Russia's 'dog death squads' target two million strays
On a rainy morning in January, Vachagan Emeksuzyan was driving near his home in the Russian resort of Sochi when he saw a bright spot on the brown roadside. He stopped and was shocked at what he saw: the shape was a sandy-coloured neighbourhood dog that he had known for years, lying dead in the water with a dart in its side.
According to Mr Emeksuzyan (30), and animal rights activists, this was one of hundreds of stray dogs and cats killed by city contractors as Sochi gets ready to host matches at the World Cup next month.
"I had fed this dog, it had come into our yard. It was a big healthy male dog," Mr Emeksuzyan recalled. The imminent influx of foreign football fans has raised pressure to get rid of the estimated two million strays in 11 World Cup cities. Proponents of harsh action argue that dogs have attacked humans.
In December, Vitaly Mutko, the deputy prime minister, ordered host cities to come up with a solution.
To cut down on disease and reduce the population of stray dogs, international animal rights groups stress housing, vaccination and sterilisation, as well as registration and education for owners. In Sochi, people often let their dogs and cats roam. But with few shelters and a bill on animal protections stuck in parliament, local authorities in Russia have turned to a quicker fix: poison.
"They just try to destroy them, no one deals with the source," said Ksenia Serebrennikova, a Sochi activist.
After animal purges led to a public outcry late last year, the head of parliament's environmental protection committee called on the sport minister to stop the "mass destruction of unsupervised animals". In January, Yekaterina Dmitriyeva, an activist, discovered tenders worth €1.6m to catch strays on a state procurement website.
Her petition calling on Fifa, World Cup teams and Vladimir Putin to stop these "canine KGB death squads", open shelters and adopt a law on strays has garnered more than 1.8 million signatures.
More than 240,000 people have signed a petition against the "mass killing of animals" in Volgograd alone.