Russians can go nutty when it comes to dogs. Consider the incident a few
years ago that involved Yulia Romanova, a 22-year-old model. On a winter
evening, Romanova was returning with her beloved Staffordshire terrier from a
visit to a designer who specialises in kitting out canine Muscovites in the
latest fashions. The terrier was sporting a new green camouflage jacket as he
walked with his owner through the crowded Mendeleyevskaya metro station. There
they encountered Malchik, a black stray who had made the station his home,
guarding it against drunks and other dogs. Malchik barked at the pair, defending
his territory. But instead of walking away, Romanova reached into her pink
rucksack, pulled out a kitchen knife and, in front of rush-hour commuters,
stabbed Malchik to death.
The statue of Malchik erected by
well-wishers after his death
Romanova was arrested, tried and underwent a year of psychiatric treatment.
Typically for Russia, this horror story was countered by a wellspring of
sympathy for Moscow’s strays. A bronze statue of Malchik, paid for by donations,
now stands at the entrance of Mendeleyevskaya station. It has become a symbol
for the 35,000 stray dogs that roam Russia’s capital – about 84 dogs per square
mile. You see them everywhere. They lie around in the courtyards of apartment
complexes, wander near markets and kiosks, and sleep inside metro stations and
pedestrian passageways. You can hear them barking and howling at night. And the
strays on Moscow’s streets do not look anything like the purebreds preferred by
status-conscious Muscovites. They look like a breed apart.
I moved to Moscow with my family last year and was startled to see so many stray
dogs. Watching them over time, I realised that, despite some variation in colour
– some were black, others yellowish white or russet – they all shared a certain
look. They were medium-sized with thick fur, wedge-shaped heads and almond eyes.
Their tails were long and their ears erect.
They also acted differently. Every so often, you would see one waiting on a
metro platform. When the train pulled up, the dog would step in, scramble up to
lie on a seat or sit on the floor if the carriage was crowded, and then exit a
few stops later. There is even a website dedicated to the metro stray (www.metrodog.ru)
on which passengers post photos and video clips taken with their mobile phones,
documenting the savviest of the pack using the public transport system like any
Where did these animals come from? It’s a question Andrei Poyarkov, 56, a
biologist specialising in wolves, has dedicated himself to answering. His
research focuses on how different environments affect dogs’ behaviour and social
organisation. About 30 years ago, he began studying Moscow’s stray dogs.
Poyarkov contends that their appearance and behaviour have changed over the
decades as they have continuously adapted to the changing face of Russia’s
capital. Virtually all the city’s strays were born that way: dumping a pet dog
on the streets of Moscow amounts to a near-certain death sentence. Poyarkov
reckons fewer than 3 per cent survive.
. . .
Poyarkov works at the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in
south-west Moscow. His office is small, but boasts high ceilings and tall
windows. Several wire cages sit on a table in the centre of the room. Inside
them, four weasels scurry through tunnels and run on a wheel. Poyarkov and I sit
near the weasels and sip green tea.
Biologist Andrei Poyarkov
He first thought of observing the behaviour of stray dogs in 1979, and began
with the ones that lived near his apartment and those he encountered on his way
to work. The area he studied came to comprise some 10 sq km, home to about 100
dogs. Poyarkov started making recordings of the sounds that the strays made, and
began to study their social organisation. He photographed and catalogued them,
mapping where each dog lived.
He quickly found that the strays were much easier to study than wolves. “To see
a wild wolf is a real event,” he says. “You can see them, but not for very long
and not at close range. But with stray dogs you can watch them for as long as
you want and, for the most part, be quite near them.” According to Poyarkov,
there are 30,000 to 35,000 stray dogs in Moscow, while the wolf population for
the whole of Russia is about 50,000 to 60,000. Population density, he says,
determines how frequently the animals come into contact with each other, which
in turn affects their behaviour, psychology, stress levels, physiology and
relationship to their environment.
