Apparently some 35,000 street dogs live in the city of Moscow. And they use the subway.
Every so often, if you ride Moscow's crowded subways, you notice that the commuters around you include a dog - a stray dog, on its own, just using the handy underground Metro to beat the traffic and get from A to B.
Yes, some of Moscow's stray dogs have figured out how to use the city's immense and complex subway system, getting on and off at their regular stops. The human commuters around them are so accustomed to it that they rarely seem to notice.
"In Moscow there are all sorts of stray dogs, but... there are no stupid dogs," Dr. Andrey Poyarkov, a biologist who has studied Moscow's strays for 30 years, told ABC News.
As many as 35,000 stray dogs live in Russia's capital city. They can be found everywhere, from markets to construction sites to underground passageways, scrounging for food and trying to survive. Taking the subway is just one of many tactics the strays have come up with for surviving in the manmade wilderness around them.
"The street is tough and it's survival of the fittest," says Poyarkov. "These clever dogs know people much better than people know them."
Poyarkov says that only a small fraction of strays have figured out how to navigate the maze that is Moscow's subway system.
What's most impressive about the subway dogs, says Poyarkov's graduate student, Alexei Vereshchagin, is their ability to deal with the Metro's loud noises and packed crowds, distractions that domesticated dogs often cannot handle.
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Author Eugene Linden, who has been writing about animal intelligence for 40 years, told ABC News that Moscow's resourceful stray dogs are just one of what are now thousands of recorded examples of wild, feral and domesticated animals demonstrating what appears, at least, to be what humans might call flexible open-ended reasoning and conscious
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Moscow's strays have also been observed obeying traffic lights, says Vereshchagin. He and Poyarkov report the strays have developed a variety of techniques for hunting food in the wild metropolis.
Sometimes a pack will send out a smaller, cuter member apparently realizing it will be more successful at begging than its bigger, less attractive counterparts.
Another trick the researchers report seeing is the bark-and-grab: a dog will suddenly jump up behind a person in the street who is holding some snack, enough of a surprise that the food gets dropped for the grabbing.
If you've traveled anywhere outside of North America, you've probably seen sizeable numbers of street dogs. There are street dogs in most US cities, although you're unlikely to see them if you're a tourist. Homeless dogs usually gravitate towards low-density residential areas, or even less populated areas like warehouse districts or large parks.
In New York, we lived near two large parks, both with heavily wooded areas, and we saw street dogs all the time. We knew several of them by sight and had our own names for them. Many people would leave food in certain spots, hoping the dogs would find our offerings before rats and birds did. One bitter cold day, I had an encounter with our favourite little shepherd mix, making direct, intense eye contact. It just about broke my heart. It hurts thinking about it even now.
These street dogs are just like street children. Although not loathed when they grow up. The story linked above has some video.
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There are wild domesticated dogs, known as strays, then there are wild dogs who aren't really dogs at all, but another canine species - and an endangered one. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof learned about them on a trip to Zimbabwe.
We humans are suckers for certain kinds of wildlife, from lions to elephants. I hadn’t known I was a zebra fan until I drove my rented car into a traffic jam of zebras here. My heart fluttered.
As for rhinos, they’re so magnificent that they attract foreign aid. Women here in rural Zimbabwe routinely die in childbirth for lack of ambulances or other transport to hospitals, and they get no help. But rhinos in this park get a helicopter to track their movements.
Then there are animals that don’t attract much empathy. Aardvarks. Newts. And, at the bottom tier, African wild dogs.
Wild dogs (which aren’t actually wild dogs, but never mind that for now) are a species that has become endangered without anyone raising an eyebrow. Until, that is, a globe-trotting adventurer named Greg Rasmussen began working with local villages to rebrand the dogs — and save them from extinction.
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Once the African wild dog was found by the hundreds of thousands across Africa, but today there are only a few thousand left, mostly in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Tanzania and South Africa.
Wild dogs are not dogs, which split off from wolves only in the last 30,000 years. In contrast, wild dogs last shared a common ancestor with dogs or wolves about 6 million years ago. They are the size of German shepherds and look like dogs, but they don’t bark and have different teeth and toes. And although many have tried, they have not been domesticated.
