SOCHI, Russia — Alexei stops in his tracks as he sees a half-breed Labrador snooping around at a cafe's back door.
The dog comes obediently on his whistle. Alexei strokes it and in one swift movement takes it in his arms like a newborn baby.
Rushing past surprised passers-by, Alexei carries the equally-surprised dog to his car parked round the corner and places it gently on the back seat.
Alexei is one of a dozen people in the emerging movement of animal activists in Sochi alarmed by reports that the city has contracted the killing of thousands of stray dogs before and during the Olympic Games. Activists have been picking up dogs from the streets and putting them up at their homes or in temporary shelters before finding an owner elsewhere.
Stray dogs are a common sight on the streets of Russian cities, but with massive construction in the area the street dog population in Sochi and the Olympic park has soared. Useful as noisy, guard dogs, workers feed them to keep them nearby and protect buildings. The dogs — friendly rather than feral — soon lose their value and become strays.
Tonight, a few dogs will be taken on their way to a new life.
Alexei's wife Dina Fillipova has spotted a stray in the central Sochi neighborhood of Svetlana. Once Alexei has picked up the Labrador, the couple heads for two safe houses. One, in a central neighborhood, is lined with palm trees. The other is at the top of a windy pot-holed road with overgrown gardens. Four helpless puppies wait to be collected at one and a stubborn stray at the other.
"I like dogs but that's not the point," Fillipova says. "You know, even if you don't like children and don't want to have one, when you see a baby lying on the street bleeding or find out about maniacs hunting for children, you would want to do something to help."
Dina and Alexei park in a back alley in the Sochi suburb of Dagomys well past midnight, waiting for a middle-man. A Soviet-designed SUV pulls up. The driver shakes Alexei's hand, and the men hurry to open the trunks. The adult dogs — and a carrier with the puppies — are put into the SUV, much to the amazement of two late night drinkers stumbling by.
"They must be expensive," one man says, nodding towards the unwanted mongrels. Alexei's long night is over and he can return home.
The mission to be accomplished now is 120 kilometers (75 miles) away along the Black Sea coast.
The dog-laden car travels 100 kilometers on a windy road past round-the-clock stalls selling honey, jam and nuts to reach a checkpoint where trucks and cars line up to get into the Sochi area. This is the Games' ring of steel which is supposed to keep Sochi terrorism-free, allowing in only cars with local number plates or with Olympic accreditation.
A dozen kilometers before the check-point is the closest Igor Airapetian, a softly-spoken retired businessman, can get to Sochi in his SUV with Moscow number plates.
It's three in the morning and the dog activists pull up at a deserted plaza in the town of Tuapse. A smiling Airapetian shakes the driver's hand. Airapetian's friend, Zamir Aslanov, who has been driving the arduous 1,600 kms (1,000 miles) from Moscow, is dizzy with exhaustion. It will now be Airapetian's turn to drive back.
"It was just a coincidence," Airapetian says when asked why he decided to help taking out dogs from Sochi. "I saw that post (in the social media) and decided to help."
Airapetian unloads the back of his car, choked full with dog food and medicines. It's not only the handover of dogs, but an exchange of goods. Airapetian is elated: "My beauties!"
Asked about the future of the dogs, Airapetian comes up with a long list and details of breeders and ordinary people who will be taking the dogs.
The silence in the plaza is broken by the arrival of a three-door red car. A petite blonde gets out of her car. It's all wet noses and tails inside. One of the five dogs she has brought is a Rottweiler.
"People buy bred dogs, play with them and then throw them away," Yulia Krasova, a 30-year-old travel agent, explains.
Sochi is flooded with stray dogs but activists also lament the attitudes of Russians who tend to treat dogs as a toy that can be easily discarded.
"Dogs live on construction sites, workers feed them, give them names," Fillipova says. "Once the construction is over the dogs are left behind."
Two more cars arrive at the plaza at four in the morning. Another woman in a down jacket comes out. Fifteen or so dogs will head back towards Moscow, some of them to be dropped off with new owners on the way.
Igor hopes that the international media attention that Sochi's strays have received could prompt Russian officials across the country to end the cruel treatment of dogs.
Sochi city hall, when asked for comment on dog killings, responded by posting a press release announcing the opening of a dog pound.
"I hope what we've seen here is not going to happen again," Airapetian says.
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