Police in Moscow are probing the killing of up to 70 dogs by poisoning in parks in the city.
The Moscow Times reported that the dogs, some of whom were found in the the 50th Anniversary of October Park in the southwest of the city, died after consuming poisoned ground meat earlier this month.
Police spokeswoman Yulia Makartseva told the Interfax news agency that “dog hunters” are believed to be behind the spate of killings.
Aggrieved dog owners have offered a reward of up to 100,000 rubles ($3,200) to catch and prosecute the perpetrators. They have also set up patrols in parks where dogs have been poisoned.
The culprits would face charges of animal cruelty -- conviction of which could lead to a maximum two-year prison term.
However, the Associated Press reported that animal cruelty is widespread in Russia and offenders are rarely prosecuted.
"Unfortunately, the police don't take measures, because, for them, a dog is not really something that exists," Masha Beshina, a Moscow dog owner, complained to the AP.
Darya Khmelnitskaya, an animal rights activist, called for tougher enforcement of existing laws against animal abuse.
"We need investigative bodies, the police, the courts, the judges to start working," she told the AP. “The legal clause already exists."
According to reports, messages scrawled on tree trunks were addressed to dog owners, warning: "You must understand -- there will be no room for argument -- if you do not follow the rules for walking your dog, it will die. A dog in a muzzle cannot eat the bait, no matter how much it wants to. Tell your friends to put leashes and muzzles [on their dogs]. If the park once again looks like a giant kennel, then there will be much more bait and inside it will be tiny fish hooks and amatoxins [toxic compound in poisonous mushrooms]."
Teh AP noted that the poison that is being used to attract and kill the dogs -- amanita phalloides – has no known antidote and is also dangerous to humans.
Vera Lesovets, a Moscow resident whose pet corgi was killed by poison, told the AP she suspects that canines are being targeted by “dog hunters,” the adherents of a new hobby that is becoming increasingly popular in Russia’s online community.
"It is awful," said Lesovets, according to the Daily Telegraph. "We were the owners of harmless pets that did not deserve this cruelty."
Indeed, dog-hunting websites -- including Vreditelyam.net and Pest.net -- feature graphic photos of dead dogs that have been hunted across Moscow and other parts of Russia.
"It's a whole community. They have websites," a young Muscovite told the AP. "They write how they kill [dogs], post photographs [and] tell you which poison is better and where to buy it."
The stray dog population in Russia has mushroomed since the fall of the Soviet Union, with 25,000 in Moscow alone, the AP noted. The state generally ignores the dogs, leaving their fate up to the public, for good or for ill.
The Daily Telegraph reported that many Muscovites have become alarmed and annoyed by the rising numbers of dogs in the city, given the city’s lack of regulation over the mutts.
Russian papers often include articles about people being attacked by rottweilers and pit bulls.
Last December, reports emerged that officials in the Ukraine, a former Republic of the Soviet Union, offered a bounty of about $57 per dead dog in an apparent effort to clear strays from the streets ahead of the European football tournament.
Investigators from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals alleged that stray dogs and cats were seized and thrown into mobile incinerators (all with the government’s knowledge and tacit approval).
"In an apparent effort to present the world with a glamorous image of its country during the tournament, thousands of animals are being slaughtered by order of the Ukrainian authorities," Mimi Bekhechi, a PETA manager in the UK, said at the time.
"These mass killings are directly related to Ukraine's hosting the Euro 2012 tournament."
The Daily Telegraph reported that there are some half-million stray dogs in the Ukraine and that up to 20,000 canines were killed in the capital city of Kiev in 2011 alone.