Going to the dogs A humane animal welfare law is about to take effect in Russia. A new report found that most regions are still killing stray dogs and cats indiscriminately anyway.
In December of 2018, the Russian government approved a new law titled “On the responsible treatment of animals” that is scheduled to take effect at the beginning of 2020. Among other things, the law prohibits catching stray dogs for the purpose of killing them. The Animal Welfare Association, a Russian nonprofit, spent half a year studying state purchases in Russia’s regions as well as local legislation that remained in place after the new federal law was passed only to conclude that in most regions, officials have continued to have stray animals euthanized. Meduza reviewed the association’s report and discovered that even if local governments follow Russia’s new, more humane regulations, cruelty toward stray dogs and cats throughout the country is likely set to increase.
Stray dogs continue to be killed in Russia’s regions on government orders — and it’s illegal
In December of 2018, a new Russian law titled “On the responsible treatment of animals” was passed with the aim of protecting stray dogs and cats, among other nonhuman creatures, from cruelty. The federal legislation’s fundamental principles include “the treatment of animals as beings capable of experiencing emotion and physical suffering” as well as “the development of a moral and humane attitude toward animals among [Russia’s] population.”
The law will take effect in full beginning on January 1, 2020. From that day onward, among other changes, euthanasia will only be legal if the animal being euthanized has a terminal illness that causes that animal unbearable physical pain. Another measure will dictate that any animals that present a danger to humans should not be killed but rather kept in a shelter until their natural deaths.
All that said, current Russian law already prohibits the extermination of cats, dogs, and other animals with no human owners. Those animals are also protected by the Criminal Codex, which includes punishments for animal cruelty under Article 245. However, charges are rarely brought forward under that statute, and it is even more rare for them to go to trial.
From the end of 2018 through July 2019, the Animal Welfare Association, which brings together a range of animal rights activists and organizations, monitored adherence to federal laws in Russia’s regions. The group’s attorneys examined both regional legislation and government purchases to carry out their study. They found that federal laws against animal cruelty are often circumvented at the local level.
The study showed that the principle of treating animals humanely is only legally codified in 15 of Russia’s 85 federal subjects. The government purchase guidelines for those 15 regions also indicate enforcement of the federally approved TNVR method. The Animal Welfare Association, like many other animal protection groups, considers that method to be one of the most effective ways to handle stray cat and dog populations.
Regional legislation in 30 other federal subjects does mention that animals without owners must be treated humanely, but those bodies of law and the related purchase guidelines published by local governments include numerous loopholes that nonetheless allow for animal extermination. For example, the grounds for euthanizing dogs and cats are often vaguely described, or the possibility of sterilizing, vaccinating, or sheltering animals goes entirely unmentioned. In those cases, contractors typically just kill the animals they catch.
The worst conditions for stray animal regulation were found in 40 other Russian regions. Among the biggest outliers were the Astrakhan, Kemerovo, and Ulyanovsk regions as well as the republics of Tyva, Kalmykia, and Ingushetia. Local laws in those last 40 regions are overly vague and often violate federal legislation. Meanwhile, government purchases on the municipal level rely on killing dogs and cats as practically the only available method to handle stray animals caught on city streets.
Russia’s Natural Resources and Ecology Ministry, which issues guidelines for the treatment of stray animals, did not respond to Meduza’s questions about how documents for official budgetary purchases could contain orders to exterminate animals. Representatives for the Astrakhan regional government declined to comment on the situation without permission from their superiors, and Meduza was unable to make contact with the government of the Kemerovo region.
Vague regulations and bureaucratic ignorance lie at the root of stray animal killings
“Until the federal law was passed, there was a legal vacuum in this area. I think the situation was worse before than it is now. The law was a first step toward the humanization of the engagement between people and animals,” argued Yekaterina Kuzmenko, an attorney for the Animal Welfare Association. Before 2018, each of Russia’s federal subjects decided how to regulate its stray animal populations individually. Many applied tactics that are considered extremely inhumane, including mass shootings.
Because the 2018 federal law was passed so recently, Kuzmenko explained, regional legislation in many areas still hasn’t been brought into accordance with it. The situation in Ulyanovsk is one example: There, dogs are caught, sent to a temporary holding area (in case any dogs were captured by mistake and their owners do manage to find them), and “disposed of.”
