Saving Sochi’s Dogs: An Interview with Anna Umansky
Sochi, a Russian city located on the Black Sea and a popular vacation destination, is best known as the seat for the 2014 XXII Olympic Winter Games.
But Sochi has a dark side: thousands of dogs are abandoned or born on the streets every year. Without a proper rescue and shelter system in place, the government often conducts mass poisonings to control the stray population and keep the city attractive to tourists.
This is how Sochi Dogs was born. Thanks to media coverage highlighting the problem in 2014, stray dogs now have a safe refuge and a chance to start a new life in Europe, Canada, or the U.S. There’s still a long way to go, but Anna Umansky—founder and director of Sochi Dogs—believes that with an aggressive education initiative and a sterilization program in place, things will get better.
THK: How and when did Sochi Dogs get started? Can you tell our readers about its beginnings, who founded it, and what it took to put the group together?
Anna Umansky: Sochi Dogs was started during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. The shelter itself was started by one woman, Vlada Provotorova. She is a dentist and an animal lover. Once she learned that dogs were being poisoned and shot in the street, she leased some land and had a couple of friends build dogs runs. Then they collected whatever dogs they could from the streets. We learned about her through the Boston Globe and immediately offered to help. We started with a fundraiser on Indiegogo but then people asked to adopt dogs, so long story short, we are now at 88 dogs in homes.
THK: One of the goals of the organization is to help place Sochi street dogs in the U.S., Canada and Europe. What’s involved in making this happen and how difficult is it to accomplish?
Anna Umansky: Our main goal is not to place dogs in homes but to reduce the stray dog population and reduce the suffering of stray dogs. Placing dogs in homes is just one way we do that. We use the Internet, social media, adoption events, print/digital media, and word-of-mouth to place dogs in homes. At first the logistics of adoption were difficult—what kind of crates do we use? Which airline do we fly? How much will it cost? But now we’ve figured it all out and got it down to a science. The hardest part now is matching the adopters to the dogs. We work like a boutique adoption agency, so we really take the time to understand what kind of dog people are looking for and make the right match.
THK: Is there still a large number of dog in the streets, is there any government help for strays, and how do they cope with cold weather?
Anna Umansky: There is no government help for dogs in Sochi. There are a couple of other shelters, but they don’t generally adopt dogs out the way we do. In addition to our adoption program, we also reach out to communities to spay and neuter community dogs, or if people are taking care of a group of stray dogs, we spay and neuter them for free too. All of that is paid for by donations. There is still a large number of street dogs in Sochi. And dogs continue to be shot and poisoned on the streets. But at the same time, there are also a number of people who are trying to help the dogs in any way they can. There is a small grassroots rescue movement and we are trying to make it more mainstream like it is in the U.S.
THK: In addition to finding homes for stray dogs, you also have an education initiative to help prevent dogs from being born on the street. Can you tell us more about it?
Anna Umansky: We want to teach people to be responsible pet owners: spay/neuter their animals, not abandon them on the street, and adopt from shelters. We have a Russian website telling people where they can spay/neuter their animals and why. You have to understand that we are starting from ground zero, so something as simple as an educational resource is already a lot more than was there before.
Last year, we worked with a local media company that did pro-bono radio PSAs for us; this year we are looking to do print pieces. Ultimately, I’d like to have programs in school to teach kids about pet ownership and how they can make a difference, but we aren’t there just yet.
THK: You recently completed construction of a shelter, so you can now actually take more dogs off the streets. Can you tell us a bit about the shelter and what you can offer (or what’s missing and you’re hoping to add), how many dogs you house there, what the place is like, etc.?
Anna Umansky: We were taking dogs off the street the entire time we were in operation. The new shelter has a cottage for a caretaker and their family, room for 50 dogs, a quarantine area for new dogs and puppies, as well as a small facility that serves as a small vet clinic when our vet visits. We have space to house more dogs, but we don’t have the resources to support them. Every dog that comes through our doors gets fed twice a day, gets a flea/tick treatment, a bath, all of the same vaccinations dogs get in the U.S. and gets spayed/neutered. It’s a lot of work and costs a lot so we are always fundraising because there are so many more dogs that desperately need our help.