Moscow commuters smile at sleeping metro dog
Andrei Poyarkov of the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Moscow has been studying his city’s population of stray dogs for 30 years. FT.com has a very interesting article describing some of his conclusions.
What is particularly interesting is the way, as is sometimes the case with Europeans, the Russians fail to see the necessity of the American Protestant “capture, euthanize, and sterilize” tidy-everything-up ameliorist approach. Muscovites don’t mind living with stray dogs and are willing to stand aside and let Nature take its course, even in a city.
“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.
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 loudly.
“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.”
Hat tip to Karen l. Myers.