“Right now, our housing, public utilities, and landscaping division is waiting for guidelines. The Veterinary Medicine Department, which is a regional body, is supposed to develop guidelines for how this is all supposed to work. In the meantime, we’re doing things the old way,” said Yevgeny Nosov of the Ulyanovsk city government’s press service. According to Nosov, the local administration has agreements in place with private contractors through the end of 2019 for the capture of 3,141 animals. “That [number of animals] was set according to the financial resources available for these operations,” the spokesman clarified. “A contract was put up for auction, and the contractor who offered the most advantageous price — 2,813,000 rubles ($43,911) — won it.”
There are regions where mass sterilization is already codified as the only accepted method for regulating animal populations. However, in some of those regions, population control guidelines are written vaguely enough to be overtly ambiguous, and that ambiguity often has to do with the reasons for which an animal can be euthanized. Lack of socialization, aggression, any potential danger an animal presents to the government or society, or even a simple claim that the animal is unwanted can all serve as justifications for animals to be put down.
“It’s obvious that all those terms are relatively broad, and at the same time, there are no set criteria for evaluating and identifying those conditions,” Kuzmenko noted. The existence of loopholes like these, she added, creates a situation in which any animal can easily be labeled dangerous or aggressive and euthanized on those grounds. “Killing and disposing of an animal is cheaper than keeping it [in a shelter], feeding it, sterilizing it, and vaccinating it. Furthermore, to carry out a whole set of humane operations, you need a base of resources and technologies that the unscrupulous contractors [who win these government jobs] frequently do not have,” the attorney said.
As an example, Kuzmenko pointed to the city of Novoshakhtinsk in the Rostov region. There, the statutorily recognized method for controlling stray animal populations is mass sterilization. However, the city also has a broad list of justifications for euthanasia. “The company carrying out these contracts can use that loophole by calling all of the animals terminally ill or aggressive and applying euthanasia for those reasons. So in essence, this method of animal population control leads to mass killings,” the attorney explained. “That brings up a potential objection toward the client — that is, the local executive branch — about an inappropriate allocation of government funds. After all, it’s the administration that decides those services correspond [to legal requirements] and decides to pay for them.”
The city management secretary for Novoshakhtinsk responded to Meduza’s request for comment by saying the only official capable of commenting on the local animal control situation was on vacation. Another official who manages government purchases declined to answer Meduza’s questions.
The documents used for official purchases often contain internal contradictions as well. One point might tell contractors that euthanasia is only permitted under certain circumstances related to the animal’s condition, and another might say that the contractor must put down a given number of animals or a set percentage of the animals they catch.
“It’s the client charged with formulating these purchase documents who creates the preconditions for what will actually happen to the animals in the course of the contract’s fulfillment. Obviously, at the contract announcement stage, the client can’t know how many animals will be found to have grounds for euthanasia because they haven’t been caught or examined yet,” Kuzmenko said. “In these cases, the contractor faces a complicated situation. After all, the contract doesn’t include payment for a complete set of humane operations for the healthy animals.”
Maria Lezhneva, the director of the Animal Welfare Association, explained that one leading factor behind inhumane government purchases is the prevalence of inaccurate stereotypes. “Many vets and bureaucrats who work in this area still think that spaying and neutering are dangerous. They say a neutered dog loses its capacity to survive on the streets because other dogs will tear it apart. Or they say it’s against the church to deprive dogs of pleasure. On one hand, it’s just behind the times. On the other, it’s also stupid.”
Yekaterina Kuzmenko added that legal violations at the contracting stage sometimes arise because government contracting officials have to take both spending laws and animal welfare laws into account. “That’s just objectively a difficult task,” the attorney said. “Plus, the level of training clients [i.e. local bureaucrats] have in that area, especially in smaller municipalities, isn’t very high.”
Introducing more humane approaches will take five to seven years — but that doesn’t mean things can’t get even worse
One article in Russia’s new federal law on the treatment of animals stipulates that contractors must videotape their actions while they catch stray pets. The law also dictates that dogs and cats must be spayed or neutered and vaccinated after they are caught. That process, along with the sheltering and release of all animals, must be videotaped as well. If government clients find reason to doubt that any of those operations took place, video footage must be provided to them on demand starting in January 2020.
If each of those regulations is followed, sterilization will become not only a more humane method than euthanasia for decreasing stray animal populations but a more effective one as well. “Killing requires constant killing. If there’s a small number of animals in a given territory, then each dog will have not two puppies but, say, 10. As a result, the total number of animals will not decrease. Under the TNVR system, the population doesn’t just decrease — it doesn’t bounce back,” Maria Lezhneva explained.
