SOCHI, Russia – A silver-haired man smiled as he scratched the head of a restless puppy. A mother and her son admired two mutts snuggled in a brown wicker basket. No one could shuffle past the group of dogs without stopping.
A sign in front of a dog cage read, “Will give away dogs and cats for free to nice owners!”
Marina, of Kostroma, paused to pet the dogs and then disappeared into the nearby pet shop. Minutes later, she dropped off two bags of dry dog food. Marina was reluctant to disclose her last name to foreigners.
Marina’s reason for the gift was simple. “If I don’t help, who will?” she said.
Stray cats and dogs are plentiful in Sochi. They roam the streets of the Olympic Village and sunbathe outside the Sochi airport.
When pest-control company Basya Services was hired to eliminate the stray animals before the Olympic Games, the Center for Animal Protection knew the race to find pet owners had become urgent.
The Center for Animal Protection is a group of volunteers dedicated to seeking out stray animals, nursing them to health and finding them loving homes.
Ekaterina Mikhlaylovna, a biologist from Sochi who has been rescuing strays for 15 years, started the organization.
The organization has around 15 regular volunteers, including Nastya Popoua, a 15-year-old high-school student who wants to become a veterinarian. Popoua stumbled upon the group of volunteers on Vkontakte, the European social-networking site.
Popoua spent every day last summer on the streets of Sochi, seeking out homes for animals. On Aug. 1, they found homes for six animals, and the next day, they found eight more. In the month of August, they found homes for 63 animals, a record-breaking number.
“Every first day of each month, we give away at least six animals,” Popoua said. “I don’t know why.”
Over the course of the year, Popoua found homes for 200 animals. But thousands of unclaimed animals still wander the streets and alleys of Sochi.
Masha Sutyrina, a resident of France, spends two months of every year in Sochi, visiting family and volunteering for the organization with her sister.
“People prefer purebred dogs in Russia,” Sutyrina said. “It’s about bling-bling.”
Sutyrina says the group uses its Facebook page to raise funds and spread awareness. The group has 1,500 “likes.”
“We spend all the money we have,” Sutyrina said. “But we need much more.”
The organization pays out of pocket for the animals to get the proper medicines and to be spayed and neutered.
Typically, it costs $85 to $145 to spay or neuter a dog in Russia, but with donations from sponsors, the group can get the surgery for $30. But the costs don’t end there. It costs around $40 to get the proper shots, as well as heartworm treatment costing around $6 every three months.
The expenses vary, depending on the weight and condition of the dog. Often, the dogs require intensive surgery, costing anywhere from $200 to $430.
Sutyrina hopes the government will shift efforts to promoting sterilization of dogs rather than eradication.
Sutyrina said Alexei Sorokin, the director general of Basya Services, referred to the stray dogs as “biological trash” in an interview with ABC. It set off an eruption of protest from animal activists.
Tears swelled in Marina’s eyes as she described the methods Basya Services is using to eradicate the dogs.
“It’s disgusting, simply disgusting,” she said. “How can you kill?”
Many in the public agreed, and an online movement began. Dog owners began posting photos of their beloved canines with a message for Sorokei: The signs read “biological trash” crossed out with a large “X” and the dog’s name written below.
Marina recognized the group on the streets of Sochi because she is an avid supporter of their Facebook page. She has adopted five cats and one dog.
“Each of the animals touched my soul,” Marina said. “They came to me.”
She found two cats at a train depot, covered in dirt and oil. Two more cats showed up on her doorstep. Most recently, a cat approached her on the street. She later discovered it had kidney stones and could not be saved.
Marina’s dog had five previous owners. She said the overpopulation of stray dogs is due to irresponsible owners.
“If a dog is hard to take care of, they just get rid of it,” she said. “When the puppy grows up and they get bored, they get rid of it.”
Marina believes society is responsible for the animals because they cannot take care of themselves. The group is currently petitioning the government, hoping to change its opinions before more animals are hurt.