I suspect no other relationship is more complex and fraught than that between humans and trees. I’ve been wanting for a long time to write something about it, but every time I try, I get overwhelmed. Where to begin?
For us humans, it indeed goes back to the beginning: Adam and Eve learned of their own humanity from a tree. Or if you prefer more scientific stories, our ancestors took a crucial step in speciating from other apes by descending from the trees. Since then we haven’t gone far from the tree, so to speak. We have eaten from trees, climbed trees, lived in trees, worshipped trees, studied trees, planted trees, bred trees, hugged trees, and saved trees. We have also, at various times, cut trees down for fuel, for lumber, to make paper, to make weapons, to clear farmland, to create subdivisions, because they threatened our infrastructure, because we didn’t like where they were growing, and for no reason whatsoever.
After hundreds of thousands of years of shared history, have we and trees come to understand each other better? Three stories I have come across recently suggest the answer is, it’s still complicated.
Thanks to the international press, social media, and some questionable comments from the head of a Russian pest control company, Sochi’s stray dog population made headlines over the past couple weeks. The controversy over what to do about the city’s strays has drawn criticism and activism from animal rights groups. Thankfully, some have stepped in and even set up shelters for dogs on the outskirts of the city to save some dogs from rumored culling. That’s all well and good, but as the spotlight fades, it’s important to note that this problem isn’t new, and it won’t end with the Olympic Games.
Beijing and Athens had similar problems. In the US, local animal welfare projects struggle to manage stray populations under limited resources. Moscow has a steady population of 35,000 stray dogs, and in the US, Detroit is reportedly home up to 50,000 strays roaming the city (though those numbers may be off). Stray dog populations are responsible for 99% of the world’s rabies cases. They can also spread other zoonotic diseases and attack humans.
The standard protocol for humanely handling urban stray dogs is capture, neuter, release. Almost a mantra, the tactic became the focus of urban animal control over the past two decades. Before that, the strategy was capture and kill, and still obviously is in some places around the world. Not all cities have trap-neuter release programs. That’s not to say they’re not searching for other solutions. The Hong Kong police department trains some homeless dogs for their canine unit. In Norway, the focus is also on training instead of neutering, for better or worse.
To some degree trap-neuter-release works, but there are a lot of studies out there with conflicting results. Because spay and neutering surgeries can also become impractical and expensive, those in the animal welfare field have been searching for alternatives that don’t involve surgery. Zinc neutering is a birth control option that has many animal welfare activists excited, and is already being implemented in the US and Europe. The FDA approved Zeuterin, a zinc gluconate drug, causes the testicles to atrophy, renders the dog irreversibly sterile, and reduces testosterone by 40-50%.
But, what of other alternatives, unrelated to reproduction. The whole Sochi situation reminded me of an email I got from a friend from college. She works on regional government projects in Texas, and was wondering if I had heard of any scientific solutions for keeping stray dogs out of neighborhoods and away from mail carriers (no joke, this is a legitimate issue). It’s not something I’ve ever covered, so I googled it. The only thing that seemed remotely useful was a project focused on wild African dog populations (Lycaon pictus). By mimicking scent signals in their urine, the researchers hope to keep wild packs off farmland and out of villages. But, domesticated dogs produce hormones at different levels than wild dogs, not to mention, they’re different species (domesticated dogs are a subspecies of wolves). So, applying something like that in an urban environment seems like a stretch.
A surprising amount of stray dog research has come out of another Russian city: Moscow. Known for their intelligence, Moscow’s stray dogs have their own Wikipedia page, and famously take the cities metro trains, like any other commuter. Andrei Poyarkov, a researcher at the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, classifies the dogs in four distinct behavioral types: guard dogs who follow and rely on security personnel for food, scavengers who roam for garbage, wild dogs who hunt cats and mice, and beggars who depend on Moscow residents and commuters for meals. The last group, according to Poyarkov, consists of dogs capable of riding the subway, and leadership in beggar dog packs is based on brains, not brawn. Poyarkov believes Moscow’s stray dogs have been evolving since the 1800s and subsequently lost key traits common in domesticated breeds. They’re not wolves, but they’re not totally the same as a pet.
If Moscow’s dogs are a natural urban evolution experiment, are packs of stray dogs in others cities also evolving, as well? It’s probably safe to say they’re experiencing some sort of evolutionary pressure, depending on their environment. Perhaps such studies aimed at understanding the animals could point to a more humane and innovative way of controlling stray populations, beyond the reproductive strategy. I honestly don’t know.
This problem isn’t new, so why don’t we have some better alternatives, or at least more innovative ideas? Stray dogs may not be the sexiest of scientific topics – it’s not black holes, it’s not climate change, and it doesn’t carry the threat to human lives that cancer and bird flu do. Research is expensive, and stray dogs don’t rank very high on the priority list — perhaps rightly so. But, Sochi seems to shed light on a global problem that requires a more creative solution.