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Russians say authorities rounding up, poisoning stray dogs before Olympics

By Ivan Watson, CNN
updated 3:09 PM EST, Wed February 5, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Russian animal rights activists accuse authorities of campaign to exterminate street dogs
  • Government-backed shelter met with distrust by animal rights groups
  • Reports of the widespread culling of animals put city and Olympic officials on the defensive

Sochi, Russia (CNN) -- The Olympic city has a dog problem. Thousands of stray canines wander the streets and suburbs of Sochi.

They can be seen loping through the recently completed parks and housing developments that have sprung up around what was once a sleepy Black Sea resort.

In the countdown to the Winter Games, Russian animal rights activists have accused city authorities of ramping up a campaign to exterminate street dogs through the use of poison.

Yulia Krasova says she witnessed the long, agonizing death of a street dog when she walked out of a movie theater in Sochi two weeks ago.

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"At first I thought someone beat the dog," she recalled. "The dog jumped up and started running around in circles. Then she fell down and started spitting up ... I called the veterinarian. He said there is a 100% guarantee the dog was poisoned."

Krasova filmed the dying dog with her cell phone. So did Irina Gutnik, another Sochi resident.

Gutnik said she encountered a dog convulsing and barking in fear and pain in Sochi's Bitka neighborhood in December.

"They always poison the street dogs here," Krasova said. "But in December it got terrible ... they began poisoning the animals terribly before the Olympics."

Reports of the widespread culling of animals have put city and Olympic officials on the defensive.

"All stray dogs that are found on the Olympic Park are collected by a professional veterinary contractor for the well-being of the people on the Park and the animals themselves," the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee said in a statement this week.

"All healthy animals are released following their health check."

Vladimir Makarenko, the head of the administration for Sochi's Hostinski district, said volunteers were welcome to take stray dogs to a brand new shelter recently opened on the outskirts of the city.

But the announcement of new government-backed shelter was met with deep distrust by members of the grassroots network of animal rights activists in Sochi.

"Over the last couple of days, when this uproar began, they built this new shelter just for the media," said Vlada Provotorova, a dentist who built her own make-shift shelter to protect dogs from extermination.

Animal rights activists in Sochi sent CNN photos of three recent contracts signed between the Sochi city government and Basia Services, a company headquartered in Rostov-on-Don.

In one of the documents, dated May 24, 2013, the city government agreed to pay the company 99,450 rubles [roughly $2,800] for the "trapping and gathering of neglected animals."

CNN made several attempts to speak by phone with executives at Basia Services.

Company representatives declined to respond to allegations their employees poisoned street animals.

As alarm grows among Russian dog lovers, some animal rights activists have taken matters into their own hands.

Last month, one Muscovite, Igor Airapetyan, drove all the way to Sochi to pick up a van-load of street dogs that he then "evacuated" to the Russian capital. Video of the journey trip was posted on a Facebook page titled "Death in Sochi."

Meanwhile, Provotorova and several friends continue to donate time and money to feed, house and sterilize the dozen street dogs they placed in a small kennel they built on the outskirts of Sochi.

This week, the dogs barked and wagged their tails madly when Provotorova and several other volunteers arrived with fresh supplies of dog food.

"We are protecting them from Basia," said Provotorova said.

"I don't blame the Olympics," said Dina Filippova, as she scrubbed out the kennels with a mop. "We don't have a sterilization program, so there is a huge amount of stray dogs here and authorities try to control them. They can't."

Filippova, a lawyer living in Sochi, argued Russia needs new legislation for the protection and management of animals.

"In Russia, you can abuse animals and it's not a crime. You can buy and adopt an animal and release it on the street, it's not a crime," she said. "You have no legal obligation to sterilize your dog or cat."

Filippova and Provotorova both conceded that their families often accused them of being "crazy" about animals.

But one of their fellow volunteers had another explanation for why she devoted so much time to caring and feeding for homeless animals.

"At my age I prefer taking care of animals," said Valentina Slivat, who described herself as a "simple Soviet nurse" who worked at a hospital in Sochi.

A fluffy street dog named "Pushistik" followed Slivat constantly around the kennel, and periodically leaped into her arms.

"People have hands, legs, brains. But animals have been abandoned. We need to save them," the nurse said.

READ: Sochi Olympic hotels report construction delays

READ: Sochi 2014: Russia's numbers game

READ: United States reveals 'specific' threats to Olympic Games

CNN's Gena Somra contributed to this report.

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