Russian dog owners are on high alert.
Internet-based vigilantes have announced a nationwide "dog hunt" starting January 20 to rid Russian cities of stray dogs.
Reports of slain dogs are already flooding in, and family pets are among the victims.
"There are being poisoned," says Maria Zuyeva, who heads the Vita animal protection group in Chelyabinsk. "In one case, a pet died without even going outdoors, poison was thrown in through the gate of its home."
Most Russian cities have a large population of stray dogs, which sometimes roam the streets in packs.
Although "dog hunters" say they are acting to protect children from strays, they are also known to target family pets.
In messages circulated on Vkontakte, Russia's largest social networking site, the vigilantes pledged to scatter poison in parks, squares, and playgrounds across Russia.
The warning said their poison of choice this time would be an antituberculosis drug called Isoniazid, which is sold over-the-counter and is lethal to dogs.
Animals can reportedly die from just sniffing the substance, and poisoned dogs are said to suffer agonizing convulsions before passing away.
Activists say pink traces left by the drug have been spotted in a more than a dozen cities from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok.
"They've scattered rat poison and antituberculosis drugs everywhere, there are numerous pinks spots on the ground on playgrounds, around trash cans, and in parks where people walk their dogs," says Zuyeva in Chelyabinsk.
In the Nizhny Novgorod region, witnesses in one town said vigilantes have been firing indiscriminately at all dogs, including family pets wearing collars, with pneumatic weapons loaded with ampoules containing poison.
Activists accuse authorities and police of turning a blind eye to such "dog hunts," which have spiked in recent years.
They have launched an online petition calling on authorities to ban the sale of antituberculosis drugs without prescriptions.
It has already gathered over 7,700 signatures since being started on January 15.
Russian law itself provides little protection for animals.
Article 245 of the Criminal Code prohibits the "cruel treatment of animals," but activists say measures are taken only when the abuse is perpetrated in public and ends up drawing media attention.
"In other cases, it doesn't work," says animal rights advocate Irina Novozhilova. "The article itself has flaws. The definition of the term 'cruelty,' for instance, is very narrow -- only when injury of death ensues. It doesn't apply to a range of deprivations inflicted on animals, for example shutting them up in basements and depriving them of water and food for two weeks."
Novozhilova says the illegal culling of dogs won't stop until authorities start punishing abuses against animals.
She also blames state television channels for regularly giving dog hunters airtime to promote their views.
"This problem has long left the realm of the interaction between people and animals," she says. "This is about the degradation of our society. And backing the attitude that problems can be resolved through violence, through murder, only paves the way for further violence in society."
-- Svetlana Pavlova, Claire Bigg