Last week, we took a look at the mythologised and often tragic human/bear relationships that Russia is stereotypically famous for here in the west. That’s the bear ‘thing’ – an assumption that exasperated (though amused) Russians still expect to hear from us. Yes, that’s our stereotype, of course!
Anyway, back to the Russian streets and the (non-human) creatures that you may find wandering along them. Is it obvious that the more exotic and wild interlopers will be found in similarly exotic and wild locations? Let’s hope so; it’s doubtful that you will find moose wandering through central Moscow, for instance. Let’s take a brief look at a species that is much closer to home -literally and metaphorically.
Running with the pack
You may well find an unexpected canine contingent on the streets of Russia’s capital. That’s “unexpected” for us of course, but their well-established presence was already documented over a century ago by journalist Vladimir Gilyarovsky -famous for his pre-revolutionary reminiscences.
Stray dogs in societal groups of their own exist in parallel to the human population, sometimes interacting with “us” – though often at a distance, and usually via the medium of food. They can be pretty resourceful in this regard – as their survival depends upon it.
A “good” estimate puts the number of feral dog inhabitants in Moscow at around the 35,000 mark; roughly, a small town’s worth in human terms – and there is enough spare food available to keep that figure relatively constant. As a result, it is rare to see a dog that is obviously undernourished. Those that can adapt to the beggar/scavenger lifestyle find themselves well catered for.
Their lives are precarious however, and often tragically short. The most successful are those born and raised on the streets by canny parents, while only 3% of domestic dogs dumped into such an environment survive to ‘prosper’ in any form.
Existing somewhere between ‘nuisance’ and ‘fond characters’ in the eyes of the human locals, the lives of strays feature minimal protection or care (outside of food scraps and random charity) and are sometimes prey to the sick indulgences of those mentaly deficient enough to kill something, anything for “fun”.
Dogs may also be eliminated after becoming ‘problem’ animals through attacks on humans (rare though increasing), or following threatening behaviour over territory or food -perhaps after being approached as household pets (which they no longer are).
The worse case scenario
There are also issues of hygiene and disease to consider. Having learnt that provoking humans is a shortcut to trouble, the canines tend to keep to themselves; not even defecating (usually) in busy public places where the ire of humans might be raised as a result.
Another consideration is the presence of rabies within Russia and the real possibility -however rare- of encountering an infected/infectious dog (whether displaying obvious symptoms or not) on a Russian street. Precautions to prevent such a horror, and action after the fact are swift, extreme and decisive.
If this sounds like the fiction of a hypochondriac, then consider the 257-case outbreak of Rabies within the Moscow area in 2009. All things considered, it’s no surprise that an “old” dog reaching a decade or more in age (hardly ancient by our standards) is a rarity.
The wolf ship has sailed
As the domesticated dog is solely a product of human interaction (and possibly one of our greatest “inventions”), then the withdrawal of human breeding constraints (and societal integration) allows the species to go it’s own way once again in evolutionary terms – well, partly.
This will not mean a reversion to the wolf -as environmental/social/genetic factors are not conducive, but as is demonstrable: the establishment of an urban wild (or semi-wild) dog breed. Evolution fits environment after all.
Sure enough, common characteristics have become noticeable over time as trends, both in terms of behaviour and even appearance. Medium size, thick fur (useful in Russian winters), long tails, pricked ears and a tapering snout are all common features to this Russian urban breed.
Human influence is still a factor of course, although usually at arms length. The dogs environment is still created and defined by humanity – and the dogs still depend upon humans (directly or otherwise) for food. The immediate existence of humans still presents factors that the dogs have to contend with and successfully navigate around – again for the sake of survival.
We’ll continue with dogs – and more, next time.