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City Beat

Without a Residence Permit
Big cities can be cruel to its citizens, and even crueler to their animals. Animals in Russian cities have no legal rights. Despite numerous attempts by various activists to take them out of harm’s way, plenty of stray dogs are without shelter. This is what is greatly upsetting not only animal-rights defenders, but many Muscovites throughout the city.
Text Elena Krivovyaz, photos Oleg Migachev

To blame or not to blame – that really is the question

City authorities are trying to solve the problem of the shortage of animal shelters. Plans have been worked out, but they have all failed one by one, for reasons that cannot realistically be commented on because there are so many unknown factors. Muscovites themselves are divided into two opposite camps: those who seem to believe that Moscow will be better place when every last dog has been disposed of. Hackneyed reports of pedestrians dying of rabies after been bitten by a stray dog are used to defend their arguments.

Their opponents don’t blame the dogs but owners who cast their pets out onto the streets, something which the authorities don’t seem to protest about too strongly. There is still no Federal law clarifying dog-owners’ legal obligations. This article, however does not aim to present accusations, rather to take a look at where street animals can find a refuge around the city and whether such places really exist in sufficient numbers in Moscow.

Dogs’ death camps

According to official information, there are about a dozen working animal shelters in Moscow, but only one of them is supported by the government. Managers in the government-sponsored establishment can decide 6 months after a dog is taken in, whether to put it to death or not. All the other shelters are sponsored by various charities and enthusiastic individuals. All these places can accept no more than 4,000-5,000 four-footed tramps at any one time, meanwhile there are about 30,000 stray dogs stalking the city (some experts triple this number). Within the last five years city functionaries have been talking about building fifteen more municipal shelters with a total of about 2,500 places in each of them. Construction was supposed to have been completed in 2004, but this did not happen. In 2008 authorities convinced the mayor that construction must finish by the end of 2009, but work is at a standstill again. Natalia Sokolova, the head of the city’s Department of Environmental Improvement said that work will be completed this year. “The work is moving a little slowly because every stage must be approved by many different institutions, but we’ll finish it all by the end of November, 2009.”

Most animal defenders are not very optimistic about this happening. They find it terrifying. “Let’s imagine for a second what happens if we keep two or three thousands dogs in one place in small kennels, with one worker to look after all of them. There is a lack of food, and bad sanitary conditions, exclaims Ekaterina Volkova, an animal activist with a 25-year history of defending animal rights. These turn out to be “not shelters but death camps,” she concluded.

Not homeless anymore

Ekaterina doesn’t believe that the new shelters will bring any potential benefits. She thinks that the best decision would be to support existing private shelters as their owners have a lot of enthusiasm but not enough money to manage to cover expenses. Ekaterina uses her three-room apartment to keep about sixteen dogs of different ages and breeds. “All these might have been killed,” - she says with a sad smile while dogs surround me with interest. Some of them were found after they were hit by cars, the others were starving on the street until they were picked up and saved. “This is a unique one,” - Ekaterina points to an elderly Labrador. “We found her under a railway platform and took her to the vet, and to our surprise we found out that she’s pure-bred!”

All the dogs seem to be very friendly and sociable; wagging their tails in a hospitable way, except some individuals locked in the next room. They are not allowed to join the company so they bark every now and then, outraged with such unfairness.

“This one is Julia, she was mine, now I’ve got her back from a woman who adopted her 11 years ago. The woman is now dying of cancer and can no longer take care of her,” explains Ekaterina. After thinking for a while she adds: “I guess we wouldn’t be in need of these shelters at all, if people were more humane and could adopt a puppy or an abandoned animal. And also it could be much better if the owners didn’t take home a dog before they think twice. Many of them try to get rid of their pets after they realize just what a responsibility looking after an animal is.”

Last woman standing

The story of Veronika Borash and her shelter “Solnyshko” is sad from any point of view. “Solnyshko” was one of the biggest and one of the best known animal asylums in Moscow and the true pride of its mistress too. Now the shelter is no more. There are three or four dozens dogs dwelling in a small part of its former territory. About a dozen more live in Veronika’s modest apartment, in a block of flats next door. Here she houses domesticated dogs which cannot get along with those who have lived on the street for a long time.

“There was a huge rubbish dump next to my house [a two-stored ‘Khruschevka’] twenty-five years ago, and one day I decided to clean it up and create a shelter for abandoned animals. With the neighbors’ and many others’ help, we somehow built kennels and open-air cages. They pooled their resources and bought me a car,” -she recounts with real excitement. “I could keep about 300 dogs at once. I found owners for more than four hundred homeless animals over the last twenty-five years.”

Then she had a territory of about 3,500 sq meters to realize her dream of saving animals’ lives. It was called “Dogs City” by her neighbors. Every day people brought puppies and adult dogs and put them on her doorstep, she took them all in. “I couldn’t leave any of them on the street. Because they are all alive, you understand? They are alive!” Her sincere eyes are filled with unhidden pain.

This idyllic story finished late in 2005, when the shelter was razed to the ground by representatives from the local authorities. Veronika will never forget this. Even now, memories of that day come back to haunt her and her eyes fill with tears. “They came here with huntsmen and destroyed everything, and killed many of my dogs right before my eyes. Some of them tried to hide under the floor of the kennels but they couldn’t,” her voice trembles again with emotion. “I had two heart attacks after that.”

The shelter was ruined, but not her plans and calling to save lives. After being released from hospital, she managed to get permission to fence off a small territory to organize something like a shelter again. That’s where her new friends – mongrels and pedigrees – live right now. Somehow, this vigorous woman in her mid-seventies finds the strength to feed, cure, and take care of her wards.

Her dogs are under shelter. Others, still wandering the streets are not so lucky.

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