Dogwatch in Moscow : Tales of the city

A Russian lawyer is tackling canine kidnappers
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The Independent Culture
In the passages of the Arbat underground station in the centre of Moscow, men and women sit, surrounded by puppies of numerous breeds waiting for buyers. Muscovites adore dogs. Although most Muscovites now live in individual rather than communal flats, their homes are small, generally with just two rooms. Only the ex-Soviet lite own three- to five-room apartments, so the size of a dog is important.

At the moment they favourcocker spaniels. None the less, there are plenty of large dogs in parks and courtyards - sizes range from the ever- popular alsatian and great dane to miniatures such as chihuahuas and papillons. A few weeks ago, in the snow-covered courtyard of a friend's flat, I saw a dogo argentino the size of a small horse playing cheerfully with a couple of young rottweilers under the strict supervision of a girl aged no more than 10.

But the fear that their beloved Grisha or Mischa might be kidnapped has become the latest nightmare for Muscovites. The dog trade is Moscow is lucrative. Prices for a pedigree beast, provided all documents and injections are in order, range from $200 to $500 (£150 to £350) for rare and expensive breeds such as a shar pei puppy or a chinese crested puppy.

Dealers get pedigree stock from Germany, Italy and other European countries, and hire specialist dog clubs to check prospective buyers are not known members of one of the many kidnapping gangs.

Usually, these gangs watch from cars for a target and seize the dogs while owners go shopping. The problem has become so acute that bereft dog owners pay to appear on television with photographs of their pets and offer a reward for their return.

Sometimes this works. Onewoman recently appeared, howling that her Mercedes, containing her dog, had been stolen while she was shopping. "Just return my Lisochika," she begged. "She needs a special piece of chicken regularly." She offered a reward of 500,000 roubles (about £80). Before long, a young lady in an expensive mink coat knocked at her door and Lisochka was reunited with her owner. The Mercedes, of course, was never found.

These gangs have developed crafty techniques. To steal a male dog, they set a sexual trap. From their vehicle, the villains release a bitch in season, specially trained to lure a target back into the car while another gang member, usually a well-dressed, respectable-looking woman, chats to its owner.

But help is at hand. Last year, Major Valery Sugrobov, a 33-year-old lawyer who used to work with the police, decided enough was enough.

Owner of six dogs, he used his old police contacts and a chain of agents to set up Sozvezdie (Constellations), a company to track down stolen dogs for a fee of 30,000 roubles (about £5). He now deals with 30 to 50 cases a week, and has become something of a local hero among distressed, wealthy owners.

"The modern gangs use young women as part of the operation," says Major Val. "After the dog is snatched, they wait for the owner to advertise. If the reward is good, they ring up and return the dog. If it's not, they sell it to an unscrupulous dealer. And, believe me, there are plenty of them.

"It's not possible to prosecute. We once lay in wait for a gang of two young men and two young women. The women returned the dog to the owner for a substantial reward. We were hoping to prosecute them, but they said they'd found the dog following their dog. We couldn't do anything. The only thing we did was to give one of them, the driver, a substantial fine because she didn't have her driving papers in order. But we know for sure they were part of a kidnapping gang."

As well as tracking stolen pets, Sozvezdie trains dogs as bodyguards. "Assaults on businessmen have reached gigantic proportions now," says Major Val.

"It's not enough just to buy a dog like a rottweiler, pit bull or Staffordshire bull terrier; one has to know how to handle him. I know plenty of cases when a dangerous dog like this has attacked its owner."