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Ukraine accused of poisoning stray dogs

In this Sept. 11, 2009 photo, a stray dog seen in an animal handling facility at the Kharkiv Zooveterenary Academy in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Animal Help League,AP Photo/Gelya Tymofeyeva

KIEV, Ukraine - One sunny summer morning, a stray mongrel the neighbors called Naida swallowed a piece of sausage she found on the ground. Soon after, she collapsed.

For the next two hours the dog convulsed in agony, barking and howling in a high-pitched voice, saliva and blood dripping from her mouth.

"What did they punish you for, my good girl?" an elderly woman said as she wept and doused the dog with water, hoping to relieve some of the pain. Then Naida died.

Animal welfare groups accuse Ukrainian authorities of using illegal and inhumane methods of killing stray dogs that cause long, agonizing deaths. They say dogs are often poisoned or injected with banned substances as officials rush to clear streets ahead of the Euro 2012 soccer championship next summer.

Euro 2012 organizers deny any involvement in a stray eradication campaign.

Full official statistics are hard to come by, but figures and estimates provided to The Associated Press by authorities in the Euro 2012 host cities of Kiev, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lviv show more than 9,000 dogs have been put to death over the past year. Animal protection groups believe the number is far higher.

"It's a slaughterhouse," said Asya Serpinska, head of the Ukrainian Association of Animal Protection Organizations. "We are convinced that there is an unofficial order to purge Euro cities of stray animals so that, God forbid, some stray dog doesn't bite some foreigner."

Ukraine has a large stray dog population, estimated at tens of thousands in some cities. The dogs, often running in packs, can be seen on streets, in parks and even children's playgrounds. Nearly 3,000 people reported being bitten by stray dogs last year in Kiev and about 1,900 in Kharkiv, according to city officials.

On paper, officials have embraced the internationally accepted practice of sterilizing strays, then releasing them into areas where they pose no public threat, placing them in shelters or finding them homes. Sick or aggressive dogs are humanely euthanized.

But in reality, activists contend, a stray dog handled by authorities has little chance of survival. The only question, they say, is how much it will suffer before it dies. Shelters are virtually nonexistent, pet adoption unpopular and sterilization costly; most dogs are simply put down, they say.

"It's capture and kill," said John Ruane of Naturewatch, a British-based animal welfare group that monitors the situation in Ukraine. "It's just barbaric."

Naturewatch has been campaigning for the Euro 2012 organizer, the European soccer body UEFA, to cancel the championship in Ukraine and move all the events to neighboring Poland, which is co-hosting the event, because of the dog killing. UEFA told the AP that it never requested that strays be culled and has used "the extent of our influence" to address the issue and make sure animals are treated humanely.

Yulia Shapovalova, an animal control official in Kharkiv, acknowledged that 95 percent of the 550 dogs her facility handles each month are euthanized. This compares with 8 percent of stray dogs euthanized in Britain and about 50 percent in the United States, according to animal welfare groups in those countries.

Another city animal control group, the Kharkiv State Veterinary Academy, is accused of keeping dogs locked inside cages so small the animals can barely move. Photos taken by activists show wooden cages sealed shut with virtually no light coming in, the animals condemned to darkness.

Captive dogs are given little food and water, and are forced to urinate and defecate in the cages, said Yelena Ratnikova, head of Kharkiv Adopt-a-Pet Center.

Igor Furda, an animal control official at the facility, insisted the concerns were groundless. "If the dog is going to be euthanized, does it matter what cage it is kept in?" he asked.

Viktoria Bohatyr, a Kharkiv dog control official, acknowledged problems at the academy. But she denied that dog killing in the city was connected with the soccer championship.

"Our task is to lower the number of stray animals," she said. "We don't make it our goal to kill off all the dogs ahead of Euro 2012. That is impossible."

In Donetsk, Oleksandr Reingold, a dog control official, said that of the 20 dogs picked up every day, only 30 percent are euthanized. Most others are placed in the city shelter, he said.

Serpinska disputed those figures, saying records from a Donetsk dog control facility, Animals in the City, showed some 50 dogs were killed there daily — 98 percent of all the dogs handled. Animals in the City declined to comment or provide any figures on dog control.

Naida's agonizing death in central Donetsk in June 2010 was filmed by activists from Animal Protection.

The group's director, Lyudmila Novikova, says Naida and two other dogs that died in the same neighborhood that day were poisoned by Grinkodon, a company the city hired to control stray animals.