“Chimpanzees and gorillas are closer to us humans than wolves are to painted dogs,” Mr. Rasmussen said.
Note that terminology: “painted dogs.” Central to Mr. Rasmussen’s effort to save the dogs has been a struggle to rename them, so that they sound exotic rather than feral.
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The conservation center has also started economic development programs for nearby villages. The idea is for local people to benefit from the dogs’ presence and gain incomes so that they won’t feel the need to poach wildlife.
“What we’re trying to achieve here is a model not just for painted dogs, but something that applies for any species,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “Conservation has to be inclusive, and lots of people have to benefit.”
If clever marketing and strategic thinking can take reviled varmints such as “wild dogs” and resurrect them (quite justly) as exotic “painted dogs” to be preserved, then no cause is hopeless.
From Painted Dog Conservation:
They have a sort of Three Musketeers enthusiasm – all for one and one for all – and it’s a totally amazing social structure.
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Painted Dogs are intensely social animals, living most of the time in close association with each other. While a minimum of six dogs are necessary to successfully hunt and breed, a pack can be as small as a pair, or as large as thirty. Pack allegiance, such as pups getting first feed at a kill or members caring for the sick and injured, is an integral part of pack survival.
The power structure resides in an alpha male and female pair, whose pups are nurtured by auntie ‘baby sitters', regardless of their mother. The alpha female selects a denning site, digging the spot by herself with the help of the pack members, though she might choose an abandoned site, such as an aardvark hole.
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The strength of the Painted Dog pack is attributed to three unique aspects of behavior - socialization, vocalization, and hunting methods.
Socialization clearly translates into the unity that is formed between bonded peers and pack leaders. Over years of research, it has been learned that the dogs clearly mourn deceased pack members, which is a sign of emotional ties. The good news is that new packs can be created by respectful intervention - and the dogs have proven to adopt new members.
Adding to this is the trait of the Painted Dog to vocalize - the audible extension of the pack's social world. It is the underpinning of an advanced communication that plays out in the squeaky, thin call of their voices. It extends into the position of their ears and the message of their body posture. Communication is a vital, unique, and important strength of pack unity.
Finally, the Painted Dog hunting methods keep the pack strong. . . . Among the fastest and most efficient of Africa's predators, Painted Dogs hunt during the morning and before dusk, and also show a preference for utilizing the light of a full moon. Their goal is to draw minimum attention from stronger predators. But while they share the victory of tireless pursuits with the pack, often the longer chases end with more powerful competitors, such as the hyena, stealing their rewards. . . .
And here's an ordinary domestic dog who did an extraordinary thing.
A German Shepherd dog in Alaska has been given a hero's award for saving his owner's house from a fire.
Five-year-old Buddy guided a team of Alaska State Troopers through winding back roads to the property in a remote area some 55 miles north of Anchorage.
His owner, Ben Heinrichs, 23, was working on his truck inside his garage when a spark ignited near some fuel and caught fire, setting his clothes alight.
Mr Heinrichs managed to run outside, closing the door to stock the fire from spreading, and rolled in the snow to extinguish the flames on his clothes.
But he suddenly remembered the dog was still in the workshop and ran back to fetch him.
While Buddy escaped unscathed, his owner suffered minor burns on his face and second-degree burns on his left hand.
The dog subsequently ran off after his master said he needed help.
He was found on a road by the Alaskan police who had been alerted to the fire but had got lost.
As the police were about to turn down the wrong road, they caught sight in their headlights of Buddy who made eye contact with them and raced ahead down the right road, occasionally turning round to check they were behind him.
If you've ever gone on a hike or long walk with a herding dog without a leash, you'll immediately recognize that "occasionally turning around to check if you are there" behaviour. They'll run ahead for a bit, then turn around to check on you, wait til you almost catch up, then run ahead again. While a terrier or a hound will zoom off after any small, fast creature, a shepherding dog will tend to its flock.
When I sent the link about the Shepherd and the house fire to Allan, he emailed three words in reply: "I love dogs."
That's it. I love dogs.