Looking at Marusya, a lively 1-year-old mutt with floppy ears, you'd never guess she has just been rescued from the streets.
Marusya was brought to Moscow last month after being found wandering at a train station in Sochi. She has since been adopted by a family in Finland.
Animal-welfare activists are scrambling to save homeless dogs in the southern Russian city, where a pest-control firm hired by the government has been quietly culling strays ahead of the Olympic Games.
In the run-up to the Olympics, Sochi residents have come forward with horrific accounts of dogs being savagely beaten, gunned down, or left to die in agony after being shot with poisoned darts.
Igor Airapetyan, the man who rescued Marusya, told RFE/RL: "The Olympics have always been a symbol of peace, wars have been halted for the duration of the Olympics. But in Russia, the Olympics are built on blood."
Airapetyan drove all the way from Moscow -- a 1,600-kilometer, 20-hour drive -- to pick up Marusya and 10 other homeless Sochi dogs (see video below).
Struggling To Cope With Strays
The controversy around Sochi's stray dogs is not new. The city drew public indignation last year when it announced a tender to dispose of 2,000 dogs ahead of the games.
Local authorities eventually backtracked, pledging to give up culling and build shelters for strays instead. But the first state-funded shelter, which opened as late as February 2, appears woefully ill-equipped to care for the 100 dogs it claims it can accommodate.
Maria Sutyrina, an activist who visited the facility several times, said the dogs were kept in rusty, uninsulated cages
and went for hours without food or water. She said the staff also flouted regulations by neglecting to vaccinate animals upon arrival.
Activists blame the government for shoving the responsibility for stray dogs on volunteers after spending billions of dollars on the Olympics.
Several shelters run by charities operate in the Sochi region, but they have only enough space for a fraction of Sochi's stray population.
Dogs have been spotted inside sports venues and at Olympic villages built for the athletes. Journalists have also reported seeing dogs wander in and out of their hotel lobbies.
Accusations And Denials
Activists estimate more than 1,000 dogs have been killed in Sochi since efforts to rid the city of strays started in October.
Local campaigners say many of the animals were pets abandoned by families whose houses were demolished to make way for Olympic venues and who were relocated to smaller apartments seen as unsuitable for dogs.
Despite the authorities' claims to the contrary, the culling has reportedly intensified in recent weeks, prompting animal-rights groups outside Russia to sound the alarm. The International Fund for Animal Welfare said it was "horrified" and criticized Russian officials for rejecting its offers to help find a humane solution to Sochi's roaming dog problem.
"Culling dogs in Sochi is quite simply the wrong thing to do," the group said in a February 4 statement
. "It is ineffective and inhumane and makes a mockery of the Sochi claim to be an Olympic event 'In Harmony with Nature'."
On February 3, the U.S.-based Humane Society International urged Russian President Vladimir Putin, a self-professed dog lover who has made a number of public appearances with his black Labrador, to end the cruel practice.
The company hired to rid Sochi of stray dogs, meanwhile, denies actually killing dogs, insisting that it placed them in shelters and only disposed of animals found dead in the streets.
Aleksei Sorokin, the director of Basya Services, denounces what he calls an aggressive mudslinging campaign against his firm. "All I can say is this is all insinuations, nonsense, and speculation," he says. "It's a theater of the absurd in which the aura of a villain has been created around me."
Russian officials, while acknowledging that Sochi was struggling with stray dogs, have also stopped short of confirming that animals were being exterminated ahead of the Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee, in turn, maintains that only sick or dying dogs are being put down. Speaking at a news briefing this week, spokesman Mark Adams said, "It would be absolutely wrong to say that any healthy dog will be destroyed."
Uniting On Animal Rights
Back in Moscow, Airapetyan is still trying to find homes for the dogs he saved from what he says was certain death in Sochi. But his epic rescue mission, he says, also aims to shine a spotlight on animal cruelty in Russia and breathe life into the country's nascent animal-rights movement.
"I went there not only to pick up these 10 dogs but also to draw attention to this issue, to rally people and get them organized," Airapetyan says. "In the future, I would like to unite animal-protection groups so people can act in a consolidated manner with joint information resources."
Activists are now rallying to save stray dogs in Sergiyev Posad, northeast of Moscow. The culling, they say, is already in full swing ahead of the 700th anniversary of St. Sergius, the town's patron saint, this summer.