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The Strays Of Sochi

July 06, 2015
July 06, 2015

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July 6, 2015

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The Strays Of Sochi

Escaping severe treatment on the streets they called home at last year's Winter Games, a small faction of Russia's many lost dogs have found loving homes Stateside, bringing Olympic joy—medal or no medal—to their new owners

This is an article from the July 6, 2015 issue

THESE ARE good days for Sochi Jacobellis. A typical morning for the wiry-haired mongrel with the deferential demeanor and big, floppy ears begins early, when he wakes and races downstairs to the back door of the house that his owner, 29-year-old Olympic snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis, shares with her parents near Stratton, Vt. Sochi's first order of business is a quick romp in the yard, after which he returns inside and wolfs down breakfast. From then on the day is pretty much his until suppertime. When the weather is nice, he spends most of his time wandering the Jacobellises' 2½ acres, chewing on sticks, digging holes or running happy laps within the perimeter of the electric fence. Otherwise, he'll stay inside and gnaw on a chew toy or search for sunny places to nap, often alongside the family's other dogs, an 11-year-old German shepherd named Bear and Gidget, a 9-year-old Yorkie.

Altogether, it's a long way from where Sochi was 16 months ago, when Lindsey met him at her hotel in Rosa Khutor, the Russian resort town in the Caucasus Mountains that hosted Alpine events for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Back then Sochi—a mix of borzoi, Dalmatian, German shepherd, German shorthaired pointer, Tibetan terrier and white Swiss shepherd, according to the results of a DNA test—was just trying to survive. The 3-month-old stray was malnourished and had an eye infection; he sustained himself by begging for food while staying clear of hotel security. Jacobellis's first encounter with the mutt came when he hitched a ride atop her equipment bag as she was wheeling it into the hotel lobby. "I started bringing him treats," she says. Within a few days she had U.S. Snowboarding chefs preparing bowls of table scraps for him. Not long after, she began looking into how to bring the puppy, whom she would name for the Olympics' host city, back to Vermont.

Besides Jacobellis, three other U.S. athletes—hockey players David Backes and Kelli Stack and slopestyle skier Gus Kenworthy—each brought at least one stray dog home from Sochi. The Games were intended to be a $50 billion showcase for Vladimir Putin, but some best remember them for the host city's canines, whose furry faces were a happy contrast to the Russian president's perpetual scowl. "You saw your first stray at the airport," remembers Backes. "They were everywhere."

It wasn't just the ubiquity of those strays that turned them into social-media sensations—it was the Russian government's hiring of an exterminator, who called them "biological trash" and cited the danger of a ski jumper landing on one. Hundreds of dogs were killed in the weeks before the Games. Jacobellis saw a security guard at her hotel kick Sochi. Stack and her teammates watched a friendly pooch they had been petting moments before get scooped up by two men who drove away in a white van. "That shook everybody up," she says.

Some athletes couldn't just, in the words of Backes, "give them a last meal, say a prayer and hope for the best." And so a few took action. For Jacobellis, who disappointingly failed to match the snowboard cross silver she won at Turin in 2006, bringing Sochi home from the Games was more meaningful than returning with a medal. "My event didn't pan out the way I would have liked," she says, "but it was nice to get something great out of it."

STRAY DOGS have a rich history in Russia. Literary references to Moscow's mongrels date back to the 19th century, and St. Petersburg's Stray Dog Café was a popular hangout for cast-aside novelists and poets in the early part of the 20th. The first living creature to orbit the Earth, in fact, was a 3-year-old female Moscow stray named Laika, who was shot into space aboard Sputnik 2 on Nov. 3, 1957. Today, an estimated 35,000 mutts roam Moscow alone; a group of so-called "metro dogs" are even sophisticated enough to have become regular users of the subway system. The practice of spaying and neutering is almost nonexistent in Russia—according to the Humane Society International, most vets don't even offer the service. "The strays serve an important sanitary function in our cities," says Andrei Neuronov, a Russian specialist in animal behavior and psychology who has worked with Putin's own female black Labrador retriever, Connie. "We would not be able to manage the rat population without them."

Moscow's population is about 12 million; Sochi's is around 365,000. According to Neuronov, there are no statistics on the number of stray dogs in that city (one estimate puts it at 4,000), but theories about where they come from focus on the construction of venues for the most expensive Olympic Games in history. Some belonged to families displaced by construction, a number that Human Rights Watch has estimated to be about 2,000; others were owned (or fed) by the tens of thousands of construction workers who made the area their temporary home. When those workers departed, the thinking goes, they left their dogs behind.

Sochi's domesticated strays, who to visitors seemed friendly and approachable, became famous when the sporting world descended on the Black Sea resort town in February 2014. They blew up on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and on countless photo galleries; footage of one dog went viral after he wandered onto a cross-country ski course during a training run and began barking at competitors.

