During the day, the patter of canine feet is never far away on Moscow's streets; at night howling often rings out. Moving around in packs, the stray dogs are usually downtrodden and docile, but can occasionally become aggressive. There have even been instances where Muscovites have been killed by packs of dogs.
A plan to deport thousands of Moscow stray dogs to nearby Yaroslavl is causing locals of both cities to protest, however. According to estimates by animal rights activists, there are around 25,000 dogs roaming the streets of Moscow, with around 12,000 more in 12 municipal shelters. The plan, under discussion by the Moscow government, would see the 12,000 dogs moved to one huge shelter, to be built 150 miles from Moscow in Yaroslavl.
Opponents of the plan say they suspect that the lucrative land which the shelters occupy will be sold off instead of being reoccupied with new street dogs, and accuse the authorities of getting their priorities wrong.
"The shelters are in an appalling state, and only held together by the work of volunteers," says Anastasia Volkova, a Moscow animal rights activist. "The money put aside for them ends up being stolen by corrupt officials, and the dogs live miserable lives." She says that a sterilisation programme to prevent stray dogs from breeding was curtailed in 2008, meaning that often even the dogs living in shelters are able to breed. She adds that there is no drive to get people to adopt dogs, mainly because their awful condition means that nobody in their right mind would want one as a pet.
Experts say bringing so many dogs together in one facility in Yaroslavl would increase the chance of new diseases appearing. The Moscow government has said it has abandoned the scheme, but activists say they have obtained a leaked letter that shows it is still under discussion. Last week, more than a thousand people gathered outside the Moscow mayor's office to protest against the plan, while yesterday, activists in Yaroslavl handed a petition to the regional governor.
Despite the cruel treatment in shelters, many Muscovites show affection towards the strays. During Moscow's harsh winters, the dogs gather in warm underpasses or metro stations, and are often fed by locals. At one Moscow metro station there is even a monument dedicated to a stray dog that lived at the station. The dog, Malchik, was stabbed to death with a kitchen knife by an angry passenger in 2001.
"If all the money that was allocated by the government for the care of strays were actually used properly, if laws were enacted to punish cruel treatment of animals, and if a campaign were held to get people to adopt dogs, the situation would gradually improve," says Ms Volkova.
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