This week, Russia will host the 2018 World Cup, one of the biggest international sporting events in the world. The country will play host to millions of tourists across the 11 host cities within the Russian Federation. Those visiting will be able to attend matches in Moscow, the capital city, as well as in tourist hubs like St. Petersburg, and lesser known regions like Saransk and Yekaterinburg. Given the significant influx of foreigners scheduled to visit these cities, regional governments have begun the long process of implementing cosmetic changes that would mask the glaring deficiencies in each of their cities. These changes include cleaning the streets, painting old houses and buildings, relocating homeless people, and slaughtering stray animals.
The culling of stray animals has even caused a schism within the Russian population. 1.8 million people signed a petition against the killing of stray animals, while protests are being held in several cities. Even notable Russian actors have spoken out against the campaigns. However, while the brutal slaughter of stray animals has been met with significant domestic and international resistance, those defending the animals continue to fight an uphill battle.
Killing stray animals is a lucrative business in Russia. Companies compete for municipal contracts that pay a set fee per animal killed. According to reports, Yekaterinburg paid a municipal waste management company over $533,000 in December 2017 to capture more than 4,500 dogs. The Moscow Times reported that the dogs were held up to two weeks before being euthanized.
“There is a lot of money in these contracts, which are often awarded to state-run companies,” Vladimir Burmatov, the head of the State Duma’s ecology and environmental protection committee, told the Moscow Times. “And because these matters are governed by individual municipalities, there is nothing a federal official can do.”
The extermination of stray animals in the months leading up to an international event is not a new practice in Russia. During the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, culling companies used poisoned darts to exterminate animals on the spot, and were well paid for their efforts. This caused an uproar among athletes and tourists visiting the city, as well as international outrage when pictures of the murdered animals went viral. However, the negative publicity did not stop cities from hiring these companies again ahead of the World Cup.
Basya Service LLC is one of the most notorious groups responsible for the culling campaigns over the past five years. The company has been involved in several scandals to do with the violation of animal welfare legislation. In 2012, a lawsuit was filed against the company alleging they used inhumane methods to cull the animals, including injecting them with a drug that causes asphyxiation and painful death. A second case was filed in 2013 by Rostov activists but the court deemed Basya Service innocent.
The most recent incident involving Basya Service LLC took place in February 2018, when an animal activist stumbled upon the carcasses of 20 dead dogs in a ravine near a town in Krasnodar Krai. A Basya Service employee was arrested and he later confessed to poisoning the animals and throwing away their bodies—per the request of his supervisor—in order to reduce costs.
Despite the court filling and controversy surrounding Basya Service LLC, the company continues to work with various municipal governments. In 2018, the company won a contract to capture stray animals in Sochi. As of April 2018, the company has already killed at least 58 animals.
“We could sit here sniffling all day, but I am working within the framework of our constitution,” Alexei Sorokin, the owner of Basya Service, told the Moscow Times. “Why are we worrying about dogs when we should be worried about people?”
When culling campaigns took place ahead of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, volunteers began to evacuate animals from the city. Moscow resident Igot Airapetyan made several trips between Moscow and Sochi and managed to evacuate over 100 animals in the process. Many of the animals were able to find new homes. Some even went to tourists and foreign athletes, who adopted them and started Instagram accounts for the animals.
However, when confronted about their brutal campaign to clean up the city’s streets ahead of the Winter Games, the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee denied any wrongdoing.
“All stray dogs that are found on the Olympic Park are collected by a professional veterinary contractor for the well-being of the people on the Park and the animals themselves,” the Committee said in a statement. “All healthy animals are released following their health check.”
This was followed by the erection of a government-funded animal shelter, which Sochi officials claimed would house the animals until after the games. However, activists saw the shelter as media distraction and an inefficient response that brought little more than cosmetic change. This strategy was repeated ahead of the World Cup in 2018, when deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko ordered all 11 cities hosting World Cup matches to set up temporary shelters for stray animals. Municipal shelters were built in St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Kaliningrad, and Saransk, with foster centres being built in the rest of the cities. Some of these shelters can expect an influx of stray animals ahead of the tournament, many of whom will spend the remainder of their lives in overcrowded cages.
It should be noted that Russia lacks federal legislation that specifically deals with the culling of stray animals and prefers to leave such matters to the regional governments and their allocated budgets. This complicates matter greatly, as each city is in control of their budgetary funds. Therefore, cities will be able to contract companies like Basya Service to eliminate the animals in the most cost-effective manner, even if that is deemed inhumane or against federal policy.
Further, while the Russian government has suggested reactionary measures to temporarily isolate the animals from the influx of tourists, it does not address or resolve the long-term issue facing the country and its stray animals.
According to the World Organization for Animal Health, the capture and culling of stray animals is an ineffective way to deal with stray animals because it does not provide a solution to the uncontrolled breeding of such animals. This organization endorses long-term solutions such as sterilization and vaccinations. However, such programs are not in place in Russia.
Moscow once operated under a sterilization program for stray animals between 1998 and 2008.18,000 dogs were reportedly sterilized during that decade, yet the government shut down the project after ruling it “ineffective.” As a result, regional officials continue to believe that population control through culling is the most cost-effective and efficient method to control the stray animals.
Russia’s animal elimination programs are not the only example of inhumane animal treatment during a football event. In April 2018, the Russian Football Federation was criticized for bringing in a circus bear named Tim to entertain the crowd during a third division match between FC Mashuk-KMV Pyatigorsk and FC Angusht Nazran. The bear, who had been restrained with a muzzle over his mouth, was forced to stand on his hind legs and clap to the crowd. He was then given a football in his front paws, which he handed back to the referee.
Despite the public outrage ahead of the 2014 Winter Games, it appears that Russia has not taken any significant steps over the past four years to put an end to the mass slaughtering and abuse of stray animals. As long as local governments are empowered to hire animal contract killers, and as long as mass euthanization continues to be the preferred solution, animals will continue to suffer when Russia hosts any kind of international event.