Going to the dogs in Moscow

SUN JOURNAL

Strays: In the Russian capital, the official policy on homeless animals of catch-and-kill is being replaced with catch-sterilize-release.

March 08, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - When workers renovating the Bolshoi Theater complex found a couple of dogcatchers stalking four stray mutts that live at the theater, the intruders told a preposterous tale.

Under a new city program, the dogcatchers claimed, they wanted to spay or neuter the scruffy animals, vaccinate them and tattoo them with a serial number. Then they would release the strays back on the steps of the Bolshoi, a short stroll from the Kremlin.

Moscow's dogcatchers are known for ruthlessness and cunning. "Why should we trust them?" muttered Viktor Kuznetsov, deputy construction manager.

The dogs at the Bolshoi serve as the 1,000-member construction crew's mascots. They're fed chicken soup with noodles and allowed to trot through the buildings being renovated. The construction workers protect them.

Amid curses and threats, the dogcatchers fled.

But in an unlikely twist, their story turns out to be true.

In this cold and cynical city, animal rights activists have persuaded officials to adopt a sterilize-and-release policy for homeless dogs. And to make sure the new program works, some of these same animal lovers are muscling in on the private firms that since the mid-1990s have been paid by the city to nab stray cats and dogs.

The new policy - designed with the aid of wildlife biologists - is barely 7 months old. And there is still some fierce resistance, from business interests and the minority of dog-loathing Muscovites.

But advocates say the program is very popular, and it appears to have reduced the population of homeless pets in Moscow's core. "It's a great victory," says Tatiana N. Pavlova, the crusading chief of the Department of City Fauna.

The failure of communism taught Russians to fear idealistic schemes, and the economic shocks of the 1990s nearly discredited the word "reform." But Russians are crazy about their pets (the Moscow government plans to erect a monument to cats and dogs), and the animal rights movement is one of the nation's few native grass-roots reform efforts.

Several years ago, biologists surveyed Moscow and determined that its garbage bins and Metro stations support a stable population of about 25,000 homeless dogs. These strays occupy an ecological "niche" in Russia's capital.

Rounding up and killing animals never made much difference. Exterminate a dog, the biologists say, and another will take its place. But replace fertile females with sterilized ones, and the population will gradually decline.

After the adoption of the new program last August, Pavlova's dogs should rank among the most protected strays in the world. But animal rights activists say the animals are still prey for politically connected private companies that provide dog-catching services.

These companies claim to be following the new rules, Pavlova and others say, but in reality continue to destroy homeless pets.

Some dog-catching services, Pavlova alleges, continue to kill animals, while charging the city $70 apiece for sterilization. Some sterilize males but not females - which are the key to controlling the population. Both scams undermine the program.

A year ago, dogcatchers snatched two pets of an elderly woman. One dog had lost an eye in an accident. Pavlova suspected a company called ZooService, but employees insisted the woman's dogs weren't there.

Pavlova went to the company anyway, opened a freezer, found a stack of yellow bags and started to dump them on the floor.

Dead dogs fell out.

"`The second dog to fall out of a sack was the one-eyed dog," she says. "After that trip, I could not eat and I could not sleep for three days." Police, she says, refused to investigate.

Later, letters began arriving in city government offices accusing Pavlova of scheming to defraud the city and of leading a terrorist animal rights group.

Pavlova went to court, accusing the director of ZooService, Ilya Musnitsky, of slander. She says he wrote 20 of the letters, using a pseudonym. "He's clever, diabolically clever," she says.

Musnitsky, meanwhile, describes himself as an honest businessman victimized by Pavlova's "dirty campaign" against him. He insists that ZooService scrupulously obeys the city's new catch-and-release regulations and its ban on destroying animals.

"Our company has nothing to do with killing animals," he says. "I wouldn't do it for one simple reason. For each animal, I am paid 50 rubles a day."

Animal rights advocates say the city once treated strays brutally. Soviet public health programs in the 1930s had animals shot to death on the street, sometimes in front of children.

"`Somehow," Pavlova says, "the cruelty of Soviet society filtered down to animals."

After the Soviet Union dissolved, Moscow turned to the private sector for animal control. Companies sprang up that charged the city $8 a head to catch strays, $1.60 a day to hold them. If the owners didn't show up, the animals were destroyed.

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