MOSCOW — On a curved dirt track beside a forest outside Moscow, a large dog of no particular breed shambles along. Somewhere sounds a birdlike cry. Several more dogs bounce up, weaving and cavorting. Then another wave of dogs appears, and another, until the track undulates with red, brown, black, spotted, short-haired and shaggy dogs, their tails flapping like cheerful flags, their tongues lolling.
A young woman whose eyes seem snipped from the blue summer sky emits the cry again, calling her dogs. Fifteen of them crush happily around Anastasia Pomorina, saintly dog rescuer or crazy dog woman, depending on your point of view. A blind dog, Zaya, walks and spins. Dzhoker, with one blue eye and one brown, gazes curiously. Dizel, tall and skinny, who once lived in a box, affectionately leans his weight on a stranger’s legs.
They pile into Pomorina’s van, headed home to her tiny two-room Moscow high-rise apartment. It is as cozy and shabby as an old wooden cottage, with claw marks on the walls, torn wallpaper, chewed linoleum, rickety doors and beds for the 15 dogs and 13 cats in every corner. Pomorina’s top bunk roosts above the dogs’ bunk below.
Her flatmate, Maria, or Masha, used to groan when Pomorina stopped the car to pick up yet another dog. “She would say, ‘Why? We don’t have space.’ But now I laugh at her. We were traveling from the forest and she said, ‘Stop the car! There’s a dog.’”
Keeping 14 or 15 or 16 dogs in her tiny apartment, not to mention five or six with her mother in the country, is not a life she planned.
“I never know exactly how many dogs I have. Does it matter?” she says, laughing.
It was as if the life chose her. It began with the death of her dog Ringo in a car accident that nearly killed her, too. Every stray was a chance to find a dog like him.
She is part of a small rescue network of six women, Fluffy Help.When she sees a stray dog, she does her best to save it and find it a home.
“I know the language of dogs. I don’t know how, or where it came from. I just like to be with them and to communicate with them,” she said.
Last year a Fluffy Help member saved one dying pup, terrified, but too sick to flee, behind a trash disposal area. She named him Charlie and sent him to Pomorina to raise.
In Russia’s strict pandemic lockdown from the end of March to early June, outdoor exercise was banned, except for those with a dog to walk. I borrowed a friend’s dog a few times. But there was a dog-size hole in my home that needed filling, so I adopted Charlie after seeing him online.
Russian dog rescue tends to be a cobbled-together affair. People like Pomorina take dogs into their homes or run large private shelters, plowing in all their time and money, living spartan, sacrificial lives. The need is bottomless. Most cannot take a day off.
In the Soviet era and in the 1990s, local authorities deployed teams to shoot strays, especially before major international events. The only people helping the dogs were women who left out food; security guards; builders; and ground staff at institutions and parks. Some dogs lived in the Metro. A few foreigners exported Russian strays to Europe.
In 2001, regulations changed and Moscow began a catch-sterilize-release program. By 2007, municipal shelters sprang up, some holding hundreds of dogs that are rarely placed.
Pomorina, 33, the daughter of two mathematicians at Moscow State University, was expected to follow in their footsteps. She studied computer engineering for six years but never worked in the field, instead following her love of sports, working as a Pilates instructor and personal trainer. Her passions are canicross, bikejoring and skijoring — in which people complete cross-country running, bike or ski races with their dogs.
At 18, she traveled in a friend’s car to Belgium to compete in a race with Ringo when they crashed. She does not remember anything about it and does not know how it happened. She lost other memories as well, including childhood memories. She broke many bones.
“I had to teach myself to crawl,” she said.
Ringo’s death shattered her.
“I can’t describe it. He was just my dog,” she said. “It was just a feeling I am always trying to find him, in every dog.”
Grieving, she found a black dog with pups on the street and rescued them. She and Fluffy Help estimated they have saved the lives of about 300 animals.
Whenever she is driving and sees a stray, she stops her van, even when she is in a hurry.
“I will stop and take it, even if I have 15 dogs. I cannot leave it in a dangerous place. I will take it in and make all the decisions later. I don’t think at that moment. I just know that a dog needs help.”
Some strays are wild and cannot be domesticated, but she buys them food and leaves it out for them. She catches wild strays by darting them and — with Fluffy Help — pays for them to be sterilized before returning them to the street.
Russia has a complicated relationship with its strays. There is a famous statue of a small black stray named Malchik in Mendeleyevskaya Metro station, where it once lived. Its bronze nose is shiny with the touch of passing passengers, but its story is grim: It was placed at the site where a young woman stabbed the dog to death in the station in 2001.
In the 1950s, the Soviet space program sent strays plucked from the streets of Moscow into space. The most famous, Laika, the first animal to orbit Earth, died of overheating in space in Sputnik 2 in 1957, a detail hidden from the public, which was told she died a planned and painless death. Others died in rocket explosions or when spacecraft parachutes failed on landing.
Laika was the face on candy wrappers, match boxes, post cards, stamps and badges.
“Before Laika’s flight, I started crying,” Adilya Kotovskaya, one of the scientists involved in the 1957 mission, told Russian media in 2015. “Everyone knew in advance that she would die, and we were asking her to forgive us.”
The first dog I adopted in Russia, like Laika, was a small terrier mix. She was white with a perfect round gray spot in the middle of her back. I picked her up next to Red Square on Victory Day in 1996 after the generals went home. Her small paw pads were worn through so I carried her home. Russian friends helped me come up with the name Mylka. Then there was Oskar, a car park guard dog who lived on a chain but was abandoned when it was closed. I took him in and found him a family who fell in love with him.
Now, my dog Charlie is learning to weather the surprises of central Moscow life. He was astounded at his first sight of a tram and frightened by the morning church bells ringing across the park. He is a notebook eater, a bed ripper, a dish cloth chewer, a lunger at crows, a growler at shadows and a hater of baths. But Pomorina first taught him the joy of chasing sticks and of a long, warm hug.
Though she never found a dog to fill the hole in her heart that Ringo left, she sees her mission as one of love. She gives the dogs all she can. Her pet food and vet bill is astronomical, more than $700 a month.
By saving dogs, she has rescued herself from the despair and emptiness that followed the accident and the injuries. With her soft touch, her direct gaze and her musical voice, she exudes charisma and a kind of gentle wisdom.
Some neighbors complain about her dogs, and veterinary inspectors come from time to time to check that the dogs are well cared for. Other neighbors shyly shove bank notes into her hand, to help the dogs.
She has a dream of owning a small bed-and-breakfast with land in the country one day, a haven for strays where families could visit to spend time with the dogs.
Not every dog can be rescued. Some just run.
“You need to try to do your best. The worst thing is not to try. If a dog does everything to not be caught, and I tried my best and did everything I could to catch it, I realize that: ‘You might die in this dangerous world. Forgive me.’”
But if the novel coronavirus pandemic had one silver lining, it was the surge in interest in adopting dogs and cats. She was part of an online project stray pet rehoming project, Happiness Delivered at Home, where rescuers delivered pets to people under lockdown, including Charlie.
Still, the number of dogs in her apartment never shrinks for long. In early August, she picked up her latest find: a friendly gray female husky cross, running around near Moscow’s outer ring road.
“I had to stop,” she said, kissing the dog’s head, “because if I didn’t she wouldn’t survive long.”
Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this report. Story editing by Mary Hadar. Copy-editing by Jordan Melendrez and Laura Michalski. Photo editing by Annaliese Nurnberg. Design by Allison Mann.