After a year of planning my trip to attend the 2014 Winter Olympics, I felt excited when I finally arrived in Sochi, Russia. The excitement, however, was tempered by the international outcry over the Sochi stray-dog problem. I had heard about the great numbers of stray dogs in Sochi, many of whom had been people’s pets prior to being displaced during the construction of the Olympic venues. I knew that the Russian government had hired an extermination company to get rid of what they called “biological trash.”
When I arrived at the Fisht Stadium, the site of the opening ceremony that would be watched by a billion people around the globe, I saw a stray dog running down the stairs as I climbed the flights to my seating section.
As it turns out, that was the first of many stray dogs I would encounter over the next 16 days. I attended 36 events at these magical Olympics, all with their own fill of excitement, glory, and at times, heartbreak and disappointment for the athletes and spectators. The biggest heartbreak, however, was the plight of the stray dogs. I am an animal lover, I have several of my own dogs; and I volunteer my time, donate, foster, and adopt. I am accustomed to shelters and rescue groups and many caring people responding to the plight of furry creatures—and doing so with compassion.
Yet, in Russia, it seemed that most people simply didn't care. I encountered big dogs, small dogs, and tiny dogs roaming through busy streets, and no one, except perhaps a few bleeding-heart souls like me, expressed concern. The most heartbreaking sight was that of a small dog cowering behind a security police officer, begging for food yet also clearly afraid of humans. My heart ached for him as I imagined what must have happened to him to be so terrified, and I cringed at his likely fate. I wished I could have jumped off the bus and given him comfort and reassured him that not all humans were bad, but the security at the venues was so tight that even that small act was impossible.
A week into my stay, the host of my lodging lent me her bicycle, which offered me unexpected freedom to explore Adler, a borough of Sochi where the Olympic Park was located. I could now access the streets off the main tourist areas, the streets that weren't quite prettied up for the Olympics. It was on one of my rides that I encountered the first dog that would let me pet him. Up until then, I had gently approached several dogs in hopes of petting them, but they seemed leery of humans, and they mostly ignored me or ran off. Perhaps they knew of the exterminator, or perhaps they themselves were used to being ignored. But this little guy was open to attention, so I parked my bicycle, sat on the street pavement, and invited him to approach. And he did. I finally got to pet a furry baby, though he was dirty and infested with fleas. I scratched behind his ears, he let me rub his belly, and I even took “selfies” of us. All the while I wondered how I could leave him behind. Perhaps he sensed my angst, and when a car approached, he ran after it, barking angrily, and then ran off through a fence and under a house. Perhaps he wasn't a stray and had a home, I hoped, perhaps.
As I had no access to American television, I felt like I was in a bubble, and much of the information from the outside world came through Facebook. I had read of U.S. athletes adopting Sochi dogs. I had read about a Russian billionaire, Oleg Deripaska, setting up a shelter outside Sochi in response to the world's outcry over the extermination and poisoning of stray dogs. It appeared that there was an adequate response from the world and from Russia. Truth was, there were still a lot of stray dogs. On any given day I would see several; they might be roaming the back streets of Adler, along the main road, in the tourist shopping areas, at the train station, outside the Olympic village in the mountains, or even right outside the Olympic Park.
I looked into taking a Sochi dog back home. I researched what would be required: a health certificate from a vet, vaccinations, and possibly a 30-day quarantine. That seemed simple enough, so I contacted the local shelter that was listed on the Humane Society International website. I received a reply within a few hours, which unfortunately stated that "it is not possible" to get the paperwork done within a few days. I did, however, stay in touch with a lady who opened one of the shelters literally out of the back of her dwelling. She had a Facebook site and she spoke some English, so we were able to communicate. Her name is Lina Masunova, and she is a devoted animal lover doing what she can in Sochi. Her website is sochidogs.org.
Silver medal-winning snowboarder Gus Kenworthy made headlines when he rescued and brought home five puppies from Sochi. Several other athletes followed suit bringing home Sochi rescue dogs as well.
There are many homeless dogs in the United States who need help. Why bring back a stray dog from Russia? The answer is because compassion knows no borders. When you see someone suffering and in need and you have the power to change that for that one being, you do it. That is humanity in action.
The spotlight is turned off in Sochi, Russia and the plight of the dogs may fade from memory, but the acts of kindness and compassion and outcry from citizens of all countries has planted seeds for the future of Sochi dogs and all dogs.
The task left in Sochi seems so great. The makeshift shelters need funds and help to save as many dogs as possible. Perhaps this is the beginning of a cultural shift away from ignorance and cruelty, and towards humanity, compassion, and kindness. Perhaps that is the task of the entire human race—in Sochi, in Russia, and in the rest of the world.