More than 1 million people have signed on online petition asking the Russian government to cancel efforts to "eliminate" stray cats and dogs in preparation for this year's World Cup soccer championship.
"We are not asking much," the petition reads. "Just that you do what other countries do so that we won't have a bloodbath."
The petition was started in late January after Russian animal-protection activist Yekaterina Dmitriyeva discovered online government tenders for "resolving" the problem of stray animals in various World Cup cities, where officials hope to see up to 1 million tourists.
"I personally found 110 million rubles' worth [of such tenders]. That's half a million euros from 11 cities that are hosting World Cup matches or training camps," Dmitriyeva, who heads a nongovernmental organization called the Foundation for the Protection of Urban Animals, told RFE/RL. "In Yekaterinburg, for instance, 32 million rubles have been set aside. This is an enormous sum.... For this money, they could pay to sterilize, vaccinate, and care for these animals. But they prefer to just kill them."
Their online protest uses the hashtag #bloodyfifa2018.
The tenders from various cities use various terms, but the gist is identical. In Astrakhan and Volgograd, they mention the "destruction" of the animals. In other cities, they talk about their "euthaniazation" and the "utilization of the carcasses."
I can't help but think that the dog hunters are getting quasi-support from the authorities. There is a myth that the police are against dog hunting, but this is not true."
The discovery of the tenders came just days after Sports Minister Pavel Kolobov assured a State Duma committee that the government would "avoid measures that could provoke a negative reaction in the mass media and be interpreted as cruel treatment of animals." On January 11, the Russian government ordered host cities to create "temporary shelters" for homeless animals, but no money was allocated for them to do so.
On February 7, Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko organized a meeting on the contentious issue and invited Dmitriyeva. She said that Mutko claimed the problem of cruelty to animals had been resolved after media reported a similar culling of street animals in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
When she showed Mutko the official tenders that she had found online, he appeared surprised but didn't promise any concrete measures. Dmitriyeva was sent a protocol of the meeting in which Mutko said he ordered regional officials to "adopt humane programs for the control of stray animals." The very day that she received the protocol, however, she found three new tenders for culling strays from Volgograd Oblast.
"Those tenders were under the category 'the organization of celebrations and public events,'" Dmitriyeva said. "The capture and destruction of homeless animals are an integral part of celebrations in Volgograd Oblast, apparently. The cynicism is shocking."
A deputy governor of Volgograd Oblast attended the February 7 meeting with Mutko.
Activists say the victims of such culling are often pets or semidomesticated dogs that are less afraid of people and therefore more vulnerable. Many Russian "strays," they say, are actually fed and cared for by local residents or employees of factories or other concerns.
Although cats are unlikely to bite any soccer enthusiasts, most of the tenders call for them to be killed as well.
The 2018 World Cup will be held between June 14 and July 15.
To fulfill the tenders, the winners sometimes hire people who enjoy killing stray animals, so-called dogkhantery (dog hunters). Andrei Timeskov, a St. Petersburg journalist and head of the animal-protection group Kind World, has spent years tracking down and exposing dog hunters, who often write about their exploits anonymously in online forums. He has received numerous threats, and in January unknown vandals blew up his mailbox.
"This wasn't the first attack -- more like the sixth or seventh," he told RFE/RL. "They once poisoned my dogs right before my birthday, on September 21. People think that there is a law in Russia under which you can punish dog hunters. But this has never been true."
In fact, he said, two Duma deputies recently proposed amendments to the law on animal cruelty that would specifically exempt dog hunters.
"I think the text of the amendment was written especially for the preparations for the World Cup," Timeskov said, "in order to help dog hunters to shoot and kill homeless animals in those cities where administrative rules prohibit it." He noted that there are several World Cup host cities, including St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod, where this is the case.
"I can't help but think that the dog hunters are getting quasi-support from the authorities," Timeskov concluded. "There is a myth that the police are against dog hunting, but this is not true. When I sent the Interior Ministry a letter on this in 2011, I got an answer in which they said the ministry does not see anything criminal in the actions of dog hunters."
Timsekov recalled a case in Vladivostok in which a dog hunter who bragged online that he had killed more than 1,000 dogs was brought up on an administrative charge and fined 20,000 rubles ($350).
Lyudmila Yevdokimova, an activist in Samara, said she remembers a 2015 case in her city involving a dog hunter named Aleksandr Sergeyev. A local woman, 63-year-old Lyudmila Safonova, came across Sergeyev as he was in the midst of killing a dog with a knife. When she tried to intervene, he stabbed her 12 times, killing her. A court later found him "not responsible" for psychological reasons and sentenced him only to treatment.
"Lyudmila paid with her life for saving that dog," Yevdokimova said. She added that Safonova's husband had told her Sergeyev's family offered him 2 million rubles to stop contesting the case. When they refused, Sergeyev's relatives said, "If you don't take it, someone else will."
"I later talked with the killer's family," Yevdokimova said. "I asked them if they were afraid [of Sergeyev] themselves and they said 'no.' If they aren't afraid of such a person, that means he is normal and the psychological evaluation was paid for."
St. Petersburg activist Timeskov said he sees no contradiction between the government's apparently brutal treatment of homeless animals and President Vladimir Putin's much-ballyhooed love of animals in general and dogs in particular.
"There is no paradox," Timeskov said. "Even among the dog hunters, there are some who own dogs, and I can tell you for sure that they love their own dogs.... [Soviet-era serial killer Andrei] Chikatilo could treat his own children with sincere tenderness but all the same rape and murder the children of others."
Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Dmitry Volchek