A case involving a pet hoarder and pilfered pooches has become somewhat of a cause célèbre in Kyrgyzstan.
Valeri Polovnikov, a 56-year-old part-time mechanic living in an apartment in Bishkek’s 12th micro-region, claims that just before the New Year police and representatives of the city pest-control service broke into his flat and took away seven dogs while he was at work. The canines, Polovnikov contends, were then “brutally murdered,” dispatched with gunshots at the city dump. Neighbors offer a different narrative, saying Polovnikov hoarded stray animals. The dogs created a nuisance with prolonged barking, and their confiscation was justifiable because authorities were acting in the public’s best interest, they assert.
The incident has raised ire among animal rights activists who have long accused the Shooting Service working out of the city’s waste management department, Tazalyk, of being inhumane, unaccountable and involved in the local economy for dog-hide products. The Bishkek Mayor’s Office maintains that shooting stray dogs is a regrettable but cost-effective means for the impoverished state to protect citizens from a 200,000-strong stray population that authorities cannot afford to sterilize, or otherwise contain.
With regular press reports of strays biting children, feral dogs have few friends in Bishkek. According to the Mayor’s Office, Tazalyk shot 12,406 dogs in 2012, all based on citizens’ complaints. Shooters receive 300 som (about $6.25) per dog, creating, some say, an incentive to kill animals that are not necessarily homeless.
While Polovnikov admits he violated a city regulation that limits two dogs to an apartment, he maintains that only one of the dogs, a half-paralyzed mongrel he rescued, was a stray. “I had [official documents] for the other six and intended to give all of them away as soon as I found loving homes,” he said.
So far, Polovnikov’s written statements have not led, as he hopes, to a criminal case. He argues that prosecutors are reluctant to get involved because a police officer was also “complicit” in the act, a claim verified by three witnesses.
During a February 9 visit to Polovnikov’s apartment, a EurasiaNet.org correspondent saw that the door was damaged and its lock broken – proof, says Polovnikov, of forced entry. When contacted for comment, Bolot Koykeldiyev, head of Tazalyk’s Shooting Service admitted that two Tazalyk staffers had visited the address following a neighbor’s complaint, but denied breaking and entering: “The door was wide open and the dogs were running around the apartment block.”
Koykeldiyev, whose service was established in 2008, says his office has grown used to criticism, but argues that it should be redirected toward irresponsible dog owners who permit their canines roam the streets. “In a country as poor as ours, we cannot afford to feed homeless people, let alone house and feed hundreds of thousands of homeless dogs,” he said, adding that he was skeptical about the viability of a scheme announced by Vice Mayor Vyacheslav Krasienko on January 29 to create a $350,000-a-year shelter and sterilization service.
Despite friction between Koykeldiyev’s office and animal-rights organizations such as the Bishkek-based “Right to Life” – a privately funded non-profit that offers sterilization and temporary shelter services for strays – both agree that a shelter operated by the city would not solve the dog problem.
“In former Soviet countries, whatever can be stolen is stolen,” argued Alla Kobtsova, one of Right to Life’s three founders. “In a municipal shelter for stray dogs this would mean stealing money for food, money for sterilization and money for medicine – these animals would just die a slow death.”
But anything is preferable to the current culls, Kobtsova adds. The killings “immunize society toward cruelty to animals” without significantly stemming the growth of the stray population. Moreover, she believes vested interests are behind the shootings: “We believe [Tazalyk] disposes of a certain portion of the bodies, and sells a portion as hides and meat.” She suspects some restaurants are clients.
Koykeldiyev strenuously insists the dog corpses are dumped in a “sanitary pit” at the municipal landfill, and points to the fact that of eight marksmen working in his team “most own dogs themselves, and only one dislikes them.” Moreover, Koykeldiyev said, none of the city’s numerous Korean restaurants “would ever accept street dogs as meat.”
Traders at Bishkek’s Alamedin Bazaar confirm that demand for dog-hide products, mostly in the form of midriff-warming sashes (“for the kidneys”) and shoe liners, does exist. Zulya Narynbekova, who sells both, says the kidney warmers, which retail at around $30, are particularly popular with her fellow traders, who spend all day hustling in the cold. “The hides retain heat better than felt,” Narynbekova explained. Others sell sobachnoye maslo – dog oil – which is thought to treat chest infections and tuberculosis.
But while talking up the warmth of her wares, Narynbekova claimed she had no idea where the hides are sourced. “I don’t deal with the skinners. Just the middlemen,” she said. “But I know the dogs are local. Most probably they are local strays.”