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Evolution or De-Evolution: The Metro Dogs of Moscow

Updated on February 2, 2010
Waiting for the 8:10 To Tverskaya Maxim Marmur.
Waiting for the 8:10 To Tverskaya Maxim Marmur.

There are approximately 35,000 stray dogs in Moscow, Russia averaging one stray per every 300 Muscovites; or, to put it another way – approximately 84 dogs per square mile.

These stray dogs can be seen everywhere in Moscow – lying in apartment courtyards, roaming the streets, riding the Metro.

Andrei Poyarkov, 56, is a biologist working at the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in south-west Moscow. Poyarkov specializes in wolves and has dedicated himself to studying the stray dogs of Moscow. His work began about 30 years ago; and, he has made some very interesting observations.

He maintains that their appearance and behaviour has changed even over the relatively short time he’s been studying them. The stray dogs of Moscow have been around for as long as the city of Moscow Poyarkov claims; and, Vladimir Gilyarovsky, the writer and journalist, reports on them in the last half of the 19th century. Since that time to the present day, the dogs have evolved or de-evolved into a group of animals that all look similar to one another and appear to be somewhere between dogs and wolves. They are all medium-sized with thick fur, wedge-shaped heads, almond eyes, long tails and erect ears.

An interesting observation is that nearly all of the city’s strays are born into the packs. A household pet that is dumped onto the street to fend for itself will almost certainly die. Poyarkov estimates that fewer than 3% of these pets are accepted by the groups.

Poyarkov has found four specific designations within the stray dog packs. He identifies guard dogs, scavenger dogs, wild dogs and the beggars.

The guard dogs attach themselves to personnel, such as guards at secured worksites; and, act as their unofficial assistants. The dogs look upon the personnel as their masters and will perform jobs for them such as accompanying them on their rounds or protecting the site from intruders. In exchange, they are rewarded with food and, with any luck, a warm bed for the night.

The scavengers specialize in roaming the streets and eating garbage where ever they may find it. Most Muscovites appreciate the role these dogs play in keeping the rodent population down and the streets clean by eating the edible scraps on the streets and in the garbages.

The wild dogs most resemble their distant relatives the wolf. These are the ones that hunt mice, rats, and cats when the sun goes down. Again Muscovites realize the role these dogs play in keeping the rodent populations under control.

The beggar dogs; however, are the ones with the most specialized behaviours. Not only have they learned to recognize people who are carrying food; but, they can determine which ones are most likely to share that food with them. A very specialized group of beggars have even learned to ride the subway allowing them to expand their begging territories. (It is important to mention that the residents view these dogs fondly; and, there is even a website dedicated to the subway dogs: This is the group that appreciates intelligence the most. It is only through cunning and an understanding of people that they manage to remain alive.

A commuter stops to pet the statue erected to the memory of Malchik.
A commuter stops to pet the statue erected to the memory of Malchik.

Muscovites love their stray dogs and the statue of Malchik is mute testimony to that.

Several years ago, Yulia Romanova, a 22-year-old model was making her way through the Mendeleyevskaya metro station. She had her much loved Staffordshire terrier with her when one of the metro dogs, Malchik growled at both of them. Malchik was a guardian stray who had made this station his home and defended it against drunks and other dogs.

Instead of just walking away, Romanova took a kitchen knife out of her backpack and stabbed Malchik to death. She was arrested, tried and sentenced to a year of psychiatric treatments. A sympathetic public donated enough money to pay for the bronze statue of Malchik which stands at the entrance to the Mendeleyevskaya station. It has come to represent all of the 35,000 stray dogs that call Moscow their home.

It will be interesting to see what other revelations come to light as Vladimir Gilyarovsky continues his studies.

A beggar dog takes an impromptu nap.
A beggar dog takes an impromptu nap.

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