Russia Brings in the ‘Canine KGB Death Squads’ to Clean Up the Streets Ahead of the World Cup

Russian officials have argued that culling stray dogs is a necessary safety measure. Pyotr Kovalev / TASS

As Larisa Dudaryonok arrived home one night in November, she was greeted by her dog Ryzhka at her car. Down the street, a man she strained to make out in the dark was watching.

Dudaryonok, who runs an animal shelter in the southern port city of Rostov-on-Don, didn’t pay the stranger much attention. But when the 15 dogs she was keeping temporarily in her backyard began barking loudly an hour later, she knew something was wrong and rushed outside.

“Ryzhka was convulsing on the ground,” she recalled during a recent phone interview. The dog, Dudaryonok suspects, was fed isoniazid, a tuberculosis drug that has been used to poison dogs. If Dudaryonok hadn’t had the antidote, Ryzhka would likely not have made it. “She’s lucky she survived.”

Russia’s culling of stray animals gained international infamy when photos of their carcasses went viral ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Now, as the country prepares to welcome large numbers of visitors for the FIFA World Cup this summer, activists say the practice is being ratcheted up once again.

In Rostov-on-Don, one of the tournament’s 11 host cities, Dudaryonok said she started to see corpses in full public view more frequently in the fall of 2016. Then, at the end of last year, there was an uptick in government tenders for the capture of strays on the government’s public portal. Activists rang the alarm.

A petition addressed to President Vladimir Putin in January urged Russia to “stop the awful practice our country has of killing homeless animals in the run-up to international sporting events.” It has since garnered more than 1.8 million signatures from all over the world.

In a statement to The Moscow Times, FIFA and Russia’s Local Organizing Committee said they “in no way condone cruel treatment of wild and stray animals.” They added that they were in contact with host cities and expected them to ensure animal welfare.

Russian officials have argued that culling strays is a necessary safety measure. Recently, Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov cited the need to “minimize ecological risks” for visitors to the World Cup, and promised that the removal of strays would be carried out “humanely.”

After meeting with activists earlier this year, Kolobkov and Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko ordered host cities to set up shelters to house strays. Mutko also assured activists that the killings would stop. But animal rights defenders say that without proper legal mechanisms, it is a hollow statement.

Although Russia does have an article in its Criminal Code outlawing animal cruelty, activists argue it is toothless. Even after two teenagers in Khabarovsk in 2016 posted photos on the internet of puppies and kittens they had dismembered — an incident which was met with national outrage — they escaped punishment under the law.

What makes the problem even more insidious is that it is left up to each municipality to decide what to do with homeless animals, says Mark Sokolovsky, an animal rights defender based in the Sverdlovsk region.

Moreover, the industry of killing animals is lucrative. “There is a lot of money in these contracts, which are often awarded to state-run companies,” Vladimir Burmatov, the head of the State Duma’s ecology and environmental protection committee, said in a phone interview. “And because these matters are governed by individual municipalities, there is nothing a federal official can do.”

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SOURCE: The Moscow Times, Evan Gershkovich