Saturday, January 23, 2010

Moscow's Stray Dogs and Those Who Love Them


  The fall of communism has changed the daily lives of people in the former Soviet Union. An alphabet soup of newly independent countries from Azerbaijan to Turkmenia has lent colour to the map and uncertainty to the political landscape. In Moscow, the altered social and political landscapes have changed life for the city's dog population, according to the Financial Times.

      The citywide stray dog population in Moscow is estimated to be between 35,000 and 50,000.It is a tough world. Dogs abandoned on the Moscow streets have about a 3% chance of survival.

Andrei Poyarkov is a biologist who has been studying Moscow's stray dog population for thirty years. He is familiar with their mortality rates, ancestry and social organisation. He has identified different types of dogs according to their social organisation.

There are dogs who congregate around hospitals and guarded sites who develop emotional bonds with specific individuals, such as security guards who feed them. Then there are dogs who are acclimated to people but have no specific loyalties. Such dogs can smell food being carried by a passer by and determine whether the person carrying the food is likely to feed them. They are astute judges of character

The third class of dogs is wary of humans. They will hunt rats and stray cats as well as forage for garbage but stay in less populated areas, venturing out at night to avoid human contact.

The most interesting portion of the canine population of Moscow is the dogs who live in the subway system, estimated to be around 500 strong. Of this tiny canine subculture is an estimated 20 dogs who can board the subway and get on and off at specific stops of their choosing. They are guided by sounds, smells and visual cues. A measure of how skilled  "metro dogs" are is the fact that they are willing to ride escalators. I once had a dog who was petrified of escalators, consenting only reluctantly to being carried while riding them.

The most interesting aspect of Moscow's canine population is their relationship to people. The Muscovites are mostly fond of their stray dogs.There is even a website ,, where people post pictures and actual videos of their favourite dogs in the Moscow Metro. My favourite video of such a dog has a catchy tune of a lady who sounds like she is singing for a children's television program. It actually shows a "metro dog" riding the subway.

Not all Muscovites are comfortable with their subway strays. One woman, Yulia Romanova, a professional model stabbed a stray to death that she felt was threatening her thoroughbred Staffordhire Terrier. There was an outpouring of public grief and a statue erected in memory of the dog she killed. She spent a year in inpatient treatment at a psychiatric facility.

The stray dog population is not considered to be a nuisance. The general consensus among Muscovites is that they add character to the city.

My favorite stray dog story in New York took place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn about 40 years ago. Machon Chana was established as a school of Jewish studies for Jewish women. It had a small dormitory for students. Many Jewish girls who grew up in non-religious homes had dogs. some of the girls in Machon Chana took to feeding the stray dogs, who ended up stopping by regularly for a lovingly prepared meal. One night, there was an attempted break in at the Machon Chana dormitory. The dogs barked furiously, foiling the attempted break in and thereby repaying the kindness shown to them.

There are Jewish legal authorities who discourage dog ownership, saying that poor people stopping by for charity might be discouraged from stopping by.

There was a false messiah in the 1600's named Shabthai Zvi who created chaos in the Jewish world with his messianic claims. He is widely believed to have been bipolar. Some Jews had a tradition that the Messiah would be recognised in part by the fact that dogs would not bark at him. When Shabthai Zvi came to one city, the dogs did bark at him, thereby precluding his messianic claims. To prevent this from happening again, he stated that Jews should not own dogs at all.

I view the kindness accorded to dogs to be a measure of a society. I also look at how the homeless are treated. My favourite people are those who use the same tone of respect and politeness to a common person as they do with a person who has power over them. Whatever problems may be in the new Moscow of today, the kindness to animals in that city speaks well for them

There are many brush strokes that make the painting of our world. It is a fascinating footnote to this story that Andrei Poyarkov, the biologist spent his entire professional life studying stray dogs. People are defined not only by what they produce and how they live but  by the questions they ask. Humans and dogs have been companion species since the dawn of recorded history. Moscow's strays and the people who love and study them are another chapter in this long  and  and  interesting relationship. Moscow in winter may well be a cold city, but the hearts of its people are warm indeed. Sphere: Related Content

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