It's after dark in Sochi, and a pack of stray dogs is hogging the sidewalk like they own the place. There's a dachshund mix, several random mutts and one dog that looks like it may be part chowchow. They're cute and look like pets; seemingly well-fed and with decent pedigrees.
That is, until a fight breaks out. It's loud but ultimately more dog park than street fight, and the dogs quickly get back to prancing around and eating abandoned leftovers.
Such is the life of a Sochi stray, dogs who have become cuddly symbols of an Olympics that is just a little rough around the edges.
But the fate of these dogs roaming around Olympic venues is raising the ire of animal rights groups and dog lovers worldwide. A local pest control company has a contract to scoop up and kill Sochi's strays. It's a long-standing contract, but the company's owner told The Associated Press that there was some urgency because it would be a national disgrace if one ran into the stadium during the opening ceremonies.
The International Olympic Committee is trying to paint a less gruesome image of the dogs' fate. Mark Adams, an IOC spokesman, says, "It would be absolutely wrong to say that any healthy dog will be destroyed."
This concern isn't new. Stray dogs were also an issue around the Athens and Beijing Olympics. Many people seem to consider the Sochi strays a positive force; members of the Canadian women's short track speedskating team spotted a yellow Labrador outside their practice facility and named it Honey.
Local animal rights activists say they've been trying for years to convince officials here to launch a mass sterilization campaign - a more humane way to control population.
"It's really ridiculous to try to solve this problem only poisoning them," says Nadezhda Maiboroda of the group Goodwill Cause, which is operating a makeshift shelter on a muddy patch on the outskirts of Sochi. "Not making shelters, not [sterilizing them] ... it's just investing money in nothing."
She doesn't think the pest control company will succeed at ridding the Sochi Olympics of dogs, but she and other volunteers are taking in as many strays as they can.
Yekaterina Gontareva, a member of the Center to Protect Animals, is also housing rescued animals on the shelter property. She leads us up a small hill to a fenced-in area, filled with several doghouses and a speckled black-and-brown German shepherd mix named Simba.
"I love Simba and all of them like they are my children," Gontareva says. She points to a small red female dog with pointy ears who she says was almost killed by a dogcatcher.
"The poison did hit. But you see, a dogcatcher shoots from a pipe with a syringe. Apparently it came off but still she got some of it," she says. "He thought she was dead. He took her thinking she was dead and threw her into the car. And when he opened the door she jumped out."
Many others weren't so lucky. The 80 or so dogs at the shelter - some puppies, some pure breeds and many mutts - are now up for adoption. Maiboroda and Gontareva say they hope some of the visitors here for the Olympics will consider taking one home. [Copyright 2014 NPR]
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