Russian dog owners fear secret poisoners

Vera Lesovets on Thursday holds a picture of her dead dog, Yasha, who was poisoned in a Moscow park.

MOSCOW — Vera Lesovets held up photographs of her dog, Yasha, a spunky 5-year-old corgi, nipping playfully at the heels of a German shepherd twice her size.

But Yasha’s life was cut short last week: After snacking on something in a Moscow park, she fell into a seizure at Lesovets’ apartment and began foaming at the mouth. The family rushed her to a nearby animal clinic, where the veterinarian said this was the sixth case he had seen that week, and there was nothing he could do.

On Friday police opened a criminal investigation into what they suspect are poisonings by dog killers. Cruelty to animals is common in Russia and animal protection laws are rarely enforced, but reports of as many as 70 dead dogs this week have spurred the police to take action.

While some residents suspected that a vigilante matriarch, wary of her children being bitten, might be the cause of the attacks, Lesovets was quick to suspect a more malicious culprit: dog hunters, a kind of deadly hobby gaining ground in the Russian online community.

Dog hunting forums — the most well-known of which are Vreditelyam.net and Pest.net — are populated by those who call themselves “volunteers” and provide graphic photos of their trophy killings. The sites require extensive registration and identification processes for participants.

“It’s a whole community. They have websites,” said Lesovets, an event manager. “They write how they kill them, post photographs, tell you which poison is better and where to buy it.”

In the case of this neighborhood’s dogs, the poison of choice was amanita phalloides, also known as the death cap mushroom, which has no known antidote.

On the site Vreditelyam.net, now moved to the domain vredy.org, the owners state in their manifesto that they consider themselves keepers of the peace: Since Soviet times, the population of stray dogs, which now reaches an estimate of 25,000 in Moscow alone, has ballooned, and fear of bites and attacks has grown as well.