MAKHACHKALA, Daghestan -- An unsanctioned slaughter of stray dogs has infuriated animal-rights activists and divided residents in Makhachkala, the capital of Russia's Caucasus republic of Daghestan.
Local groups Ecolife and Zoolife have even created volunteer patrols in an attempt to prevent residents from gunning down canines on sight.
"The town authorities have called on hunters to shoot stray dogs, and they are shooting all the dogs they see," local resident Valentina Magomedova told the Chernovik newspaper.
It is illegal in Russia to shoot dogs and Zoolife has said it hopes to bring charges, under Article 245 of the Criminal Code, against those hunting strays.
Zoolife head Olga Vyatkina said activists have already turned to the police but she said they were ridiculed and told the lives of "dogs are not worth [police officers'] attention."
Reports have circulated since early February of people killing stray dogs in the city of around 570,000. But activists said the attacks increased sharply after a report on February 19 that the body of a 9-year-old girl showed signs of having been mauled. Her cause of death is still being investigated.
The reports appeared to galvanize city officials but divide residents among those wanting to eradicate the large stray-dog population and others calling for a humane way of resolving the problem of homeless hounds.
Daghestan's deputy mufti, Muhamadrasula Saaduev, has even spoken out.
"From the point of view of Islam, all animals that become too plentiful or become carriers of disease should be destroyed," he told the newspaper Novoye Delo. "With regard to stray dogs that roam in packs and are dangerous to humans, they must be eradicated...because human security comes above everything else."
Some residents have voiced support for the dogs to be quickly killed, even if they have to be shot -- which is illegal and dangerous.
Zoolife has countered residents' calls for the practice of shooting dogs with its own proposal for a mass sterilization of dogs and the creation of animal shelters.
Some neighborhoods of the region's capital are littered with dog carcasses and present a health risk, activists say, because city workers are not removing the dead animals.
Most of the killings appear to have taken place at night, when the dogs are chased down and shot by gun-wielding groups of men. The chaotic episodes leave some dogs to bleed to death on the street.
"My wife told me that one of her colleagues saw a dog shot in the head that lived for two days before dying," a resident told Kavkaz Realii.
Requests last year by animal rights activists for the city to open a shelter for stray dogs went unanswered for months before it was rejected by suburban neighborhoods that didn't want such facilities nearby.
But the hopes of activists and Daghestani pooch lovers were lifted on March 1 when city officials opened Makhachkala's first public shelter for dogs in the village of Semender, on the northern outskirts of the city, far from any other buildings, RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service reported.
Parts of it remain under construction, but stray dogs will reportedly be housed there in the near future.
Written by Pete Baumgartner with assistance from Liubov Merenkova and based on reporting by RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service and Kavkaz Realii.