“I woke up around 6. At first I thought that someone threw out a piece of meat... There must have been about eight dogs out there.”1 Sergei Sileverstov, here quoted, saw what happened on the morning of February the 22nd. And what happened that morning made the local news, because it wasn’t just a piece of meat the dogs were eating. It was a woman: the fourth person to be mauled to death by feral dogs in the large Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk in the year 2020. Three days later, on February the 25th, they found a fifth victim.2 A quick survey of regional Russian news yields a surprising number of stories about people killed and eaten by dogs. The problem is national, aggravated by a new Federal law, “Concerning the responsible treatment of animals” that decrees stray dogs legally “ownerless” animals. The law forbids euthanizing or otherwise culling such ownerless animals and mandates, instead, that they be caught, castrated and “returned to their former habitat”—or else kept kenneled until they die of natural causes.31
TVK News. 2020. “The problem of homeless animals in Krasnoyarsk,” [“Problema bezdomnykh zhivotnykh v Krasnoyarske”] Feb 25, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPDTNwLPdNw.2
Efimova, Alexandra. 2020. “‘Dogs are eating people’: a series of mysterious deaths in Krasnoyarsk,” [“‘Sobaki zhrut liydei’: seriia zagadohnykh smertei v Krasnoyarske.”] Gazeta.ru. February 25, 2020. https://www.gazeta.ru/social/
Notably, all other animals are objects of property by Russian law, with wildlife adjudicated as state property. The text of the law “Concerning the responsible treatment of animals” in Russian: https://rg.ru/2018/12/29/fz-498-dok.html. For a brief analysis in English, see: Anisimov, AP and AJ Ryzhenkov. 2020. “Is It Possible to Change the Destiny of Stray Animals by Legal Means?” International Journal of Legal Discourse 4 (2): 143–66.
I’m writing to direct your attention to a startling fact: that in Russia right now, packs of feral dogs are mauling women, children and men, spreading zoonotic and parasitic infections, eating human corpses. And these dogs may not be killed. Their lives are protected by federal law. There are many directions an essay like this could have gone: into human and animal rights, into property rights and into the political imaginaries dominant in our late-liberal world. But for the sake of brevity, I write only to draw your attention to the fact itself. Feral dogs are mauling my fellow citizens and, tagged and castrated, being returned to the streets.
You may ask how this happened. For it is, indeed, a startling fact. In the Western Canon, to be eaten by dogs (or by carrion birds) is a widely known curse. God repeats this curse to several dishonorable Old Testament kings: “Dogs will eat those belonging to you who die in the city, and the birds will feed on those who die in the country.” This same curse hangs over Greek myth, over the Iliad and the Odyssey, over Antigone’s epic struggle to bury her brother, despite Creon’s edict that he be left “unburied, a corpse for birds and dogs to eat, a ghastly sight of shame.”
How did it happen? It was long in the making. In the Soviet Union, stray dogs were systematically eliminated. Following the 1928 resolution “On measures to combat rabies in dogs,” all unregistered and “stray (unowned, homeless) dogs [were] subject to capture and extermination.”4 But after this state’s collapse, trap–neuter–return (TNR) programs gradually replaced culling, for a variety of reasons: for lack of funds, for humanistic concern for animal lives, for the embezzlement schemes such TNR programs made possible. Free-roaming dogs turned into an endlessly profitable problem.5 In November 2016, President Putin declared that stray animals are an “inalienable part of the ecological system of cities.”6 In December 2018, he signed into force the above-mentioned law that now protects the lives of “ownerless dogs,” even those that have killed human beings and eaten their flesh.4
The cited law “O meropriiatiiakh po bor’be s beshenstvom sobak” was adopted by the Council of People’s Commissars of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic on Oct 1st 1928. Subsequent laws extended this policy of eliminating strays to the other Soviet republics. In all these laws, unregistered but valuable (high-bred) dogs could, after quarantine, be returned to their owners, transferred to interested state bodies and social organisations, or sold. Unregistered non-valuable animals were to be eliminated. For Stalin-era policies concerning keeping and breeding dogs, see Cherkaev, Xenia and Elena Tipikina. 2018. “Interspecies Affection and Military Aims: Was There a Totalitarian Dog?” Environmental Humanities 10 (1): 20–39.5
Striving for efficiency, the Russian Government hires state work orders out to private contractors, who bid for the jobs at auction. Lowest bidder wins. In the interests of transparency and good liberal governance, the results of these state tenders are then published on the site http://zakupki.gov.ru. From these published documents, I can say that, in 2019, it cost about 23,000 rubles ($385) to catch, castrate and release an ownerless dog in north-western Russia. Some towns in the more isolated regions opted to transport their ownerless animals elsewhere. But this was also not cheap: it cost the Siberian town of Bodaybo about $15,500 to transport its ownerless dogs to a shelter in the regional capital of Irkutsk. The animals went in airplanes and in specially еquipped cars. For comparison, the minimum monthly pension in Bodaybo is around 8,800 rubles, or $137. A regional TV station reported on the plan to transfer Bodaybo’s strays in February 2019 [https://www.
