ASHGABAT -- Residents of the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, say municipal authorities have intensified a cruel campaign to cull stray dogs and cats -- and carelessly kill family pets in the process -- ahead of a new national holiday for a storied Central Asian breed of dog.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov recently declared the last Sunday of April Alabai Dog Day in honor of the breed dubbed "wolf crushers" for their ferocity.
A variety of the more internationally known breed known as Central Asian shepherd dogs, breeders consider the hulking alabais quiet, hard-working, and fearless in the face of large predators.
Although they say the recent animal-culling operation primarily targeted strays, residents complained to RFE/RL that municipal workers are also taking away pet dogs and cats unlucky enough to be outside during the sweeps.
They say that in districts far from downtown Ashgabat, maintenance workers -- some in uniforms, some in plainclothes -- often raid high-rise residential buildings looking for dogs and cats.
Residents say the carcasses of animals destroyed by such squads are being dumped in city landfills.
They note that an upscale area around Nurmuhammed Andalib Street that has been thoroughly cleared of strays in recent weeks lies on the route to work taken by the president's son, Serdar Berdymukhammadov, who is also head of the International Alabai Association.
There is speculation that the younger Berdymukhammedov is being groomed to succeed his 63-year-old father atop the highly secretive former Soviet republic's authoritarian regime.
In February, Serdar was appointed a deputy prime minister and head of the Supreme Control Chamber, which has its headquarters in the nearby Makhtumquli Square. He also became a member of the State Security Council.
Turkmen officials consistently decline to respond to inquiries from RFE/RL and other independent media.
The International Alabai Association is overseeing next month's celebrations. Events will include a canine beauty pageant and agility contests amid complaints that the money would be better spent on improving citizens' lives.
A majority of the country's 6 million or so people live in poverty.
The American Kennel Club describes Central Asian shepherd dogs as possibly "the oldest known group of dogs in existence today" but "unlike most breeds today, they are not man-made or created by any specific person or country."
Such descriptions have not prevented Berdymukhammadov's administration from asserting the unique place of alabais in their official national narrative.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, Ashgabat residents told RFE/RL that municipal workers had even bribed local teenagers "to toss poisoned food," such as bread or sausages, to cats and dogs to kill the animals.
One Ashgabat resident alleged that the dog hunters intentionally target pets. "They leave poisoned sausages and fish in the areas where people walk their dogs, or they shove the poisoned food under the doors of pet owners' homes," he told RFE/RL.
Turkmenistan has long been criticized for its ruthless methods of targeting stray animals in Ashgabat and other cities.
Multiple eyewitnesses describe dog-hunting squads attacking animals with metal rods during street raids before tossing their bodies into pickup trucks for disposal.
Some of the culling takes place in front of startled residents, including children, eyewitnesses say. In a notorious incident in 2019, Ashgabat workers allegedly beat a dog and her puppies to death inside a kindergarten as a group of horrified children looked on.
Eyewitnesses and activists have shared photos and videos of what they say are dog-hunting squads' beating and culling of animals.
Amid tough economic times in Turkmenistan and the region, there are also reports that an increasing number of pets are being abandoned because owners say they can't afford to feed them.
State media portray President Berdymukhammedov as an avid animal lover who is often shown with alabais or riding the renowned Turkmen horses known as Akhal Teke.
Berdymukhammedov has devoted a book to alabais, which are officially listed as among the Central Asian country's national heritage.
In 2017, a widely circulated video showed the Turkmen president dangling an alabai puppy in the air as he presented it to visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin. Last year, a 6-meter-tall golden statue of an alabai was unveiled in Ashgabat. The government also opened a special alabai dog shelter in Akhal Province in September 2019.
Last month, the Turkmen government introduced new decorations -- Distinguished Dog-Breeder and People's Dog-Breeder -- to honor those who have made significant contributions to the alabai-breeding industry, state media reported.
It also unveiled a Brave Alabai of the Year award, the reports said.
State media say sketches of the proposed medals were sent to President Berdymukhammedov for approval.