In this third and final instalment of the bear-thing, we won’t mention bears at all (except there). Instead, there are more interesting things to discover about Moscow’s wild dogs, a fascinating example of survival and ongoing co-existence.
Choose your weapons
The evolution of Moscow’s wild dog “breed” goes much further than we covered last week. The urban environment demands a different emphasis on a stray’s skill set compared to the mental and physical tools and abilities used by a wolf hunting moose in the Taiga. City-bound prey is generally smaller and in the form of the pre-cooked leftovers from human consumption.
Urban dinner that is still mobile usually consists of rats, or perhaps the occasional unfortunate cat – so no need for the sheer size, strength, and destructive power of a wolf in this regard. Wolves also prey upon small animals too of course though such an animal powerhouse still requires a commensurate level of caloric intake. Not an ideal match then, for life on Moscow’s streets.
Moscow as an urban wilderness selects for intelligence rather than combat prowess, and pack leaders are chosen for their ability to provide through the required level of brain power rather than muscle and teeth. Taking food through violence in the human world risks getting you killed, so the power-house canines wait their turn and defer to their wily leaders. Unfortunately the pack mentality sometimes overtakes reason and members of the human population suffer as a result.
At the other end of the scale, the smart alpha dogs are able to inspect – and interact with – other packs. It pays to be aware of the competition, social boundaries, potential trouble, and more.
Why indulge in risky/costly battles over territory (that may also attract unwelcome attention), when a mutually respectful safe distance and good relations are all that are required to keep everyone happy and fed?
Deploy the cute puppy
The ability to read (and respond to) human behaviour is key – the sheer proximity of the two species demands it, and stray canines are not confined to responding reactively in this regard.
Knowing that humans respond positively to this thing called “cute”, the most child-like and appealing members of the pack may be used to beg directly to humans for scraps of food.
Similarly, if “cute” is not an option, then startling a human food-carrier with an unexpected bark from behind may cause him or her to drop whatever he is carrying. The prize can then be grabbed and whisked away by colluding partners in canine crime.
Around 500 of the 3,500 Moscow strays have managed to successfully live close enough to humans for Metro stations to become a viable shelter – particularly during the city’s punishing winters. Of these, the smartest of the smart (roughly 20 or so) have developed a truly astounding skill – they can use the Metro system itself!
Just for clarity, they don’t simply wander the tunnels or randomly enter and exit trains. No, they are able to travel and utilise the Metro network, with purpose, to reach chosen destinations and to then return, all in a similar manner to their human counterparts. That’s something to think about.
Travel tips for dogs
Whilst that revelation is sinking in, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Moscow Metro is much more intricate than the few, simple lines of St.Petersburg’s system, yet still only half of the complexity or less than our own London Underground.
There are a few theories concerning canine navigation on such a system, all derived from the kind of canine abilities that domestic dog owners are already aware of, though scaled up to a whole new magnitude of usefulness.
Dog’s are said to be able to recognise around 165 human word-sounds through training. It’s possible that Moscow strays recognise the station names spoken over the loudspeakers in order to identify their location. The smell of a particular station may vary – though not as far as our crude noses can ascertain of course.
Dogs have olfactory equipment that operates at 40 times the sensitivity of ours, -so where we may smell a ‘pamphlet’, they inhale the equivalent of a novella. The simplest possibility of all is that a dog may learn that he can enter a carriage at a certain location and just wait for a given amount of time in order to arrive at the “right” place. This place would likely be a good location for food -perhaps due to the prevalence of dog-friendly tourists. So Moscow’s canine intelligencia have become commuters too.
Why would dogs depend upon a single sensory system though? After all, we don’t. Maybe they utilise all of the above – plus some other input too: human cues, perhaps? Dogs are amazing after all.
Degrees of distance
We have Dr Andrei Poyarkov to thank for the discoveries outlined here and elsewhere on Moscow’s commuting dogs – a revelation that was over 30 years in the making and followed his study of wolves in the wild. He also identified types of stray dog – as delineated by their behaviour and relationship (or lack of same) with humans.
At one end of the spectrum, the most wild canines avoid human contact completely (unsurprisingly), viewing us as a danger and preferring to hunt/scavenge on the outskirts of a city under darkness.
Semi-feral foragers still operate at a distance but tolerate the existence/proximity of humanity. Closer still are the beggars who approach humans directly for food yet do not interact with us in a close, pet-like manner.
The combination of wildness, pushiness when begging and a lack of fear is a cocktail for trouble of course. Domestic pet dogs have been attacked as rivals, easy targets or intruders on territory already claimed. Disturbingly, so have people who have found themselves too close to the ‘wrong’ dog (or pack) at the wrong time.
Perhaps the strays closest to humanity are the ones who regularly visit work premises or other locations for edible handouts. This latter category may even view specific humans as providers or even pack leaders, depending upon the nature of their mutual relationship – though without the concept of actual ownership (from either human or dog perspective!).