youtube.com/watch?v=PXbwOoi7DV0]. The contract was signed in May 2019. It is published here: http://zakupki.gov.ru/epz/order/notice/
Putin, V.V. 2016. “Meeting of the Council for strategic development and high priority projects.” Kremlin, Moscow. http://kremlin.ru/events/
So this is a story of cities, laws and ecology. Putin’s phrasing gets to heart of the problem: if stray animals are an “inalienable part of the ecological system of cities,” then their place in the city is a question of natural law. But this natural law is one-sided, like Maxwell’s demon. Following natural instinct, dogs might kill humans. But humans must abide by human law, which forbids killing such “ownerless animals.” This law neither defines the term “animal” nor lists which species of animal it protects. It only lists those that fall outside of its jurisdiction: those that are managed as wildlife or used for hunting, fishing, agriculture and laboratory work. But in practice, the “ownerless animal” is quite narrowly understood: the term is limited to dogs, and perhaps also cats, but definitely exclusive of vermin. Cockroach traps, fly tape, mouse traps, rat poison, all these methods of killing parasitic species are still sold widely in stores.
What is the difference between dogs and rats? I keep turning this question over and over again in my mind in this year of the rat, 2020, and I do not have an answer. Except perhaps this: dogs are easier to anthropomorphize, they fit better into our “suffering slot.”7 Late-liberal politics thrives on the image of suffering victims. It multiplies and compounds them: the innocent homeless dog, the innocent old lady, the innocent child, the most deserving.8 Against them, the less deserving, less innocent: drunks, junkies, hooligans, bums, perverts, welfare-queens.7
Robbins, Joel. 2013. “Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19 (3): 447–62.8
Ticktin, Miriam. 2017. “A World without innocence.” American Ethnologist 44 (4): 577–90.
The rat, by contrast, is neither guilty nor innocent. A rat’s motivation is not judged, it does not need to prove its aggression to deserve poison: feral rats’ very lives are unjustified in human cities. Not so with dogs. Decreeing that dogs not expressing “unmotivated aggression” may be returned “to their former habitat,” the 2018 Federal law makes us question a dog’s motivation. But who is to judge when aggression is properly motivated? If an innocent child taunts an innocent dog, and the innocent dog mauls the innocent child, whose innocence should prevail?9 An absurd question. It rises from the juridical acrobatics of this Federal law that brought an entire species—Canis lupus familiaris—inside the proverbial city walls as a tabooed nature preserve.9
In early November, a pack of Krasnoyarsk dogs attacked two brothers, aged 9 and 11, the older boy escaped and ran for help. He came back with the clerk of a nearby store, Natalia Lugovkina, who beat the dogs off and saved the younger boy’s life. She has been awarded the State Medal for “Valour and Courage.” The dogs, however, have not been destroyed. “One dog chased us back to the store, like prey,” Lugovkina recounted in a subsequent interview: “The others stood up on that hill in a half-circle, looking. I saw one of them yesterday: it’s yellow, with a black muzzle. It stood up on that hill, showing its teeth—[must be because] a man had walked by with his own dog. I up and ran back to the store then” (Guseinov, Viktor. 2019 “‘Feral dogs chased us, like prey’: a Krasnoyarsk store clerk recounted how she saved a child from enraged dogs.” [‘Odichavshie sobaki gnali nas, kak dobychu’: prodavets iz Krasnoyarska rasskazala, kak spasala rebenka ot raz”airennykh psov”] Komsomol’skaya Pravda, November 12, 2019. https://www.krsk.kp.ru/daily/27054/4120648/).
