Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Man-Dog Case: The Life of a Stray in Russia

BROOKLYN, New York -- I was a member of the debate team in college, competing in an extemporaneous style known as American Parliamentary debate. We competed in tournaments around the northeast, and we had rather limited success (limited, really, to a single moment, when we bested one of the top teams in North America by successfully defending the right of professional basketball players to use performance-enhancing drugs). When we entered the final round of a weekend tournament, and it was clear that we had no chance of making the playoff rounds (know as the "break" in debater parlance), we would often debate topics that were absurd or funny because the outcome didn't really matter. One such joke case was a particular favorite, and it was known as "The Man-Dog Case." In the scenario of this debate, you find yourself transformed overnight into a dog, and the question up for debate is this: do you stay at home and become a docile, domesticated dog, or do you choose to roam the streets as a stray?

Inevitably, the debate regresses into a discussion about the pleasures of dog sex, whether trash is tastier than kibble, and how hard it really is to evade dog catchers. This was certainly not the highest level of discourse possible, but during my time living and traveling in Russia, this debate stuck with me. The country is crawling with stray dogs nearly everywhere you go, from the center of Moscow to remote Siberian villages. When I saw these dogs huddled in great masses at my local subway station, or chasing children on dirt roads outside Irkutsk, I thought to myself, is it good to be a stray in Russia? Russian strays have been in the news a lot lately, so I decided to have a debate based on these stories as well as my own work as an amateur canine biologist. So let's do some debate!

In support of the resolution, it is better to live as a stray in Russia than live in a home.

Contention #1: You might get sent into space.

This is the dream of all stray dogs. All the dogs of the early Soviet space missions were female strays picked up off the streets of Moscow. Of the 11 sent into space, six returned to earth safely, including Strelka, who would later give birth to Pushinka, a puppy that was given as a gift by Nikita Khrushchev to the Kennedy family. From the streets of Moscow to the space program to the White House in one generation – now that's what I call the American Dream. You will also get your portrait hung in an obscure museum in Los Angeles, as a bonus.

Contention #2: You will have free reign of the Moscow subway.

Back in April, Moscow's subway-riding canines became a bit of an Internet sensation, as blogs and news sites latched on to this latest meme. These dogs are not news, and I had I been diligent with my blog posting, I could have "scooped" all these sites with my personal knowledge of Russian strays. Regardless, dogs freely ride the subway in Moscow, often sacking out on benches or taking over whole sections of cars. They cannot read Russian or understand the announcements (much like your average tourist), nor can they count or read a map, so to find their desired stop, they quickly hop off the train, look around to see if they recognize the station, and then either get off or jump back on the train before the doors close. Perhaps their most amazing feat is their ability to coolly ride the gargantuan escalators, which would easily spook your average American house pet. Riding the subway has also given Moscow strays an evolutionary advantage, as they have become smarter and developed advanced behaviors never before seen in other dogs (Metrodog.ru is no longer actively updated, but it is a great archive of these canine behaviors).

Contention #3: There are career opportunities in advertising.

Advertisers abhor blank space, and stray dogs are really just underutilized billboards. So, in 2002 in the city of Penza, a local business began employing the beasts for advertising. After being snared by means of an enticing meatball, the dogs then had stencil advertisements spray-painted across their bodies and were then released unharmed back into the streets to unknowingly flog the wares of a number of different brands, including the country's largest oil producer, Lukoil.

And opposing the resolution.

Contention #1: You might get sent into space.

While some space dogs went onto lives of fame and fortune, Laika and four other less fortunate hounds never got the chance to enjoy their notoriety, as they ran out of oxygen and their capsules burned up in the atmosphere.

Contention #2: You might get poisoned and turn green.

Stray dogs have become masters at tracking down the most delicious detritus of human civilization, and they will travel across the city, and even make several subway transfers, to feast on discarded shawarma. But even for a dog, there is no such thing as a free lunch. In Yekaterinburg, a pack of about 20 dogs has reportedly turned green after scavenging in a local dump. Officials believe that the color change is due to the dogs consuming chemicals that were illegally dumped at the site. It was probably no worse than being spray-painted by an advertising company, but eating trash, poisoned or otherwise, probably sucks pretty bad.

Contention #3: People will try to castrate and kill you.

Last year the Moscow city government announced plans to spay and neuter nearly half of the city's estimated 100,000 strays. This program was coupled with a plan to erect several shelters around the city to house homeless dogs, but these facilities are horribly mismanaged. Rather than sterilize the dogs and house them during their recovery, as the city program intended, most shelters just kill the animals, keeping them in appalling conditions before putting them down while pocketing the cash from the city. At least dogs do not have to worry about the police so much anymore – until 2002, police officers were authorized to shoot any stray dogs on the street, a policy which likely endangered far more people with wild gunfire than it saved from marauding strays. Now Russian dog catchers use tranquilizers to subdue animals.

So, would you choose the life of a tramp, endlessly riding the underground rails in search of your next meal, or would you choose a cozy life in a Moscow high-rise? I'm still undecided, but I think all that we have learned from this debate is that while Russian strays are some of the most resilient, resourceful, and adorable creatures on earth, being pretty much anything in Russia, man or beast, is quite a terrible proposition.