MOSCOW – Like human commuters, this city’s stray dogs can often be spotted travelling on the subway, waiting patiently for a train to pull in and its doors to slide open.
In Soviet times, dogs were barred from Moscow’s metro. Today, however, they are so common there – curling up on empty seats, nuzzling their neighbours, lounging in stations – that there is even a Web site devoted to them: www.metrodog.ru.
A tiny group of zoologists study Moscow’s stray dogs and how they’re adapting to a rapidly changing city. Among them is Alexei Vereshchagin. He set out to study wolves – ”such a romantic creature,” he says – but as science funding crumbled with the Soviet government, he couldn’t.
So the 31-year-old, rust-bearded Mr. Vereshchagin started studying strays instead, and loved it. ”The behavior of stray dogs is like theater,” he says.
As the number of cars in Moscow has exploded, and their speed increased from the days of Soviet clunkers, strays have learned to cross the street with pedestrians. They can also be seen occasionally waiting for a green light. (Dogs are colorblind, so researchers theorize they recognize the shape or position of the walking-man signal.)
Back in the lean Soviet era, restaurants and the now-ubiquitous fast-food kiosks were scarce, so dogs were less likely to beg and more likely to forage through garbage, the zoologists say. Foraging dogs prospered best in the vast industrial zones of Moscow, where they lived a semiferal existence. Because they mainly relied on people to throw out food, and less on handouts, they kept their distance from humans.
Now, old factories are being transformed into shopping centers and apartment blocks, so strays have become more avid and skillful beggars. They have developed innovative strategies, zoologists say, such as a come-from-behind ambush technique: A big dog pads up silently behind a man eating on the street and barks. The startled man drops his food. The dog eats it.
Key is the ability to determine which humans are most likely to be startled enough to drop their food. Strays have become master psychologists, says Andrei Poyarkov, 54, the dean of Moscow’s stray-dog researchers. ”The dogs know Muscovites better than Muscovites know the dogs.”
Perhaps the biggest change, according to Mr. Vereshchagin, a protege of Mr. Poyarkov, is that strays today hardly need to do anything to get food. One of their chief tactics, made possible by their increasing comfort in crowds, is simply to lie in a busy subway passage, where thousands of people pass by, and wait for someone to toss them something. The dogs get fed without even having to go to the trouble of nuzzling a leg.
Moscow today provides an environment of ”unlimited resources,” says Mr. Vereshchagin.
Mr. Vereshchagin strolls through a market area near a metro station, pointing out that even though there are now more strays than ever in Moscow, the dogs don’t have a lean and hungry look. The leader of this area’s dog pack, whose coat is dirty-white with black patches, rises from a nap, stretches lazily, and lopes off to a butcher shop. He stands outside for just a few seconds before a meaty bone is tossed at his feet. He carries it off, but just nibbles at it.
In fact, many dogs ignore discarded morsels, because the animals are so sated they can afford to be finicky, says Mr. Vereshchagin.
Unlike the strays he studies, Mr. Vereshchagin can’t be so picky. The city has provided funding only for sporadic dog censuses, the last one in 2006, which estimated the population of stray dogs at about 26,000. So Mr. Vereshchagin, who has yet to finish his thesis, makes ends meet by training people’s pets and working as a part-time paramedic.
Adaptations by individual dogs have added up to a dramatic shift in canine culture. Begging is a submissive activity, so today there are fewer all-out interpack wars, which sometimes used to last for months, according to Mr. Poyarkov. Within packs there are more stable social hierarchies that allow the whole group to prosper.
Still, there are occasional attacks on human beings, like one in April in which a 55-year-old man was killed by a pack of strays living in a rambling and overgrown park. Mr. Vereshchagin says he doesn’t have firsthand information about this attack, but says that dogs living in forested areas aren’t as familiar with people and are more likely to aggressively defend their territory.
The death has reignited a controversy. Even while the city has allocated the equivalent of $63 million mainly to build animal shelters and carry out related programs, some people are calling for a return to the Soviet practice of culling strays.
Still, many Muscovites appear to enjoy, or at least tolerate, the dog population. The vast majority of homeless dogs go out of their way to avoid antagonizing people, says Mr. Vereshchagin. Even pooping in the metro is rare, he says.
Many Muscovites feed the strays and build simple winter shelters for them. Older people particularly seek companionship in Russia’s new capitalist economy, which can be ruthlessly dog-eat-dog.
And strays form part of the city’s character. When a disturbed fashion model several years ago stabbed to death a gentle stray that lived at the Mendeleyevskaya metro station, horrified celebrities and ordinary city residents raised money and erected a bronze statue of the dog, Malchik. One of novelist Mikhail Bulgakov’s most beloved stories, ”Heart of a Dog,” features a stray named Sharik who takes human form as a slovenly proletarian.
Moscow has done almost as much adapting to the new culture of dogs as the dogs have done. A strong animal-rights lobby is part of that. Ilya Bluvstein, leader of Fauna, an animal-defense organization affiliated with Russia’s Green Party, warns of potential corruption in the city’s proposed shelter program. Groups that win the contracts, he fears, will take money to house dogs but actually kill them to cut expenses and fatten profits.
Meanwhile, in a metro station, three dogs nap. One of them rises, wanders a few steps to some discarded potatoes, sniffs, nibbles, then goes back to sleep. There will be more and better food later.