KIEV, Ukraine -- One sunny summer morning, a stray mongrel the neighbors called Naida swallowed a piece of sausage she found on the ground. Soon after, she collapsed.
For the next two hours the dog convulsed in agony, barking and howling in a high-pitched voice, saliva and blood dripping from her mouth.
"What did they punish you for, my good girl?" an elderly woman said as she wept and doused the dog with water, hoping to relieve some of the pain. Then Naida died.
Animal welfare groups accuse Ukrainian authorities of using illegal and inhumane methods of killing stray dogs that cause long, agonizing deaths. They say dogs are often poisoned or injected with banned substances as officials rush to clear streets ahead of the Euro 2012 soccer championship next summer.
Euro 2012 organizers deny any involvement in a stray eradication campaign.
Full official statistics are hard to come by, but figures and estimates provided to The Associated Press by authorities in the Euro 2012 host cities of Kiev, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lviv show more than 9,000 dogs have been put to death over the past year. Animal protection groups believe the number is far higher.
"It's a slaughterhouse," said Asya Serpinska, head of the Ukrainian Association of Animal Protection Organizations. "We are convinced that there is an unofficial order to purge Euro cities of stray animals so that, God forbid, some stray dog doesn't bite some foreigner."
Ukraine has a large stray dog population, estimated at tens of thousands in some cities. The dogs, often running in packs, can be seen on streets, in parks and even children's playgrounds. Nearly 3,000 people reported being bitten by stray dogs last year in Kiev and about 1,900 in Kharkiv, according to city officials.
On paper, officials have embraced the internationally accepted practice of sterilizing strays, then releasing them into areas where they pose no public threat, placing them in shelters or finding them homes. Sick or aggressive dogs are humanely euthanized.
But in reality, activists contend, a stray dog handled by authorities has little chance of survival. The only question, they say, is how much it will suffer before it dies. Shelters are virtually nonexistent, pet adoption unpopular and sterilization costly; most dogs are simply put down, they say.
"It's capture and kill," said John Ruane of Naturewatch, a British-based animal welfare group that monitors the situation in Ukraine. "It's just barbaric."
Naturewatch has been campaigning for the Euro 2012 organizer, the European soccer body UEFA, to cancel the championship in Ukraine and move all the events to neighboring Poland, which is co-hosting the event, because of the dog killing. UEFA told the AP that it never requested that strays be culled and has used "the extent of our influence" to address the issue and make sure animals are treated humanely.
Yulia Shapovalova, an animal control official in Kharkiv, acknowledged that 95 percent of the 550 dogs her facility handles each month are euthanized. This compares with 8 percent of stray dogs euthanized in Britain and about 50 percent in the United States, according to animal welfare groups in those countries.
Another city animal control group, the Kharkiv State Veterinary Academy, is accused of keeping dogs locked inside cages so small the animals can barely move. Photos taken by activists show wooden cages sealed shut with virtually no light coming in, the animals condemned to darkness.
Captive dogs are given little food and water, and are forced to urinate and defecate in the cages, said Yelena Ratnikova, head of Kharkiv Adopt-a-Pet Center.
Igor Furda, an animal control official at the facility, insisted the concerns were groundless. "If the dog is going to be euthanized, does it matter what cage it is kept in?" he asked.
Viktoria Bohatyr, a Kharkiv dog control official, acknowledged problems at the academy. But she denied that dog killing in the city was connected with the soccer championship.
"Our task is to lower the number of stray animals," she said. "We don't make it our goal to kill off all the dogs ahead of Euro 2012. That is impossible."
In Donetsk, Oleksandr Reingold, a dog control official, said that of the 20 dogs picked up every day, only 30 percent are euthanized. Most others are placed in the city shelter, he said.
Serpinska disputed those figures, saying records from a Donetsk dog control facility, Animals in the City, showed some 50 dogs were killed there daily – 98 percent of all the dogs handled. Animals in the City declined to comment or provide any figures on dog control.
Naida's agonizing death in central Donetsk in June 2010 was filmed by activists from Animal Protection.