“The second difference between stray dogs and wolves is that the dogs, on
average, are much less aggressive and a good deal more tolerant of one another,”
says Poyarkov. Wolves stay strictly within their own pack, even if they share a
territory with another. A pack of dogs, however, can hold a dominant position
over other packs and their leader will often “patrol” the other packs by moving
in and out of them. His observations have led Poyarkov to conclude that this
leader is not necessarily the strongest or most dominant dog, but the most
intelligent – and is acknowledged as such. The pack depends on him for its
Moscow’s strays sit somewhere between house pets and wolves, says Poyarkov, but
are in the early stages of the shift from the domesticated back towards the
wild. That said, there seems little chance of reversing this process. It is
virtually impossible to domesticate a stray: many cannot stand being confined
“Genetically, wolves and dogs are almost identical,” says Poyarkov. “What has
changed significantly [with domestication] is a range of hormonal and
behavioural parameters, because of the brutal natural selection that eliminated
many aggressive animals.” He recounts the work of Soviet biologist Dmitri
Belyaev, exiled from Moscow in 1948 during the Stalin years for a commitment to
classical genetics that ran counter to state scientific doctrine of the time.
Under the guise of studying animal physiology, Belyaev set up a Russian silver
fox research centre in Novosibirsk, setting out to test his theory that the most
important selected characteristic for the domestication of dogs was a lack of
aggression. He began to select foxes that showed the least fear of humans and
bred them. After 10-15 years, the foxes he bred showed affection to their
keepers, even licking them. They barked, had floppy ears and wagged their tails.
They also developed spotted coats – a surprising development that was connected
with a decrease in their levels of adrenaline, which shares a biochemical
pathway with melanin and controls pigment production.
“With stray dogs, we’re witnessing a move backwards,” explains Poyarkov. “That
is, to a wilder and less domesticated state, to a more ‘natural’ state.” As if
to prove his point, strays do not have spotted coats, they rarely wag their
tails and are wary of humans, showing no signs of affection towards them.
. . .
The stray dogs of Moscow are mentioned for the first time in the reports of the
journalist and writer Vladimir Gilyarovsky in the latter half of the 19th
century. But Poyarkov says they have been there as long as the city itself. They
remain different from wolves, in particular because they exhibit pronounced
“polymorphism” – a range of behavioural traits shaped in part by the “ecological
niche” they occupy. And it is this ability to adapt that explains why the
population density of strays is so much greater than that of wolves. “With
several niches there are more resources and more opportunities.”
The dogs divide into four types, he says, which are determined by their
character, how they forage for food, their level of socialisation to people and
the ecological niche they inhabit.
A dog seeking warmth near Moscow’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Those that remain most comfortable with people Poyarkov calls “guard dogs”.
Their territories tend to be garages, warehouses, hospitals and other fenced-in
institutions, and they develop ties to the security guards from whom they
receive food and whom they regard as masters. I’ve seen them in my neighbourhood
near the front gate to the Central Clinical Hospital for Civil Aviation. When I
pass on the other side with my dog they cross the street towards us, barking
“The second stage of becoming wild is where the dog is socialised to people in
general, but not personally,” says Poyarkov. “These are the beggars and they are
excellent psychologists.” He gives as an example a dog that appears to be dozing
as throngs of people walk past, but who rears his head when an easy target comes
into view: “The dog will come to a little old lady, start smiling and wagging
his tail, and sure enough, he’ll get food.” These dogs not only smell who is
carrying something tasty, but sense who will stop and feed them.
The beggars live in relatively small packs and are subordinate to leaders. If a
dog is intelligent but occupies a low rank and does not get enough to eat, he
will separate from the pack frequently to look for food. If he sees other dogs
begging, he will watch and learn.
The third group comprises dogs that are somewhat socialised to people, but whose
social interaction is directed almost exclusively towards other strays. Their
main strategy for acquiring food is gathering scraps from the streets and the
many open rubbish bins. During the Soviet period, the pickings were slim, which
limited their population (as did a government policy of catching and killing
them). But as Russia began to prosper in the post-Soviet years, official efforts
to cull them fell away and, at the same time, many more choice offerings
appeared in the bins. The strays flourished.
The last of Poyarkov’s groups are the wild dogs. “There are dogs living in the
city that are not socialised to people. They know people, but view them as
dangerous. Their range is extremely broad, and they are predators. They catch
mice, rats and the occasional cat. They live in the city, but as a rule near
industrial complexes, or in wooded parks. They are nocturnal and walk about when
there are fewer people on the streets.”
