Saving Sochi’s stray dogs

Volunteers smuggle canines to new life, far from Olympics city

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TUAPSE, Russia — The purple Chrysler PT Cruiser sped through the night, barreling around rain-slicked hairpin curves on a clandestine rescue mission. It was 3 a.m. Ahead glared the harsh lights of a security check point. Sochi was 60 miles behind. This was the outer edge of the “Ring of Steel” guarding the Olympics, and the Chrysler was aiming to get past it, to break free into the vast Russian countryside that lies beyond.

The back of the car was crowded with uneasy, bewildered passengers. Most were drooling out of anxiety. One had thrown up several times, but at this moment of truth she reassuringly laid her right front paw on the shoulder of the human sitting in front of her.

The car sped past the police.

Six more lives were saved.

OK, the Ring of Steel isn’t actually designed to keep cars or people — or dogs — on the inside. It’s supposed to keep unwanted, unaccredited and unwelcome visitors out. But that’s why the Chrysler had to make this trip, along the Black Sea coast that runs northwest from Sochi.

The 2014 Winter Games have made the packs of stray dogs wandering on the streets of Sochi and around the arenas more visible and vulnerable than ever. The city tried to step up its years-old effort to get rid of the canines, with exterminators shooting poison darts at any loose dogs they found. That provoked dog lovers to escalate the resistance.

On this night, the Chrysler had a rendezvous with volunteers from Moscow, who had just driven 1,000 miles to Tuapse, which was as far as they could legally go without Olympics credentials. They planned to fill their vehicles with dogs and then turn right around and drive 1,000 miles back, delivering these Sochi strays from seemingly certain extermination.

The transfer had been arranged on the Olympics end by Dina Filippova, a 28-year-old part-time lawyer in Sochi who quit a job in construction management when she realized she cared more for dogs than buildings.

“I found six puppies in the park across the street,” she said. “I didn’t know about the shooting then. I thought dogs lived happily on the street.”

She found out otherwise. Sochi has a large and continually replenished population of strays, and for seven years the city had just one dog policy: paying exterminators to kill them.

Filippova joined with other advocates in a bid to save as many dogs — and cats, too — as possible. Filippova and a friend are lodging 24 dogs in temporary foster homes for $150 a month, plus food and medicine, paid for by donations. She has four dogs in her own apartment. Over the past two years, she said, she has helped rescue 500 canines.

On the Moscow end, the indefatigable road warrior is Igor Airapetyan, 41. In January, he drove down from Moscow and took 11 Sochi dogs back with him. On Monday night, here in Tuapse, he and three co-conspirators took the six dogs from the Chrysler — one of them pregnant — and 18 others from four other cars.

“If somebody doesn’t do it, nobody will do it,” Airapetyan said, before he started hefting one mangy animal after another into the back of his Korean minivan. “This won’t solve the problem, but we’re trying to attract attention to it. And a life is a life. Saving even one life is important.”

Dog advocates point out that the culling of strays in Sochi was happening long before the Olympics began to take shape. But they’ve been happy to exploit the publicity that comes with the Games.

Nadezhda Mayboroda, 39, a private tutor who opened her own shelter on a steep hillside outside town, with more than 100 dogs in residence, agrees that neither dog-lifts nor shelters will solve Sochi’s dog problem, which requires a concerted sterilization effort. But the efforts do help.