MOSCOW — Sochi’s strays were smuggled into cars and sped away to safety or adopted by famous athletes who later dedicated
Instagram accounts to their new pups. As the world reacted with outrage to the Russian city’s plans to kill the animals ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Russian activists hoped the experience would serve as a wake-up call for the country. Four years later, it’s more like deja vu.

Conscious of its image as it prepares to host the World Cup soccer tournament this summer, Russia has been implementing plans to remove street dogs while avoiding the public relations disaster of four years ago, when dog lovers from all over the world scrambled to save Sochi’s strays from being shot with poison darts. The sight of dogs dying in public spaces prompted an international outcry.

“This is a question of our country’s reputation, because we are not savages, committing mass murder of animals on the streets, tossing their bloodied corpses into vehicles and driving them around town,” Vladimir Burmatov, head of the Russian parliament’s ecology and environmental protection committee, told Parlamentskaya Gazeta. There are an estimated 2 million strays in Russia’s World Cup host cities, and Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, a former sports minister, recently ordered the 11 regions to set up temporary shelters.

But because city governments control their own budgets for such matters, activists are concerned that the killings will happen anyway. They said some host cities have already contracted companies to remove street dogs, perhaps through inhumane methods.

Ekaterina Dmitrieva, the director of the Urban Animal Protection Fund, attended a roundtable discussion with Mutko last week, and she said he assured her that the killing of strays would stop. But on Wednesday, Dmitrieva said, she discovered two more contracts posted for the city of Volgograd, with more than $22,000 allocated to the capture, maintenance and “destruction” of stray animals in that city. 

A Yekaterinburg city contract from Jan. 12, reviewed by The Washington Post, showed that more than $560,000 was paid to a company to catch and hold stray dogs.

Dmitrieva said dogs in Yekaterinburg are kept for 10 days before being euthanized.

In 2014, Sochi paid a company about $29,000 to remove 1,200 stray dogs and cats, using poisoned darts. Dmitrieva said the concern is that the same method may be used this time.

“This looks like the economically effective way, but another question is: How do you measure life or death by economic effectiveness?” Dmitrieva said.

One recent Sunday at a shelter in north Moscow, dogs rushed to the front of their cages at the sign of a person approaching, pressing their front paws against the bars. Four or five to a cell with snow covering the bottom, they barked and howled for attention. They are rarely let out of the cages, and most will spend their entire lives at the shelter. 

Ekaterina Denisova volunteers here every week — on this particular day, she battled Moscow’s worst snowstorm in recent memory to get there. Like many volunteers, she has occasionally wondered if these dogs would be better off back on the streets.

Shelters across Russia are expecting an influx of dogs as the World Cup nears. But Kelly O’Meara, senior director of companion animals and engagement at Humane Society International, said that because Russia doesn’t have “an adoption culture,” taking strays to a shelter isn’t the country’s best course of action. The shelters are overcrowded, she said, and many of the dogs are unprepared for the confined quarters.

With just four months to go until the World Cup, O’Meara recommends mass vaccination for the rabies virus, a program she thinks would be relatively easy to implement. The most visible dogs are typically the friendliest, and they’re the easiest to catch. Vaccinate them, publicize the program to calm public fears, and the problem is solved, she said.

“If you remove a street dog from the streets, or you remove a number of street dogs, the reason that there’s always new street dogs is you’re just opening up a void” for new arrivals, O’Meara said. “It’s a never-ending cycle.

“Those friendly dogs that are being removed live harmoniously with people, but at the same time, they maintain that territory, so other dogs don’t come in,” she said. “So maybe more elusive, more aggressive, more unfriendly dogs are the ones that are going to be harder to catch. They’re the ones that are going to move into that void and repopulate it.”

Concerns about Russia’s stray dogs — and the potential flak their fate could draw during the World Cup — have not been lost on soccer officials. The sport’s international governing body, FIFA, and the Local Organizing Committee said in a statement to The Post on Friday that they “in no way condone cruel treatment of wild and stray animals” and would be monitoring “the appearance of stray animals in the stadiums” and “responding to any case in a humane manner.”

FIFA and the organizing committee also said they were in contact with the host cities and “expect them to ensure the welfare of the animal population.”

O’Meara said Humane Society International has written to Russian authorities offering to assist with vaccinations. But the long-term solution is sterilization, O’Meara and others say — neutering street dogs so that the population will decline naturally over time. That would also be the most cost-effective approach, she said.

Considering that Russia was chosen as the 2018 World Cup host eight years ago — and met with a furious reaction to the killing of dogs at the Sochi Olympics four years ago — activists say they are disappointed the country didn’t turn to the sterilization option sooner.

“Sochi was a catastrophe, and then the government said that they will never repeat what happened in Sochi,” Dmitrieva said. “Nothing is getting better. It’s getting worse.”