Dogs lounging by the roadways. Dogs padding through hotels. Dogs roaming construction sites, gondola-loading pads and security check points. Dogs frolicking in the grass near the coast, rolling in the mountain snow, napping beneath the Olympic rings, and visiting the athletes in their village. Dogs at the bus stop. Dogs outside the airport, doing everything but sniffing for bombs.
The dogs of Sochi have become one of the most pervasive and pleasant sights – of visitors anyway – across the Olympic neighbourhoods on the coast and in the mountains.
Or they were, until a few days ago, when their numbers began to noticeably thin out.
Not everyone is a friend of the four-legged. More than a year ago, the city of Sochi hired a pest-control company to eliminate the hundreds, most likely thousands, of stray dogs during the Winter Games, which open Friday.
Alexei Sorokin, director of the pest control company Basya Services hired to cull the dogs, was contracted to perform the “catching and disposing” of the animals.
Mr. Sorokin saw a dog slip into the rehearsal for the Opening Ceremony at Fisht Stadium last week and was called to collect it. “God forbid something like this happens at the actual opening ceremony,” he said. “This will be a disgrace for the whole country.”
Humane Society International has issued an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin asking him to instead implement an “effective and humane mass dog sterilization program.”
“The tremendous, negative publicity of this program will give the Games a bad taste for many dog lovers (including you), and above all, the cruelty is completely ineffective,” the letter read.
On Tuesday, Alexandra Kosterina, vice-president of communications for the Sochi organizing committee said that dogs are not being killed. Rather, they are simply caught and moved elsewhere.
“As far as I know is they have a special shelter for the stray dogs and they make a medical examination of them,” Ms. Kosterina said.
Visiting reporters who checked into the Ekaterininsky Kvartal, one of the largest media hotels on the coast, befriended a resident pack of dogs last week, giving them food and attention. With each passing day the group of dogs coming around become smaller. Some people made Missing signs and posted them in the hotel restaurant.
The friendly mutts have been a sanguine sight in an area dominated by taciturn policemen and military. One gruff Russian soldier guarding a hotel compound in the coastal cluster cuddled a sandy coloured pup no more than eight weeks old. A compliment from a visitor who bent to scratch behind the dog’s ears prompted a rare, grudging smile from the soldier.
Construction workers rushing to finish hotels and other buildings feed the dogs and give them shelter. One European photographer arrived at his mountain hotel in Krasnaya Polyana last week to find the hotel far from finished and a stray dog in his room.
Most of the mutts look well-groomed and fed, and some are extraordinarily friendly, as if someone’s pet. One playful stray scampered in the sun near the hockey arena yesterday, finally settling in a shady spot beside a police car. The dogs of Sochi feel like everyone’s pets.
“He looks pretty safe,” said Alexei Yashin, the former NHL star and current general manager of the Russian women’s hockey team. “I don’t think they are catching them and doing anything bad to them. They are just taking them some place else.”
In Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney four years later, city officials cleared the streets of thousands of homeless people by issuing arrest warrants and busing them out of town. Dogs were targeted in 2004 in Athens, when officials poisoned as many as 15,000 strays ahead of the Summer Games, fearing they would look uncivilized to the world.
And now in Sochi, the dogs aren’t having their day.
Last year, Sergei Krivonosoy, a politician from the Krasnodar region where Sochi is located, said taking the dogs off the street was Russia’s “responsibility to the international community and their elimination is the quickest way to solve the problem.” But as animal activists protested, he encouraged authorities to build dog shelters. There is little evidence any shelters have been built.
But day after day, as the hours to the Opening Ceremony disappear, so do the dogs from the Olympic neighbourhood, a dirty secret no one wants to talk about.
“What dogs? I don’t see any dogs,” said Marina, a Russian volunteer steering people away from the Opening Ceremony dress rehearsals on Tuesday. “There is no dog problem.”