In a country whose people have a reputation for inscrutability, and where smiling at passing strangers is a cultural taboo, Sochi's sociable mutts provided a window into the hearts of everyday Russians. "The behavior of strays has 100% to do with their human interaction," says Humane Society International's Kelly O'Meara. "We found out that many of the locals in Sochi were taking care of these dogs."

The international outcry over the culling of stray dogs was immediate, and as the Games began, two hastily constructed shelters popped up near Sochi. One, PovoDog, was funded by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, who'd financed development of much of the area in advance of the Olympics. The other, Sochi Dogs, was founded in Morristown, N.J., on the eve of the Games by the mother-daughter team of Tanya and Anna Umansky. They had read about Vlada Provotorova, a Sochi dentist who was trying to save the city's strays in her spare time. Tanya, who immigrated with her family to the U.S. from Moscow in 1993, contacted Provotorova while Anna, a New York City marketing associate, set up a crowd-funding hub at Indiegogo. Today, Sochi Dogs can accommodate roughly 50 strays and has found homes for more than 40 dogs. PovoDog can house up to 300. "Eradication never works," says O'Meara. "They're going the shelter route [in Sochi] now, but we believe that mass spaying and neutering is the key to controlling the population of these dogs."

During the Games the two shelters were critical in helping athletes bring their adopted dogs home. Stack, who won a silver medal, adopted Shayba (named for an Olympic hockey venue, itself the Russian word for puck), a 45-pound German shepherd mix, through Sochi Dogs. But most athletes got outside help. Jacobellis relied on the staff at her hotel to get Sochi's paperwork in order. Kenworthy, who also won silver, had to return to the U.S. for a media tour after the Games, so his friend Robin MacDonald stuck around for nearly a month to complete the adoption of five mutts—a mother and her four puppies—that he'd bonded with near the Olympic media center. Backes, who runs a nonprofit animal-welfare organization called Athletes for Animals with his wife, Kelly, brought two mongrels back to St. Louis in his carry-on luggage—Kelly had completed all the paperwork while David was competing. The Backeses already cared for two cats and four dogs, all rescued from U.S. shelters, so, after clearing quarantine, their dogs went to homes in New York: Sochi Jr. lives in Westchester County with the parents of Backes's Blues teammate Kevin Shattenkirk; Jake is in Manhattan with Rangers center Derek Stepan (like Shattenkirk, a fellow U.S. Olympian) and his wife, Stephanie.

All these athletes have heard the criticism that instead of adopting strays from Sochi, they should have rescued dogs in the U.S. But the opprobrium doesn't account for the circumstances. Rescuing the dogs, says O'Meara, was "a very natural human reaction to a very terrible situation."

"I saw these dogs every day, and I knew what was happening to them," says Kenworthy. "I didn't want that to happen to dogs that I had fallen in love with."

THE HOST of the next Winter Olympics, in 2018, is already squarely on the radar of animal-welfare advocates. South Korea does not have a problem with strays, but it is the only country in the world where dogs are raised for food. "It's a dying practice," says O'Meara, who adds that the conditions at such farms are horrific. "But we know there are still an estimated two million dogs consumed a year."

According to O'Meara, the South Korean government does not want to acknowledge the problem, nor has it been receptive to the Humane Society's offers to help farmers transition from harvesting dogs to raising crops. In that way, the situation closely resembles what happened in Sochi, where the Humane Society got no response from the Russian government after offering free spaying and neutering services.

For Sochi Jacobellis, who splits his time between Stratton and the Jacobellises' other house, in Roxbury, Conn., the days of privation and neglect are a distant memory, if they're a memory at all. Lindsey notes that he's not abnormally obsessed with food—he doesn't snap at those who come close to his dog bowl—and he has long since overcome his aversion to tall men in suits, a remnant, presumably, of his run-ins with hotel security in Rosa Khutor. These days his biggest concern is the next visit from the UPS man, who always brings treats.

"I wasn't really looking to adopt a dog," says Jacobellis, "but Sochi significantly impacted my three weeks over there. I felt like I had to repay that kindness in some way."

Stack watched as a friendly pooch she had been petting got scooped up by two men who drove away in a white van. "That shook everybody up," she says.
PHOTOPhotograph by Nathaniel Brooks For Sports IllustratedROOM AND BOARD After crashing out in Russia, Jacobellis fell for a stray and came home with a new housemate. PHOTOTALISMAN BROLIN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDMUTT HOUSE Stepan (far left) joined the lovefest in Sochi and, along with Jacobellis and Kenworthy (near left), picked up where previous dog lovers had left off. TWO PHOTOSTWITTER.COM[See caption above] PHOTOROBERT BECK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above]