Changing Planet

“World Spay Day” Aims to Reduce Numbers of Feral Cats and Dogs

Volunteer veterinarian Katya Zimina spays a feral cat at an animal shelter in St. Petersburg, Russia. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL

If a street dog or cat could read a calendar, it would circle in red the last Tuesday in February. It’s World Spay Day, when volunteers round up stray animals in an effort to humanely control the feral populations.

The campaign was started in 1995 by the Doris Day Animal Foundation, with the goal of reducing the number of pets euthanized in animal shelters. That year, 17 million unadopted dogs and cats were euthanized in the United States. Thanks in part to World Spay Day, the number is down to 2.7 million.

Globally, dog and cat overpopulation is still a problem. The 600 million feral cats take a heavy toll on bird populations. And the 300 million stray dogs spread diseases, like rabies, and attack people. Which is why the Doris Day Animal Foundation has partnered with The Humane Society to turn World Spay Day into a global initiative.

World Spay Day 3
Feral cats are revered at the State Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg, where they have protected art and antiques against mice for 300 years. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL

In Russia, street dogs and cats are a common sight, sometimes even riding on the Moscow Metro. To be fair, they’ve played an important role in Russian society. Drooling street dogs helped Ivan Pavlov win a Nobel Prize. Laika, a street dog from Moscow, was the first living being in space. Feral cats protect the artifacts of the State Hermitage Museum from marauding mice and rats. 

But their numbers have grown to the point of becoming a nuisance — especially dogs. One million dogs roam the streets in Russia. In 2008, some 16,600 people were attacked by stray dogs in Moscow alone.

Occasionally, city governments will round them up, like the 2,000 dogs that were nabbed off the streets of Sochi, ahead of the Winter Olympics. Sometimes, dog hunters are hired to use lethal measure for culling the population. But when the public found out they were using poisoned meat, there was a huge backlash. Now, city governments are hesitant to take action.

That has had the adverse effect of creating vigilante groups who believe they’re acting in the public’s best interest by poisoning dogs, seemingly at random. Last January, hunters even used social media to coordinate a poisoning campaign that killed an unreported number of street dogs all across Russia.

Perhaps the problem wouldn’t be so bad, if Russia had a better developed animal adoption system. It’s not that Russians don’t want to own pets.  Dog and cat ownership has skyrocketed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most people want pedigreed breeds, not street mutts.

Volunteer Holds Feral Cat
A volunteer holds a feral cat as it succumbs to the effects of anesthesia. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL

World Spay Day represents a “Can’t be ’em, join ’em” approach to managing the feral population. Through organizations like Sochi Dogs, volunteers sterilize strays and put them up for adoption online. At other animal shelters, like the one I visited in St. Petersburg, feral dogs and cats are sterilized and then released back onto the street. These volunteers figure that, so long as an animal isn’t a menace to society, the most humane thing to do is let the dog or cat live out its life where it is the happiest — on the street.

Ryan Bell is traveling through Russia and Kazakhstan for his project #ComradeCowboys. Follow his adventure on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Get updates about his work at Storify.

Ryan Bell is an award-winning journalist living in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington State. A former cowboy and adventure guide, Ryan is specialized in examining how agriculture impacts the natural world. He is a two-time National Geographic Explorer, traveling to Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Ryan’s work has been published by NPR, Columbia Journalism Review, Bloomberg, Outside Magazine, among others.

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