Reinventing Stray Dogs?

by Dr. Chris Pearson, University of Liverpool

In my recent Past & Present article “Stray Dogs and the Making of Modern Paris” I sought to show how public hygienists, veterinarians, policemen and municipal authorities tried to banish stray dogs from nineteenth-century Paris. Fearing their propensity to spread rabies and linking them to dirt, disorder and degeneration, the city’s authorities deployed police orders, poison and pounds to remove strays from the streets. Their depiction of stray dogs as mobile and unruly beasts on the streets positioned them alongside the city’s human “dangerous classes,” while anti-stray regulations and texts legitimated lethal violence against them. The slaughter of strays relied on the differentiation of dogs into safe/useful and dangerous/worthless. They became the antithesis of the pampered and clean pet dog who received care from their owners and the burgeoning veterinary profession. The varied campaigns against strays were one of the ways in which Parisians debated and asserted the modernity of their city. However, the condemnation of strays was never total as some animal protectionists sought to ameliorate conditions in the municipal pound and introduce more efficient and humane means of slaughter, whilst others established refuges to shelter strays from slaughter.

Certain themes that I explore in my article resonate today. Attempts to kill strays in the name of modernisation and public health continue to meet with protests from animal protectionists and others. Dog lovers in Istanbul regularly intervene to save strays, as do those in India, a country where stray dogs are increasingly blamed for biting humans and spreading rabies and where culls and sterilisation campaigns are struggling to contain the situation. Media attention has also been directed towards strays in Moscow, with numerous reports detailing their ability to traverse the city on the metro. A statute now commemorates Malchik, a stray dog who was stabbed to death in the metro station which she had made her home. But perhaps the most prominent episode was the opposition to Ukrainian authorities’ culling of stray dogs before the 2012 European football championships.

Street Dog Riding the Subway

By Adam Baker from Houston / Moscow / Toulouse (travel a lot) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

But although many commentators and officials continue to condemn strays as dirty and dangerous, a partial scientific reinvention of free-ranging dogs is underway. Alan Beck’s celebrated book on stray dogs in 1970s Baltimore helped legitimate the scientific study of strays, including their eating, breeding and roaming habits.1 Beck’s research helped establish strays as ecologically significant creatures within the urban environment. Following concerns about the over-breeding of pedigree dogs and echoing the transformation of wolves from pests to charismatic animals worthy of protection, certain scientists now position strays as the most authentic kind of dog rather than an aberration from the path of domestication. Studies now explore the links between wolves and free-ranging dogs, and compare and contrast their abilities, behaviour and social structures.2 Moreover, Raymond and Lorna Coppinger argue that pet and pedigree dogs are a tiny proportion of the global dog population as stray or free-ranging/village dogs are the most common type of dog. They live in proximity to humans, but breed independently of human control. They have established a niche in human environments across the world feeding on food waste scavenged from household bins, abattoirs, markets and municipal rubbish dumps. According to the Coppingers, ‘the 850 million dogs not under human reproductive control are not strays or mongrels but are, in reality, their own unique well-adapted species.’ Rather than being degraded or wayward pet dogs, free-ranging dogs become a resourceful and ecologically successful species in their own right. The pet and pedigree dogs who were standardised and fetishised as distinct breeds in Western countries during the nineteenth century instead become the aberration.3 Such studies reverse the assumption of nineteenth-century Parisian dog lovers, public hygienists and municipal authorities that domestication, as embodied in pet and pedigree dogs, represented living proof of the human control and refinement of nature.

As a historian I don’t feel well-placed to comment on the evolutionary links between dogs and wolves, nor what constitutes, scientifically speaking, the most authentic dog. But the arguments of the Coppingers are significant as they remind us that pets and pedigrees are not the inevitable endpoint of human-canine relations. They also underscore that the forms of human-canine relations that developed in the modern West are not universal, even if they have been exported and adopted around the world through colonial and other networks. Instead, they are particular to forms of urban modernity that emerged in Paris and other cities. The current reinvention of strays, however, partial, might encourage us to think about how Dipesh Chakrabarty’s call to provincialise Europe also applies to “more-than-human” histories.4 One of the advantages of a historical perspective on stray dogs lies in uncovering the historical and contested contours of human-animal relations that have developed at different times and in different places, as well as critiquing how particular ways of living with animals become universalised and normative.

Dog asleep on the Moscow Metro

By Alexander Mishin (provided by email) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons


1Alan Beck, The Ecology of Stray Dogs: A Study of Free-Ranging Animals (Baltimore, 1973)

2Stephen Spotte, Societies of Wolves and Free-Ranging Dogs (New York, 2012)

3Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, What is a Dog? (Chicago, 2016), p. 99

4Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, 2000)

Leave a Reply