soup... a pretty depressing meal.


  2. So these dogs that have learned to ride the subway would they be ..eh...trained dogs?

  3. Gnah! My defenses weren't up! I've been pun-injured!

  4. It is a melancholy post, but I don't think its the most depressing thing I've done here. But the point is never to bring people down; I just want to call attention to things people might not have known.

    Plus, I'd never serve veal or shark. Maybe delicious, delicious manatee, but that's it, I swear.

  5. I think it's pretty fascinating how animal species adapt to urban cities in unexpected ways. Creatures are forced to change in order to survive in human environments. It becomes a matter of survival.

    So many dogs - and all because people brought them there to be pets. Sad and strange at the same time.

  6. Don't get me wrong... it was still a delicious meal.