|A frequent sight in Kyiv, Ukraine: women taking care of street dogs. Photo courtesy of my father, James A. Baker.|
Street Dogs of Kyiv: Part 1
Scavengers and Charity Cases
Scavengers and Charity Cases
It didn’t make any sense. I was in one of Europe’s major capital cities, and the streets were overrun with packs of wild dogs. From the Metro underground to the trails along the banks of the Dnipr, they owned the streets.
These were mutts in the truest sense. It takes years and generations of careful selection to arrive at a “pure bred” dog, but throw them all out into the street, and it’s not long before they all start to look alike. These Kyiv street dogs displayed distinct features that I hadn’t seen anywhere else.
They were solid animals, maybe 50 pounds, with powerful bear-like shoulders. Through wild breeding they’d garnered the most beneficial attributes of a hundred different breeds. The Kyiv street dog had the snout of a hound, the trim and bristly fur of a German shepherd, the large paws of a retriever. When needed, the dog could run like a greyhound and attack prey like a wolf.
Kyiv is a bitter cold place for half the year. I wondered how the street dogs survived in such an extreme environment. “They’re scavengers,” my mother said when I asked her that question. “It’s what they do.”
In the mid-1990s, Kyiv was a gritty and unforgiving place. How did one scavenge in Kyiv? If it could be eaten, Ukrainians didn’t throw it away. We’re talking about a place where people gelatinize pig fat and turn it into sala, a delicacy to be sliced and served on black bread.
I soon found out that, like most beings on the knife-edge of death, the street dogs survived on charity.
Kyiv’s drunks were the main providers of food for the street dog: scraps of sausage casing, dried calamari or the butt end of a baton loaf. The street drunks of Kyiv are some of the toughest, cold-hardened individuals I’ve ever seen, and I was impressed by the way they cared for the dogs.
These Kyivski drifters couldn’t get any lower on the human chain. They were all suffering through various stages of mental and physical disrepair. Many of them were missing legs or arms or parts of their faces, the results of war, poverty, cold or alcohol, combined with the lack of shelter and medical care. These drunks knew what it was like to be on the wrong end of a cop’s boot. They knew what it was like to sleep on concrete and ice. Bless them, they were among the few who took pity on the castaway dogs.
Babushkas, too. Each courtyard had a babushka, a self-appointed guardian who ruled over her little realm like a wise and wrinkled queen. In spring, she’d tend the sunflowers. In autumn, she’d sweep away fallen leaves with a broom made of dried sticks. If you got into a fight in her courtyard, she’d come out shaking her cane at you. If you smashed a bottle on the ground, you were likely to catch that cane on the wrist. But no babushka would allow a dog to starve to death in her courtyard.
My mother, who befriended many a babushka during her more than ten years in Kyiv, said babushkas viewed street dogs as members of the courtyard community. “It was amazing to me to see a little old babushka go up to a bunch of savage street dogs,” my mother said, recalling our babushka in the Druzhby Narodiv neighborhood. “She knew all the dogs. She’d talk to them all — make the dogs bow to her, really.”
Street dogs understood kindness, and they relished what little they received. Most of the time they just got kicked in the teeth and run over by tram cars.
One winter day I was walking around the Independence Square neighborhood with my parents and siblings. We were cold and hungry so we walked up to this little vending window on a side street known for selling the best sosiski v’tyestye (essentially hot dogs encased in dough and fried in peanut oil). Eating them was putting your stomach at significant risk, but they were so delicious. Ahead of us in line, an old man in soiled clothes counted out his bills and bought two sausages. I watched him cross the street toward a street dog who was sitting on his back legs.
The man bent over and held one out for the dog, who ate it right off his hand. Then the man walked on down the street and the dog stayed put.
I bought two sosiskis, but only ate one. I pocketed the second and brought it back to the courtyard. I placed it on the ground in front of me. I didn’t have to wait long until a street dog scuffled up with its tail wagging.