Moscow is not just a human city. Since the early nineties another culture has living here: the dogs. Nearly 35,000 wild dogs live in the city (roughly one dog for every three hundred human Muscovites) and most are completely feral. They’ve mostly lost domesticated features and share a similar wolf-like physiology: medium build, thick fur, triangular heads, and erect ears.
But while these dogs are undoubtably feral, they are not your average strays.
Andrei Poyarkov and Alexei Vereshchagin of the A. N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution have studied the city’s dog population for decades and according to them the dogs generally fall into one of four stereotypes: wild ones, guards, scavengers, and beggars. Wild dogs are the most feral and wolf-like, hunting in singularly or in packs, eating whatever small animals they can catch. The guard dogs, on the other hand, adopt humans and follow them, hoping to secure food. Scavengers subsist on scraps and trash. These three stereotypes are not unique to Moscow and existed well before the 1990’s. However, the last ones, the beggars, they are something new.
Already famous for their ability to ride the Moscow subways, beggar dogs survive by using their intelligence to con or trick food away from humans. Younger, prettier members of a pack can simply beg for food – many Muscovites admit to feeding them. If that doesn’t work they have other tricks. The dogs will sometimes get food by sneaking behind distracted food-carrying pedestrians and startling them. The dog barks, the person jumps, the food drops and the dog runs off, prize in hand. A video featuring Alexei Vereshchagin explaining these behaviors can be seen here.
The dogs also display remarkable street sense. They seem to be good at picking marks, knowing who to ask, who to con, and how to avoid trouble. The dogs know not to defecate in busy areas. They’ve learned how to ride the trains and how to avoid winter frosts. These strategies have worked well, the beggars are usually much healthier than their cousins and they’ve even ingratiated themselves into Moscow culture. Despite some eradication and sterilization efforts, many people seem to genuinely like the dogs. One woman was even prosecuted after killing a local favorite in 2001.
Its worth remembering that these are still wild animals and attacks are not unheard of. However, the unique adaptations and culture surrounding these beggar dogs seems to have cemented their place in the Muscovite mind, at least for now.