BARANKOVA, Russia — At the end of a road that winds through a mountain overlooking downtown Sochi — the last mile or so an unpaved, uninhabitable mess of mud and gravel — roughly 100 stray dogs that have been removed from Olympic Park are enjoying their reprieve from the slaughterhouse.
Some of them lay on the dirt, soaking in sunshine with their eyes closed. A few small puppies nip at each other and roll around in sawdust, while others make eager introductions to visitors, almost begging to be adopted. They perk up and start yapping when Jenya Popov, 25, who has been hired to live in a nearby aluminum shed with just a tiny cot, a stove heater and several bags of dog food, starts stirring around 3:30 p.m., eventually emerging with a large silver bucket
"We feed the older dogs now," he said through an interpreter. "We fed the puppies in the morning."
It is by no means a luxurious home for the stray dogs that have essentially been classified as pests by the Russian organizing committee for the Winter Games, but it is indeed a home — for now, anyway — made possible by a billionaire philanthropist, the city of Sochi and various animal-loving volunteers.
While the shelter has undoubtedly helped slow the extermination of Sochi's homeless dogs since it opened roughly a month ago — and particularly in the past week, as focus has increased on the Russians' efforts to remove stray dogs from the area — it is only a temporary solution, their caretakers acknowledge.
And what happens after the international media leave and the spotlight on Sochi's stray dogs fades away is very much a point of contention, even amongst those volunteering to take care of them.
"The mayor made this shelter just to show that picture so that you could see and believe it like fools," Gontareva Ekaterina, a retiree and animal activist, said through an interpreter. "It's not going to change anything. They're not doing this for the animals. People just want to eat and sleep good."
The area set aside to build the makeshift shelter is now occupied by three different groups — one led by Ekaterina, another by the philanthropic fund of billionaire of Oleg Deripaska and another by the local government.
Though Ekaterina fears the dogs occupying other shelters will be killed after the Olympics, Nadya Mayboroda, who is helping coordinate the effort for Deripaska's "Volnoe Delo" organization, said the plan is to move the operation to a better location with a permanent structure.
Right now the dogs that are confirmed healthy are immunized, fed regularly and moved to simple wood houses surrounded by hastily built wire fences, but Mayboroda, a professional translator who keeps 16 dogs on her own property, says more can be done, including sterilization.
"This is not really what we need; it's only the solution for three weeks," she said. "But we're caring for them and looking for owners for them. We're not going to stop caring for them when Olympics finish. When all journalists go, we're here and doing it. I'm not stopping."
It helps, Mayboroda said, that the arrival of the media in Sochi — some of which actually found stray dogs in their hotel rooms — has brought awareness to the issue. A few stray dogs have been anonymously dropped off at the shelter in recent days, and four puppies have been adopted.
But she acknowledged that the existence of the shelter hasn't been a cure-all, as the head of a regional extermination company confirmed to media outlets in recent days that he had been hired to get rid of as many dogs as possible in the days leading up to the games.
Though IOC spokesman Mark Adams said during his Wednesday media briefing that it would be "absolutely wrong to say that any healthy dog will be destroyed," Mayboroda said she found that claim difficult to believe.
"I think the situation has changed a bit (due to the attention it has received)," she said. "In three weeks it's impossible to save all dogs. The problem is not only now. The problem was there before and it will be there after. We're trying to solve it, but we are people — what we can, we're doing. We need to find (more permanent) options to solve it. Shelter isn't solving the problem."
It's also unclear just how many of the dogs taken in so far will realistically have a chance for adoption. Though Mayboroda says she has posted information and pictures on a local Web site, most of the dogs in the shelter are adults, making them less desirable, and nearly all of them are mutts.
"Especially now everyone wants a good breed," Popov said. "We've got Shar Pei puppies, well a multibreed of Shar Pei and a stray dog, and some people came do adopt one of them. But when they saw it was a multibreed, they refused."
Popov loves the dogs so much, he said he doesn't mind spending six days a week living in conditions that would make Walter White's New Hampshire excursion at the end of Breaking Bad seem luxurious. He's got enough food and heat to enjoy the remarkable view overlooking downtown Sochi and the Black Sea.
Like the entire operation, it's not perfect — but it's not all bad, either.
The question is whether the shelter site will bring Sochi closer to a long-term solution for its stray dog problem — exacerbated because of the perpetually warm climate — or continue to fester after the Olympic circus moves on.
"What we're trying to say to our local authorities is, come on you're wasting a lot of money for nothing," Mayaboroda said. "You're trying to get rid of stray dogs from the street, but they're still there and if you will spend maybe same amount of money to build houses for free sterilization, it will solve the problem. It should be a tax. If you don't sterilize your dog, you pay more money. But we need to organize a sterilization program."