One of the first cities in Russia to implement TNVR was Nizhny Novgorod, where a TNVR law was passed in 2013. At the time, more than 7,000 dogs roamed the city’s streets. In 2014, a charitable foundation called Zoozashchita NN (Animal Advocacy NN) was formed to take over the capture, sterilization, and rabies vaccination of stray animals. The organization occasionally administers other vaccines as well. By 2016, the number of stray dogs in the city had decreased to 4,500. Now, there are 2,500, and Animal Advocacy NN director Vladimir Groisman has predicted that there will be only 800 stray dogs by 2020 in the city of more than a million people.
Nonetheless, Animal Welfare Association attorney Yekaterina Kuzmenko argued, TNVR is disadvantageous for dishonest bureaucrats and contractors. It’s a matter of corruption, she said: “When the method of mass extermination and disposal is applied, it’s easy for contractors (who often act with ill will, unfortunately) to exaggerate the volume of the services they’ve provided. For example, they might catch and put down 50 animals but report capturing 100. Verifying that is a lot harder than it would be if the animals were alive and held [in shelters].”
Anastasia Komagina, the president of the Forgotten Animals Foundation, disagreed with her colleagues from the Animal Welfare Association. She broadly disapproves of the 2018 responsible treatment law: “It’s framed as humane. When it goes into effect completely, it’ll lead to the underground extermination of all stray animals, which is exactly what’s happening now.”
Komagina recognized that TNVR can be an effective approach but argued that it is only truly successful for regulating stray cat populations in locations with warmer climates such as Italy or Greece. “That’s because the conditions for [the animal’s] survival are more or less present. Cats are also less conflict-prone animals than dogs. But leaving dogs on the streets is a return to primitive society,” Komagina asserted.
She also said that introducing TNVR would not decrease corruption in the animal control system “because it’s impossible to control everything completely. The money gets transferred, the dog gets [sterilization] surgery, the money’s gone, and that’s it; there’s no control. If the dog dies two days after the operation, it’s a ‘natural death.’” According to Komagina, performing a high-quality operation under the state budgeting system (“whoever asks for less gets the contract”) is hardly likely to be an attractive option for contractors. And if animal welfare advocates take charge of spaying and neutering, she added, the local human population “will start harassing them.”
“That’s because people very strongly do not want to see stray dogs on the streets of their cities,” Komagina asserted. “People are scared, children are scared. The dogs really are territorially aggressive. I love dogs myself. I have dogs. But you have to understand that you can’t just close your eyes and say, ‘I’m not going to do euthanasia — let’s ban euthanasia.’ The dogs won’t stop dying after that. Unfortunately, they’ll die even crueler deaths.”
In her view, one alternative would be “transparent, humane euthanasia” as well as a general census of cats and dogs that would involve mandatory chip installation and education programs for pet owners on spaying and other issues. “Most of the inflow of stray animals onto the streets comes from the offspring of animals who have owners. They run away and have babies. They walk too far away during a visit to the dacha, and they just get left there,” the charity leader explained.
Maria Lezhneva of the Animal Welfare Association admitted that TNVR is only effective when applied alongside other measures — and when there is funding available for that entire package. She cited the situations in Sochi and Crimea as examples of unsuccessful TNVR implementation: There, contractors use the catch-and-release method as prescribed by humane animal protection laws, but the number of animals on the streets is still enormous. “Here, we allocate funds along the lines of ‘we have this much money, and we’re going to use it for this,’ not by thinking ‘we have this many dogs, and they have to be sterilized, so we’re going to allocate this much money.’ So these humane operations only affect a fraction of the dogs, and they don’t achieve the desired result,” Lezhneva explained.
“I understand that [Russia] isn’t going to become a paradise for animals in 2020,” she continued, “because humane treatment isn’t just about legislation — it’s about citizens, too.” According to the nonprofit director, up to 80 percent of dogs and cats end up on the street because their owners abandoned them. Pet owners who allow their animals to walk around freely without supervision also contribute to increases in stray pet populations.
“The problem of animals living outside is critical. There are too many animals,” Lezhneva concluded. “I think it’s going to take five to seven years to smooth out this system and stabilize the situation.” She didn’t know exactly how many stray animals live in Russia’s cities — that’s a study nobody has yet conducted.
Translation by Hilah Kohen