Almost everyone in the Ukrainian town of Chernivtsi knows someone who has been bitten by a dog.
Hotel administrator Irina Tarasenko, 51, says it happened while walking to the bus stop one day. The dog just ran up behind her and bit her leg. There was no blood, so she didn’t even go to the doctor.
University student Artyom Krais, 21, shows a scar on his leg. Nowadays, whenever he spots a dog, he walks the other way.
“I couldn’t walk for two days,” he says. “I couldn’t put any weight on my leg.”
A doctor at the city’s Emergency Hospital says he estimates between five and 10 people daily come in for a dog bite. Luckily, the hospital now has the rabies vaccine — which wasn’t always the case in recent months.
For a city of 250,000 people, that’s a lot of dog bites. And there are also a lot of dogs: According to the latest count, about 3,200 stray dogs roam the streets of Chernivtsi. One reassuring thing about them, though, is that many have ear tags.
Why the doggy ear tags?
In Soviet times, the government used to shoot stray dogs, says Vasily Vinogradov, the director of the city’s new animal shelter. Every year, the city dedicated a line in the budget for the job of dog executioner. He would go out in the early morning and fire at hounds.
But after the USSR fell apart in the 1990s, corruption became widespread. Funds were still allocated toward controlling the dog population, but instead of shooting all the dogs, officials put some of the money into their own pockets, Vinogradov says. As a result, dog numbers grew faster.
“They continued shooting dogs until 2013. Then they started putting the dogs to sleep with syringes,” Vinogradov explains. “In 2015, they stopped killing dogs in Chernivtsi.”
Convinced by animal rights activists, the city government implemented a new strategy: to capture, sterilize and release the dogs back on the street — with tags on their ears. If you sterilize a certain percentage of all dogs, the population is supposed to stop growing, Vinogradov explains.
Local animal rights advocates wrote a proposal and received a 500,000 euro (about $550,000) grant toward this task from the European Union. They used the money to train local veterinarians to sterilize dogs (something vets weren’t taught in the USSR) and then spayed or neutered about 2,000 dogs. They also built the city’s first animal shelter, with space for 50 dogs, that helps owners find their lost pets.
“It’s not humane to just kill them, not giving them a chance. It’s stupid to just shoot them,” Vinogradov says. “The aggressive dogs, we don’t release them. We try to find an owner for them. We make every effort to not put a dog to sleep.”
Dog census? There’s an app for that
Chernivtsi is not the only city in Ukraine with a stray dog problem. But it is one of the few in the country where the local government has been convinced by animal rights advocates to stop shooting and poisoning man’s best friend.
To help solve the stray animal problem, Viktor Kopach, developed a phone app to count strays. The app, called Animal ID Info, works by dividing a city into quadrants and sending out volunteers for a couple of hours to snap photos of dogs on their smartphones. The pictures are loaded onto a database together with GPS coordinates. The app estimates the total number of homeless canines residing in the city.
“To lower the number of stray animals in the city, we need to count them first. To count them, we made the app,” Kopach explains.
Developers realized they had to account for errors that might result if two volunteers photograph the same dog after it runs around the corner. They’re now building (dog) face-recognition software into the app, similar to the kind that helps you to tag your friends in Facebook photos, Kopach says.
Thanks to the app, animal rights activists counted 7,392 stray dogs in Mykolaiv, 1,865 in Vinnitsa, and 1,882 in Odessa. In the capital Kiev, they discovered about 2,700 stray dogs.
The app is so popular that Kopach is now exporting it outside of Ukraine to Moldova, Greece and Kazakhstan, where a scandal revealed that dog skins were used to make insoles for shoes.
But given the huge effort to sterilize and vaccinate strays in Chernivtsi, why are so many people still getting bitten?
For one, the sterilization solution works gradually. Research says that if you sterilize 80 percent of dogs, you should see their population decrease by a third in about five years, says Antonina Hoshovska, the director of the animal protection program in Chernivtsi.
In some Ukrainian cities, like Lviv and Lutsk, the new approach worked pretty well. In Lviv, there are now only about 500 stray dogs left. In Lutsk, the total went down from 700 in 2014 to 400 today. But in Chernivtsi, stray dogs don’t seem to be going anywhere.
Not just strays
The root of the problem are the dog owners who aren’t sterilizing their own pets, Kopach says. Because the domestic dog population is significantly larger than the number of strays, unless people neuter and spay their pets, the problem won’t go away, he says.
“The tip of the iceberg are the stray dogs, but the real cause are the pet dogs — actually not the dogs themselves, but their owners,” he says.
That’s why Kopach is working on a law to make the sterilization of domestic dogs mandatory across the country. There is no word yet on when the Ukrainian parliament might consider this legislation.
Julie Masis reported from Chernivtsi, Ukraine.