Volunteers carry dogs to trains because many of the animals are too weak or too scared to get to the cars on their own in Ulan-Ude, Russia.

Volunteers carry dogs to trains because many of the animals are too weak or too scared to get to the cars on their own in Ulan-Ude, Russia. (Dog of Happiness)

RIGA, Latvia - Nearly every day, volunteers in Buryatia, a Russian republic in east Siberia, carry terrified and malnourished dogs in their hands to the Ulan-Ude train station. For more than 3,000 canines held in the region’s shelters, the mass evacuation to cities thousands of miles away may be their last chance to avoid being killed.

In November, Buryatia became the first region to adopt laws reinstating a “kill-shelter” approach to controlling the population of stray dogs after President Vladimir Putin signed a law giving regional heads authority to deal with the issue independently.

The new regulations allowed authorities in Buryatia to set up ill-defined “temporary shelters” where stray animals suffering from diseases, dogs considered “socially dangerous” and those unclaimed for more than 30 days are put down.

The animals are supposed to be subject to “humane euthanasia,” via two injections: an anesthetic that puts the animal to sleep, and then a chemical that stops their heart or lungs. Rights activists, however, say that state clinics and subcontractors, trying to save money, often use only muscle relaxants, which suffocates a conscious animal.

Buryatia’s new laws contradict Russia’s previous animal protection policies and, in particular, promises made by Putin - a dog lover himself - during his 2020 push to rewrite the country’s constitution. The revisions paved the way for Putin to stay in power until 2036 and also introduced various other changes, including a provision about the need to shape “a sense of responsibility when treating animals” in Russian society.

The measure targeted animal rights activists who for years decried lack of any legal accountability for people who mistreated or abandoned their pets, or failed to chip or neuter them. In the past, volunteers also reported even more brutal animal control methods in some regions after finding stray dogs with slit throats or crushed skulls.

During one campaign event ahead of the constitutional referendum, Putin said that the new constitutional requirement “allows us to feel like civilized people.” Other laws effectively outlawed kill-shelters and mass euthanasia.

But all that changed last spring when two people were found dead in the southern Astrakhan region with bite marks on their bodies, and after a pack of dogs fatally mauled an 8-year-old boy in the city of Orenburg. The attacks drew the ire of local residents and Astrakhan governor Igor Babushkin responded by launching a lobbying campaign to overturn the animal protection laws, said Yuri Koretskikh, director of the Animal Defenders Alliance.

“There were scandals one after another, dog packs grew because money allocated to tackle that [was] stolen,” Koretskikh said. The governor, he added, “decided to simply shed any responsibility and thus blame everything on the fact that authorities cannot kill dogs, hence they are roaming the streets and are dangerous.”

The draft law was introduced in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, by Sardana Avksentieva, the former mayor of Yakutsk in Russia’s Far East, who had been blamed for the deaths of more than 200 cats and dogs discovered with their throats cut in a local shelter.

Avksentieva denied any involvement and officials said the measure was necessary to control a rabies outbreak. Local activists accused the mayor of killing animals to save money on shelter maintenance.

Koretskikh said the speed with which the law sailed through the Duma was likely the result of lobbying from several governors who squandered or misappropriated state funds allocated to a trap-neuter-return program, sabotaging the initiative for years even as other regions demonstrated successful declines in their stray dog populations.

In Buryatia, a measure was in force for the past two years that banned shelters from releasing neutered animals more than 10 inches tall - essentially condemning any dog bigger than a spitz or a chihuahua. That restriction overwhelmed the region’s already packed shelters.

Many larger animals were held in a private shelter called Ananda that received a government grant to house hundreds of dogs subject to the height restriction. But in August, the funding ended and a handful of volunteers had to find resources to feed roughly 3,000 dogs held there.

Three months later Buryatia authorized euthanasia, with officials saying that in the past three years, the region had experienced six high-profile cases of dogs attacking humans, with four deaths and two cases in which children suffered “irreparable moral and physical damage.”

Governor Aleksei Tsydenov said “it is more humane to euthanize a dog than to keep it in an enclosure all its life,” while other officials argued that released animals would gather in packs and continue attacking people.

Since late December, the volunteers from the local Sobaka Schastya 0r “Dog of Happiness” Foundation, have been waking up almost daily at 3 a.m. to retrieve dogs from the shelter and put them on a train to destinations that are sometimes three to four days of travel away.

“Almost every evacuation looks like this because many dogs are afraid, many of them are weak, and this is their first time in such an environment. They are scared of trains,” Daria Zaitseva, director of the foundation, said. “So we have to carry most of the dogs in our hands.”

The foundation has evacuated nearly 150 dogs from Buryatia, with some pets finding homes as far away as Switzerland. Foundation volunteers have also set up a network of Telegram channels to place the remaining dogs somewhere else in the country.

Videos of volunteers putting petrified dogs on trains have gone viral in Russia, lifting adoption rates around the New Year’s holiday - but the organization fears the interest won’t last and that there isn’t enough money and hands to look after the dogs still in the shelter, let alone successfully evacuate everyone.

Many of these dogs in Buryatia’s shelter have registered owners who effectively abandoned them by allowing them to roam. If a captured animal has a tag or chip, it will be sheltered for 60 days before being put down. Shelters are allowed to keep dogs at their own expense but activists say that’s unrealistic because private facilities are already drowning without government support.

“In Buryatia we do have a problem of homeless animals because people largely live in their own homes, there is no culture of treating animals responsibly and no one is working with the population to change that,” the manager of the Ananda shelter, Nargiza Muminova, said.

Muminova said she is registering the remaining dogs as private property of shelter employees to save them from euthanasia. .

Three other regions followed Buryatia and implemented laws that allow the killing of animals after as few as 11 days.

One member of the Duma’s ecological committee, Vladimir Burmatov, has criticized the Buryatian authorities, saying the new law doesn’t mean they can have “stray animal safari” and instead should focus on chipping and neutering.

“If we take Buryatia, even if volunteers manage to move all of these poor dogs out of the region, this won’t help the situation because they will start killing new ones,” Koretskikh said. “And with other regions joining, we may have tens of thousands of animals a year and no resources to save them all, and the volunteers will have to accept that we are back to the mass murders the way it was six years ago.”

Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

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