Russian volunteers smuggle Sochi strays to a new life far from Olympics host city

February 12

Stray dogs brought out of Sochi by activist Yulia Krasova wait to be transferred to the car of fellow activist Igor Airapetyan at a rendezvous point in Tuapse, Russia. (David Goldman/AP)

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.

Okay, 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 mountainous 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.

Animal advocates are coming to the rescue of stray dogs near the Olympic venues in Sochi, scooping up the dogs before they can be euthanized by pest-control contractors. (Associated Press)

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.

“Mostly we rescue dogs in trouble — dogs who have been abused, or have been in an accident, or puppies without their mothers, or dogs in a dangerous place,” she said. In other words, dogs living in a place where someone might call in the exterminators.

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.


Airapetyan loads stray dogs into his car. (David Goldman/AP)

“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.


Stray dogs begin a new life at Nadezhda Mayboroda’s private shelter on a hillside in Sochi. (Will Englund/The Washington Post)

Last week, Mayboroda’s shelter started to receive financial support from Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who had a hand in Olympics construction. Also, the city, taking note of unflattering news reports about killing dogs, is building its own small showcase shelter next to hers, and has asked the exterminating company to catch and deliver live animals to fill it.

But Mayboroda wonders whether the effort can be sustained past the Olympics. “You won’t change the situation in one month or two,” she said.

Mayboroda echoed a notion common among Russians: that dogs are innocent and shouldn’t be made to suffer because of the cruelties and negligence of human society. Caring for dogs can seem like an outlet for a more general frustration with life here.

“I don’t need money. I don’t need anything. I just love animals,” said Nina Stoyanovski, a volunteer at the shelter. “It’s what my soul needs. I can’t bear to see them die.”

On the drizzly and deserted street corner in Tuapse, dawn was still hours away. Under a lone streetlight, Airapetyan held a smallish dirty-white mongrel and began nuzzling her, his nose to her ear. She nuzzled back, and then he said that he was going to adopt her, to live with him at his home 15 miles south of Moscow.

Through social media, he had already found families willing to take the other dogs in — Krasnodar, Voronezh, Lipetsk, Tver and even St. Petersburg, another 400 miles beyond Moscow. It was going to be a long trip back.

Filippova said Airapetyan provided strong references when he first proposed the dog-lift in January. She was satisfied that the first batch had been well taken care of.


Supplies of dog food and medicines donated by Muscovites await transfer to cars that can take them the last 60 miles into Sochi. (Will Englund/The Washington Post)

This time, he brought a large load of donated dog food and medicine for the local volunteers to take back to Sochi with them. He also brought a dog — a ferocious Doberman pinscher making the reverse journey, sent by a St. Petersburg family to its owner in Sochi. Vladislava Provotorova, a 31-year-old dentist, got the Doberman into her Toyota Camry, which is equipped with a barricade between the front and back seats, and sped off down the coast. The Chrysler followed close behind. Local license plates assured their passage back through the Ring of Steel.

A gray dawn had broken by the time the partisans caught sight of Sochi.

Airapetyan weighed in 24 hours later on Facebook — still on the road, men and dogs tired and thirsty, miles yet to go.

Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this article.

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