SOCHI, Russia: Alexei stops in his tracks as he sees a half-breed Labrador snooping around at a cafe’s back door.
The dog comes obediently on his whistle. Alexei strokes it and in one swift movement takes it in his arms like a newborn baby.
Rushing past surprised passers-by, Alexei carries the equally surprised dog to his car and places it gently on the back seat.
Alexei is one of a dozen people in the emerging movement of animal activists in Sochi alarmed by reports that the city has contracted for the killing of thousands of stray dogs before and during the Olympic Games. Activists have been picking up dogs from the streets and putting them up at their homes or in temporary shelters before finding an owner elsewhere.
Alexei spoke on condition his full name was not used because he feared repercussions from his employers.
Stray dogs are a common sight on the streets of Russian cities, but with massive construction in the area, the street dog population in Sochi and the Olympic park soared. Useful as noisy guard dogs, workers fed them to keep them nearby and protect buildings. The dogs — friendly rather than feral — soon lost their value and became strays.
Tonight, a few dogs will be taken on their way to a new life.
Alexei’s wife, Dina Fillipova, has spotted a stray in the central Sochi neighborhood of Svetlana. Once Alexei has picked up the Labrador, the couple heads for two safe houses. Four helpless puppies wait to be collected at one and a stubborn stray at the other.
“I like dogs but that’s not the point,” Fillipova says. “You know, even if you don’t like children and don’t want to have one, when you see a baby lying on the street bleeding or find out about maniacs hunting for children, you would want to do something to help.”
Dina and Alexei park in a back alley in the Sochi suburb of Dagomys well past midnight, waiting for a middleman. A Soviet-designed SUV pulls up. The driver shakes Alexei’s hand, and the men hurry to open the trunks. The adult dogs — and a carrier with the puppies — are put into the SUV.
A dozen miles before the checkpoint to the Sochi area is the closest Igor Airapetian, a soft-spoken retired businessman, can get.
The dog activists pull up at a deserted plaza in the town of Tuapse. A smiling Airapetian shakes the driver’s hand. Airapetian’s friend, Zamir Aslanov, who has been driving the arduous 1,000 miles from Moscow, is dizzy with exhaustion. It will now be Airapetian’s turn to drive back.
“It was just a coincidence,” Airapetian says when asked why he decided to help take the dogs out of Sochi. “I saw that post [in social media] and decided to help.”
Airapetian unloads the back of his car, choked full with dog food and medicines. It’s not only a hand-over of dogs, but an exchange of goods. Airapetian is elated: “My beauties!”
Asked about the future of the dogs, Airapetian comes up with a long list and details of breeders and ordinary people who will be taking the dogs.
Airapetian hopes that the international media attention that Sochi’s strays have received could prompt Russian officials across the country to end the cruel treatment of dogs.
Sochi city hall, when asked for comment on dog killings, responded by posting a news release announcing the opening of a dog pound.