Russian stray dogs cross the street

Street packs of Moscow: Russian dogs who travel by train

Sep 17 | 39 sharesCallum Henderson

I don't know about you, but I'm not the biggest fan of getting the underground. Of all the forms of public transport, it's the most convenient by a large margin, and yet there's a lot of reasons why I've gradually come to dread it every morning - and I'm sure that most inner-city travellers will agree with me. Come the rush hour, using any kind of subway system is a living hell. You're crowded into a tiny space, your face squished against the glass door, while you do your level best not to accidentally grope someone next to you. It's bad enough having to share a subway car with a bunch of strangers most of whom are probably sick with some ghastly bug, but in Moscow the locals have to share a carriage with a few furry friends: stray Russian dogs.

An empty subway carriage. Credit: StockSnap

Yes, it turns out that in Mother Russia, the canine population is in just as much of a hurry to get from Point A to Point B as their homo sapien counterparts. Rather than roaming the streets of the capital city on their paws, these Russian dogs have resorted to travelling via the metro system, and they're completely capable of understanding the intricacies of a network that continues to stump most human tourists.

Sounds unbelievable right? Like the Jersey Devil, or the gators that supposedly dwell in the sewers of New York City. Yet there are numerous photographs of these stray dogs going about their business. Muscovites, for their part, are fond of the animals, and do little to deter them from riding the trains. Indeed, they often beg for scraps and treats from travellers on the lines; something which potentially attracted the canines to the metro system in the first place.

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The Financial Times estimates that there are around 35,000 stray dogs wandering the streets of Moscow, and approximately 500 dogs currently inhabit the subway stations, although there are usually more dogs in the colder months, entering the metro to seek shelter from the harsh winter weather. A significant number of these animals have learned, by trial and error, which trains to travel on and what destinations they stop off at, a phenomenon which has left a number of animal behaviouralists utterly baffled, and numerous theories have been expostulated over the years in an attempt to rationalise the uncanny intuition these pooches display.

Some believe that the dogs are capable of picking up the scents of particular stations to determine their location, others think that the dogs are capable of judging the length of time spent on the train in between stations, and use the passage of time to work out their ultimate destination. Some people even imagine that the dogs can recognise the names of the station, which are announced over the train's loudspeaker system.

Biologist Dr. Andrey Poyarkov has spent the last 30 years investigating the behaviour of these remarkably intelligent animals. Since less than three percent of abandoned dogs can expect to survive the streets, Poyarkov believes that domestication and co-operation have helped the dogs thrive in an urban environment. "In Moscow there are all sorts of stray dogs, but there are no stupid dogs ... The street is tough and it's survival of the fittest. These clever dogs know people much better than people know them," Poyarkov stated.

"To see a wild wolf is a real event ... But with stray dogs you can watch them for as long as you want and, for the most part, be quite near them ... The second difference between stray dogs and wolves is that the dogs, on average, are much less aggressive and a good deal more tolerant of one another ... What has changed significantly [with domestication] is a range of hormonal and behavioural parameters, because of the brutal natural selection that eliminated many aggressive animals ... With stray dogs, we’re witnessing a move backwards. That is, to a wilder and less domesticated state."

The dogs have a variety of clever methods of begging for food, and often travel in groups, irrespective of breed. The bigger, scarier looking pack leaders have even been observed sending the smaller, cuter puppies ahead of the rest of the pack to beg, since they are less threatening and more likely to return with dinner.

Even though the dogs are treated kindly, for the most part, there are many who see them as disease carrying pests, and many officials have made it clear that they would prefer to be rid of them. Dogcatchers work night and day to impound the homeless dogs, and there have even been campaigns in the past to sterilise them. None of these ideas have had much of an impact, however.

The Kremlin, Moscow. Credit: StockSnap

One metro dog, which was named "Malchik" was immortalised in the form of a statue and plaque, after he was tragically killed in the station. The black mongrel stray lived at the Mendeleyevskaya station for three years, and was popular with travellers who frequented that particular stop, and was often seen barking to deter drunks from sleeping in his territory. However, in 2001, mentally ill fashion model Yuliana Romanova, who had prior a history of crimes against animals, stabbed Malchik six times with a kitchen knife.

Romanova was subsequently arrested and underwent a year of intense psychiatric treatment for the slaying of Malchik. A bronze statue, paid for by public donations, now stands proudly at the entrance of Mendeleyevskaya station; a reminder that the strays are now considered an essential part of the Moscow experience.

They may be a nuisance to some, and abhorred by others, but the implications they raise in biological terms are staggering, and it's clear that we have a lot to learn from them. If nothing else, they certainly serve to make subway a less tedious experience, and for that perhaps, we humans - who abandoned these dogs in the first place - should be grateful.