The proverbial city walls separate nature from culture. And this is never so simple as distinguishing between different species, between men and beasts. The walls separate particular human and non-human relations, they enclose ethics and politics. My pet rat sleeps with me in my bed, but the feral rats that come into my house meet their fate in the spring-loaded rattrap. My pet dog sleeps with me in my bed, but ownerless dogs roam the city streets down below us—perhaps seeking our deaths—and we may no longer kill them. The walls are as shifty as our social imaginaries of nature and culture. Somewhere nearby them are always those beings who act in human history while caring nothing about it. (Look at how people explain such creatures—S. J. Tambiah tells us—and in these animal taboos you’ll see society’s structure reflected.10) And where are the others? Those city folk whose bodies are eaten by ownerless dogs, whose lives end in the teeth of these newly tabooed forces of nature? Here and there, dogs trot along Russian streets carrying partially consumed human heads.11 These things happen. And the evil of this situation is not in the physical fact of consumption. In some places, exposure to scavengers—typically, vultures—is an honorable way to dispose of the dead.12 To be eaten thus is a blessing. But in Creon’s Greece it was a curse: a sign of a life ended alone, outside the city, outside human law and a ghastly, therefore, sight of shame.10
Tambiah, S. J. 1969. “Animals Are Good to Think and Good to Prohibit.” Ethnology 8 (4): 423–59.11
The incident with the severed human head happened in Saratov in late November 2019 (Kulikov, Andrei. 2019. “In Saratov a dog found a human head in an empty lot” [V Saratore sobaka nashla na pustyre chelovecheskuiu golovu]. Rossiskaia Gazeta, November 29. https://rg.ru/2019/11/29/reg-pfo/v-saratove-sobaka-nashla-na-pustyre-chelovecheskuiu-golovu.html).12
van Dooren, Thom. 2014. Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. New York: Columbia University Press.
I opened this essay with a grisly eyewitness account of a woman’s death, of her body’s disparagement. I should like to close with the words of Svetlana Zagumennikova, director of the private firm contracted by the city of Krasnoyarsk to manage its ownerless dogs. Asked about the multiple recent deaths, the dog-catcher expressed doubt that dogs should be faulted at all. The victims all had similar injuries, she said, “and all of them were undressed. You know, a dog can’t undress you and take off your boots. Preliminary reports show that the victims were people with no certain place of residence.”13 She suggested that those mauled to death had been bums.14 That body with which I opened this essay, the one that eyewitnesses mistook for a slab of discarded meat, was the third body found in that state in that particular neighborhood in the course of two weeks. Vladislav Loginov, vice-mayor of Krasnoyarsk, commented on these deaths as follows: “our jurisprudence is developing and, unfortunately, it develops into ever greater humaneness. We have laws that are loyal to dogs who have no certain place of residence. But with regard to people with no certain place of residence, no such laws exist.”1513
Striganova, Tat’iana. 2020. “The dog catching firm commented a city official’s detention following the death of a woman with bite marks.” [“Na predpriiatii po otlovu sobak prokommentirovali zaderzhanie chinovnika posle smerti zhenshiny so sledami ukusov”] ngs24.ru Krasnoyarsk online, February 25, 2020. https://ngs24.ru/news/more/68983060/.14
Zagumennikova is mistaken. Some of the victims were on their way home from work, others, like Galina Olegovna, were running to catch the bus. Galina Olegovna was saved by a passer-by, who beat off the dogs and called an ambulance. Hours later, another woman was attacked in the same location and died from her wounds. A TV reporter explains: “the problem of stray dogs will not be solved until a shelter is built for them. According to city officials, this will take over 200 million rubles.” Galina Olegovna says: “I could see my own bones.” Telekanal Enisei. 2020. “Crime lab reports regarding corpses with animal bite-marks published in Krasnoyarsk” [“V Krasnoyarske stali izvestny rezul'taty ekspertiz trupov so sledami zverinykh ukusov”] March 4, 2020. https://www.enisey.tv/news/post-20658/.15
Channel 7 Krasnoyarsk. 2020. “Another fatal casualty of dog attacks discovered in Krasnoyarsk,” [“V Krasnoyarske nashli eshe odnogo pogibshego ot napadeniia sobak”] February 25, 2020. http://www.trk7.ru/news/106493.html.