The streets of Moscow, Russia are overrun with stray dogs—some have even learned to ride the subway to get from place to place. Andrei Poyarkov, a biologist at the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Moscow, who has observed the strays for 30 years, told the Financial Times that in 2010 there were approximately 84 stray dogs per square mile. Many have adapted to their urban environment by using traffic signals to cross streets with pedestrians and developed psychological skills like targeting humans most likely to offer scraps of food. The dogs in Moscow have become part of the landscape of the city. Could this happen in St. Louis?
There are approximately 20,000 stray dogs running the streets of St. Louis and, across the river, through East St. Louis, according to Stray Rescue founder Randy Grim, who has personally observed and rehabilitated thousands of strays over the past 20 years. Stray Rescue, along with Gateway Pet Guardians, are local nonprofit organizations that deal directly with the stray dog problem in St. Louis.
Both Stray Rescue and Gateway Pet Guardians are “no kill” shelters that feed, rescue and rehabilitate street dogs and place them in permanent or foster homes. The work of these organizations has resulted this year in the closing of the city pound, which euthanized many of the captured dogs. The city’s Animal Control Division now refers most of their stray dog calls to Stray Rescue, who receives little to no funding from the city for this responsibility.
Grim tells SciJourner that over 50% of the strays in and around St. Louis are considered feral. The World Organisation for Animal Health, an agency devoted to improving animal health worldwide and whose standards are adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, defines a feral dog as “a domestic dog that has reverted back to the wild state and is no longer directly dependent upon humans for successful reproduction.” The feral dogs in St. Louis have never been touched by humans and form packs to help them survive in their search for food and shelter, says Grim. Stray Rescue claims that one female dog and her offspring could produce 67,000 pups in seven years time.
Many of the dogs on the streets are extremely malnourished and suffer from diseases like parvovirus, heartworm, intestinal parasites, and mange—a disease caused by a parasite that lives in the skin, resulting in hair loss and leaving the dog defenseless against extreme cold or the sun’s rays. The average lifespan of a stray on the streets is 1 to 2 years, according to Stray Rescue, as compared to 8 to 16 years for a dog in a home, as stated by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Typically, larger dogs have shorter life spans than smaller dogs.
Many stray and feral dogs in St. Louis suffer from diseases. However most of these diseases are not transmissible to humans. Incidents of rabies have drastically decreased in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Prior to 1960, about 100 people died each year of rabies compared to a current average of 2 to 3 deaths per year. This is mainly due to improved vaccination and education. The CDC states that the primary cause of human-related rabies cases in the U.S. are now raccoons, bats, and skunks.
However this is not the case worldwide. Due to limited resources and improper monitoring of the disease in some countries, 90% of human-related rabies cases worldwide are the result of transmission from dogs, says the CDC.
In addition, the National Canine Research Center (NCRC), an organization that publishes, initiates, and distributes research and information on issues related to dogs, states that despite an increase in dog population, incidents of dog bites in Missouri have declined over the past three decades. Although cases of dog-related fatalities grab media attention, the chances of being killed by a dog in Missouri are about the same as being killed by lightning. The NCRC states that in the year 2007, 5 times as many children died from abuse and neglect than from dog attacks over the past 45 years.
Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans, and New York are just a few of the U.S. cities claiming to have a problem with stray dog overpopulation and the issue is worse on a global level. While organizations like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the ASPCA admit that determining an accurate number of strays in the U.S. is virtually impossible, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) claims that of the estimated 500 million dogs in the world, 75% are stray. India is estimated to have 30 million strays and Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone, is thought to have the highest population density of strays in all of Africa–100,000, according to the WSPA.
In the U.S., the “epidemic of feral and abandoned dogs,” says Stray Rescue, has gotten worse since the 1980’s when an increase in dog fighting coupled with dogs bred for aggressiveness for protection in low income areas lead to unwanted or unmanageable dogs being dumped in abandoned areas of the city to fend for themselves. Most of the dogs found by Stray Rescue are not spayed or neutered, adding to an overpopulation problem, and many that were used in dog fighting as “bait dogs” suffer from lost limbs, open wounds and extreme fear.
The case of football quarterback Michael Vick in 2007 brought national attention to the cruelty of dog fighting and led to the activity becoming a felony in all 50 states. In Missouri, the running of a dog fighting ring or possession of fighting dogs is considered a Class D Felony with up to 10 years in prison. Missouri also toughened laws against spectators of dog fighting, raising a second offense from a misdemeanor to a felony. Two years ago, the HSUS began offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a dogfighter and created a national tip line to help combat the problem on a national level.
A walk through Stray Rescue’s Pine Street facility shows row after row of pure and mixed breed Pit Bulls, Boxers, Chows, Shepherds, and Rottweilers barking loudly and jumping at the glass enclosures and steel bars. The vet clinic houses dogs who bear visible scars caused by malnourishment, transmissible venereal tumors (TVT), and mange, along with invisible scars from mistreatment, abuse and neglect at the hands of people, say volunteers at the clinic.
The feral dogs do not bark, jump, lunge forward, growl or wag their tail when people approach their enclosure. As a pack, they lift their heads in unison and stare. A volunteer at Stray Rescue warns, “They are terrified of humans."
“Rarely do I run across a stray that is trying to hurt me,” says Grim. “They are usually too scared. Once in a while though, you do get confronted with a dangerous situation, but these are usually dogs that are aggressive because they’ve been made that way by the abuse and callousness of humans.” The Stray Rescue organization has shown success in rehabilitating dogs that have been aggressive, fearful and full of disease, with average rehabilitation time taking 6–8 months.
Scientists are now studying the relationship between dogs and humans. The domestication and evolution of dogs is being studied by a group of researchers from Stanford University, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and the National Human Genome Research Institute. During the past two years, this trifecta of researchers have taken blood samples from 1,200 stray “village dogs” on five continents in order to begin genotyping strays around the world, according to a press release issued this year by the National Science Foundation.
Last year, the team of geneticists and biologists from UCLA confirmed that most breed dogs originated from the Middle Eastern Gray Wolf, with less than 0.2 % difference in their genetic makeup. Real domestication began around 14,000 B.C. with the rise of agriculture in the Middle East. The small percentage of genetic difference between wolf and dog accounts for all the diversity in domestic breeds, along with a dependence on humans for food and shelter.
Domesticated dogs have lost their instinct to hunt. The strays in St. Louis avoid humans, scavenging through trash during early morning or late night hours, says Grim. Limited opportunities for food contribute to the strays’ malnourishment and disease problems.
Stray Rescue states that the problem of strays in St. Louis is not improving nor getting worse, but rather staying about the same. As Grim and his volunteers rescue dogs daily from the streets, some brought to their doorsteps, like the litter of 8 puppies found the morning of June 28 in the makeshift doghouse in front of the Pine Street facility, other dogs are replacing them–abandoned, thrown out or born on the city streets of St. Louis. The question remains–Is this a dog problem or a human problem?
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License