The group's director, Lyudmila Novikova, says Naida and two other dogs that died in the same neighborhood that day were poisoned by Grinkodon, a company the city hired to control stray animals.
Residents said a pickup truck had parked on their street and the driver was seen throwing something on the ground. The truck came back several hours later to pick up Naida's lifeless body and the two other dead dogs.
A search turned up pieces of sausage containing white pills strewn on the ground. Tests determined the pills were Isoniazid, a medication used to treat tuberculosis in humans that causes seizures in dogs and can be lethal, Novikova said. She said she kept a piece of the sausage in her freezer, but city authorities have refused to investigate.
Grinkodon spokesman Serhiy Ustimov denied the allegations, saying the company did not resort to "barbaric" methods. Reingold, the city official, also denied the city was involved. "We don't do such things," he said.
Activists in Donetsk and Kharkiv say stray dogs are also routinely killed by blowgun syringes loaded with dithylinum, a substance banned in Ukraine and the West for animal euthanasia. It paralyzes the respiratory system, so the dog dies slowly of asphyxiation, suffering for up to an hour.
The activists say they have received numerous complaints from residents who found dogs lying helplessly on the ground, still alive but unable to breathe or move and doomed to a painful death. City officials deny use of the drug.
In Kiev, Taras Smurniy, head of a municipal animal control organization called Animal Shelter, said the capital does not euthanize dogs. He said that of 300 dogs picked up over the past three months, all were sterilized and released. That statement was disputed by the Kiev city administration, which said that stray dogs are euthanized when they are seriously ill, as well as in "other circumstances." It did not specify what those might be.
Animal protection groups say dozens of dogs, including family pets, have been fatally poisoned in Kiev in recent months, and they blame city authorities.
In January, James Wolf, the press attache at the U.S. Embassy, took his 4-year-old Golden Retriever, Arien, to a park. The dog ate something on the ground and soon suffered a seizure. In severe pain, she died before Wolf could get her to a veterinarian. Five other family pets were poisoned in the park that evening.
Wolf does not know who poisoned Arien, but he laments that city officials did not investigate and that dogs continue to die the same way. He also warns that children could eat the poisoned food.
"It was very upsetting," Wolf said. "If something like this happened in the United States or Western Europe, I would imagine the outcry would be sufficient so that somebody gets to the bottom of it and makes sure it stops."
Kiev city administration head Oleksandr Popov insisted authorities have never given orders to poison dogs.
However, an invoice shown to the AP indicates that Kiev animal control officials last year purchased a large quantity of zinc phosphate, a poison that kills dogs by causing internal bleeding. The invoice was leaked to activists by a city official who sympathizes with animals, according to Tamara Tarnavska of the animal rights group SOS.
"They deal with stray dogs in the cheapest possible way," said Naturewatch's Ruane.
In the western city of Lviv, at least 70 dogs, both strays and pets, have been poisoned since April, according to city officials. Authorities deny involvement and say people who dislike dogs are behind the poisoning.
Roman Harmatiy, head of a city-funded animal control group, Lev, said that of the 100 dogs it handles every month, half are euthanized and the rest sterilized and released. However, city veterinary official Yuri Mahora questioned that, saying Lev received no funding for sterilization this year.
Questions were also raised about how dogs are euthanized. According to Harmatiy, the facility uses injections of magnesium sulfate, which causes cardiac and respiratory arrest through muscle paralysis. However, this must be preceded by general anesthesia so animals don't suffer agonizing muscle spasms prior to death, according to the London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals.
Harmatiy insisted the dogs were premedicated. However, ex-Lev employees contend anesthesia wasn't used in order to save money, and dogs were left to die in agony, according to activists. Residents who live nearby complain of agonizing howls and wails coming from the facility, said Yevhen Fursov, head of the Lviv Association for Animal Protection.
Animal protection groups say euthanizing stray dogs is not only inhumane but ineffective: A successful animal control program combines sterilization and release, as well as promoting responsible pet ownership.
"You are putting a Band-Aid on the problem, you are not doing anything to solve the problem," said Kelly Coladarci of Washington-based Humane Society International.
___________Svetlana Fedas in Lviv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.