TALLINN - Thirty minutes' drive from the center of Tallinn, in a wasteland of snow, mud and animal excrement, there stand 100 box-like wooden kennels lined with damp straw. Outside each of these, a barking, snarling dog or bitch strains against a couple of meters of steel chain. For this is Tallinn's Stray Dogs Shelter - and in the aftermath of Christmas it's crammed full of homeless pets.
The place is a far cry, or a distant howl, from the modern animal shelters of the Western world, with their state-of-the-art visitors' centers and veterinary wings. The noise and the stench are outrageous.
Today's supply of cheap meat lies beneath a plastic tarpaulin. The word "condemned" springs to mind and just won't go away. It's a word of which this unhappy place relentlessly reeks.
This is suffering on an industrial scale. The bleak, stinking, snow-bound row of small wooden huts feels like a miniature version of Solzhenitsyn's gulags - or of a Romanian orphanage, or a leper colony in Calcutta.
My guide around this frozen inferno is a gruff and grizzled gentleman called Lembit. A Mother Theresa of the canine world, he has devoted his life to the salvation and sanctuary of Tallinn's abandoned pets.
"You like dogs?" he asks. "I love dogs. They are my friends. They love me. They are my life."
He strides out into the field, St. Francis of Estonia, his beloved hounds crowding around him. Even the most resentful cur, a former victim of God-only-knows what kind of brutalization and abuse, is putty puppy in his strong, confident hands.
His personal favorite, an unchained Alsatian, stands at my feet to face off the growling pack. I'm grateful for the moral support.
Lembit disappears into a filthy enclosure and emerges a few seconds later bearing a quartet of newborn puppies in his arms. Two are a grayish fawn, two a heart-melting chocolate brown. "Beautiful," he whispers in his broken English.
At least this litter won't be in need of a home for long. Other residents aren't so cute, or so lucky.
Beneath a musty old blanket lies a mangy old dog. He's the oldest dog I've ever seen. He looks like he can remember the Czars. I doubt he plans on learning any new tricks. Abandoned in his senescence, his sad, tired eyes have seen too much. I ask his name.
"We don't know his name," I'm told.
The strange logic of this statement makes perfect sense. You can be too old to take a new name. Perhaps he knows his name himself, but he's not telling. He's hardly a prime candidate for adoption. He'll be lucky to see the spring.
A dog's life
One of the shelter's more fortunate former residents is a young American Staffordshire bull terrier known as Deefer. He was adopted last spring by a British businessman called Tony and his Estonian partner Annika, and has swapped his shoddy old kennel for a comfortable apartment in downtown Tallinn.
Tony has experience of breeding and training whippets and lurchers, and says that Deefer has taken well to domesticity. "He doesn't bite people," Tony says. "He just likes chewing them."
"He's learned all the tricks," comments Tony's friend Steve, another ex-pat Englishman. "He just can't be bothered doing any of them."
Despite his newfound life of luxury, Deefer's humble origins are reflected in the modest universality of his name. "Deefer Dog," Tony says. "It's D - for Dog!"
When Tony and Annika visited the Stray Dogs' Shelter last year, their guide recommended the 10-week-old Deefer as the dog most suited to the tastes of a 30-something Englishman. It was love at first sight - puppy love. The rest, as they say, is natural history.
"It made sense to adopt a dog from the shelter," says Tony. "We wanted a dog, and we thought we might as well get one that needed a home. He was an orphan."
Tony and Annika took the newly adopted Deefer to the vet, where, for the modest sum of 500 kroons (30 euros), he received the full range of vaccinations, his worming pills and a microchip identification implant.
Thanks to the marvels of this microchip technology, and his European Union pet passport, Deefer can now accompany Tony and Annika on foreign trips. They took him camping in Latvia last summer.
"It's marvelous, isn't it?" comments Steve. "There are 150,000 people in this country who can't get an EU passport - and his bloody dog's got one!"
The use of these microchip implants is now being encouraged - and will shortly be enforced - by Tallinn's city government, which recently announced plans to have every dog in town electronically tagged. The scheme will start later this year.
Formerly the head of Estonia's largest mobile-telephone network, Tallinn's Deputy Mayor Peep Aaviksoo has spearheaded the deployment of new technologies for the purposes of canine management in a modern metropolis. How ever, he also believes that the country needs to modernize its culture of dog ownership, and he recognizes that this is an especially urgent issue in the weeks following Christmas.
"The children ask for a dog, but then someone has to take care of it," he says. "We need to work on the culture."
He points out that looking after a dog can be more complicated than rearing children.
"The owner may think, 'I have a lovely pet - he's not going to bite anyone.' That's not what I feel. When I'm out jogging, I don't want to see loose dogs," Aaviksoo says. "When people walk their pets on the streets and they do their physiological things, they also need to take care of that."
The deputy mayor argues that government efforts aren't enough on their own. "This year we built eight special yards with fences around them for people to walk their dogs," he says. "But people still walk their dogs outside the fence."
Aaviksoo hasn't visited Tallinn's Stray Dogs Shelter but is aware of its shortcomings. "We aren't satisfied with the old shelter," he says. "It comes from the old days. It's not a very pleasant place. That's why we're building a new one."
The new shelter is scheduled to open this spring. "It was quite a problem to negotiate its construction with the neighbors," Aaviksoo says. "Nobody wanted to have it close to where they live."
The poor are always with us - but no one wants them on their own doorsteps. As Tallinn's deputy mayor suggests, it will take more than microchips and shelters to solve the problems of unwanted pets. In the end, it will take a fundamental shift in the attitudes of the Estonian public.