My neighbourhood is in the north-west of Moscow and lies between a large wooded
park and one of the canals of the Moscow river. Leaving the windows open once
the thaw of spring finally took hold, I found myself pulled out of a deep
slumber by a cacophony that sounded as if packs of dogs were tearing each other
apart in the grounds of our apartment complex. This went on for weeks. I later
learned that spring is when many strays mate – “the dog marriage season”, as
Russians poetically call it.
. . .
There is one special sub-group of strays that stands apart from the rest:
Moscow’s metro dogs. “The metro dog appeared for the simple reason that it was
permitted to enter,” says Andrei Neuronov, an author and specialist in animal
behaviour and psychology, who has worked with Vladimir Putin’s black female
Labrador retriever, Connie (“a very nice pup”). “This began in the late 1980s
during perestroika,” he says. “When more food appeared, people began to live
better and feed strays.” The dogs started by riding on overground trams and
buses, where supervisors were becoming increasingly thin on the ground.
A stray on the metro, seeking food
Neuronov says there are some 500 strays that live in the metro stations,
especially during the colder months, but only about 20 have learned how to ride
the trains. This happened gradually, first as a way to broaden their territory.
Later, it became a way of life. “Why should they go by foot if they can move
around by public transport?” he asks.
“They orient themselves in a number of ways,” Neuronov adds. “They figure out
where they are by smell, by recognising the name of the station from the
recorded announcer’s voice and by time intervals. If, for example, you come
every Monday and feed a dog, that dog will know when it’s Monday and the hour to
expect you, based on their sense of time intervals from their biological
The metro dog also has uncannily good instincts about people, happily greeting
kindly passers by, but slinking down the furthest escalator to avoid the
intolerant older women who oversee the metro’s electronic turnstiles. “Right
outside this metro,” says Neuronov, gesturing toward Frunzenskaya station, a
short distance from the park where we were speaking, “a black dog sleeps on a
mat. He’s called Malish. And this is what I saw one day: a bowl of freshly
ground beef set before him, and slowly, and ever so lazily, he scooped it up
with his tongue while lying down.”
. . .
Stray dogs evoke a strong reaction from Muscovites. While the model Romanova’s
stabbing of a stray demonstrated an example of one extreme, the statue erected
in his memory depicts the other. The city government has been forced to take
action to protect the strays, but with mixed results. In 2002, mayor Yuri
Luzhkov enacted legislation forbidding the killing of stray animals and adopted
a new strategy of sterilising them and building shelters.
Life on the streets
But until Russians themselves adopt the practice of sterilising their pets,
this will remain only a half-measure. One Russian, noting that my male Ridgeback
is neutered, exclaimed: “Now, why would you want to cripple a dog in that way?”
Even though the city budget allocated more than $30m to build 15 animal shelters
last year, that is not nearly enough to accommodate the strays. Still, there is
pressure from some quarters to return to the practice of catching and culling
them. Poyarkov believes this would be dangerous. While the goal, he
acknowledges, “is to do away with dogs who carry rabies, tapeworms,
toxoplasmosis and other infections, what actually happens is that infected dogs
and other animals outside Moscow will come into the city because the biological
barrier maintained by the population of strays in Moscow is turned upside down.
The environment becomes chaotic and unpredictable and the epidemiological
Alexey Vereshchagin, 33, a graduate student who works with Poyarkov, says that
Moscow probably could find a way of controlling the feared influx. But that
doesn’t mean he thinks strays should be removed from the capital. “I grew up
with them,” he says. “Personally, I think they make life in the city more
interesting.” Like other experts, Vereshchagin questions whether strays could
ever be eliminated completely, particularly given the city’s generally chaotic
approach to administration.
Poyarkov concedes that sterilisation might control the number of strays, if
methodically conducted. But his work suggests that the population is
self-regulating anyway. The quantity of food available keeps the total steady at
about 35,000 – Moscow strays are at the limit and, as a result, most pups born
to strays don’t reach adulthood. “If they do survive, it is only to replace an
adult dog that died,” Poyarkov says. Even then, their life expectancy seldom
exceeds 10 years. Having spent a career studying the stray dogs of Moscow and
tracing their path back towards a wilder state, he is in no hurry to see them
swept from the streets.
“I am not at all convinced that Moscow should be left without dogs. Given a
correct relationship to dogs, they definitely do clean the city. They keep the
population of rats down. Why should the city be a concrete desert? Why should we
do away with strays who have always lived next to us?”
Susanne Sternthal is a writer living in Moscow