Column | Where is the passion for the Russian people?

February 19, 2014 

The biggest question in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics had nothing to do with sports.

As athletes, coaches and dignitaries streamed in to Sochi, the world waited to see if anyone would be brave enough to speak out about what’s been happening in Russia. In recent days, we’ve gotten a loud and clear answer.

“It makes me sad,” U.S. freeskier Brita Sigourney said.

“It’s hard to watch,” American skiing silver medalist Gus Kenworthy lamented.

“I’m not trying to make a statement,” U.S. bobsled and skeleton press officer Amanda Bird said, adding that she’s “been amazed how much people have been coming up to me and asking about it.”

This sad, hard-to-watch situation is, of course, the plight of Sochi’s stray dogs.

As The New York Times reported Feb. 5 that “hundreds of strays were facing a death sentence” as the games approached.

Though an International Olympic Committee spokesman claimed “it would be absolutely wrong to say that any healthy dog will be destroyed,” a Russian animal rights advocate told the Times that “about 300 dogs a month were being killed in Sochi,” some of them reportedly with poisoned darts.

And according to the Times, many of these dogs are not feral. Rather, they are abandoned pets.

Upon alighting in Sochi, Sigourney, Kenworthy, Bird and American snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis were inspired to help stave off the canine crisis. Each has declared the intention to adopt a stray, with Kenworthy staying in Russia for a few extra days so he can get the paperwork to adopt multiple puppies.

Who could possibly criticize these Olympians for wanting to save adorable dogs from an almost certain death? Not me. Kudos to Kenworthy, Jacobellis and other animal lovers who have decided to take a pooch home with them, and for taking a public stand.

“I need a billionaire who has a plane who’s willing to let me take 100 dogs on the flight with me back to the U.S.,” Bird, the press officer, told USA Today.

And kudos to those back in the United States who’ve been moved to inquire about how to adopt a Sochi stray. (The Humane Society does note, though, that there are plenty of homeless pets to adopt in America.)

But all of this commendable sympathy for Sochi’s abandoned dogs points up how much more we’ve heard about animal rights than human rights over the past few weeks. While a few athletes, like Canadian snowboarder Michael Lambert and Austrian ski jumper Daniela Iraschko-Stolz, have made strong statements in Sochi, we haven’t heard much at all from Olympians about non-dog-related issues.

It’s not for a lack of problems that need addressing. Human Rights Watch’s page on “Russia’s Olympian Abuses” notes the country’s 2013 passage of anti-gay propaganda laws, as well as a number of other disturbing transgressions: More than 50 journalists have been murdered in Russia in the past 22 years; Sochi’s venues were built by more than 70,000 migrant laborers who toiled ceaselessly in violation of Russian law; and in “one village, Olympic construction destroyed local drinking wells, leaving villagers with no reliable drinking water source for years.”

A Russian activist who has worked to track the environmental damage caused by the games recently was sentenced to three years in a labor camp.

Human Rights Watch also reports that about 2,000 families were forcibly resettled on account of Olympic construction, with some of them receiving no compensation. These compulsory evictions, The New York Times said in that Feb. 5 article, likely explain why many of the Sochi strays were abandoned: Families have left their pets behind because the Russian government demolished their homes.

Sochi’s animal crisis, then, can best be understood as a proxy for a human one. So why aren’t any athletes — or, really, all that many journalists — talking about that human crisis?

In a Feb. 10 column for the Guardian, Heather Long pondered why the killing of stray dogs seems to have elicited so much more outrage than anything else that’s happening in Russia.

Long argued convincingly that “aiding animals like the Sochi dogs is, in many ways, an easier problem to solve than many of the world’s largest human tragedies: war, poverty, child abuse, trafficking, disease, etc.”

She also cited recent research showing that we have more empathy for battered dogs than adult human beings, and quotes a CNN war correspondent who wrote in 2008, “Of all the stories I have covered during my frequent trips to Iraq, most of the viewer feedback I received asked about the animal victims of war rather than the human ones.”

That was my experience when I covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for Slate in 2005.

Less than two weeks after the storm made landfall, I rode in a boat with a search-and-rescue squad from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Every house in this neighborhood, Lakeview, had been completely destroyed, the residents driven out by rising floodwater. The ones who were driven out were lucky.

Many people didn’t survive Katrina — more than 1,500 lives were lost in Louisiana alone.

And yet, I don’t recall getting a single email from a reader wondering what might happen to the people who’d been displaced. I did, however, receive dozens upon dozens of messages from readers about the “frail-looking cat” that I’d spotted briefly before it skittered away.

The emails kept coming. Why hadn’t the Army saved the cat? What were the cat’s GPS coordinates? How could I say that there were “no signs of life” when so many animals needed rescuing? (I meant “signs of human life,” but many did not forgive me for failing to make that distinction clear.)

In New Orleans, as in Sochi, the suffering of these animals was a consequence of human suffering. How could it possibly be that the human half of that equation doesn’t tug at us as strongly?

In her Guardian column, Long writes that “many people view animals as innocent and helpless, similar to children. How we treat the weakest in our society is a reflection of who we are.”

That is certainly true. But it’s also a reflection of who we are that we find it so much easier to love an abandoned puppy than to sympathize with an exploited laborer or a Russian man who’s persecuted on account of his sexual preference or a family that’s been kicked out of its home to build an Olympic venue.

It’s easy, relatively, to save a Russian dog. It’s much harder to help workers, to speak out against intolerance or to challenge a government.

I commend everyone who’s stepped forward to help Sochi’s animals and I don’t begrudge any Olympic athlete for making the choice to keep her head down, compete in the event she’s trained for all her life and stay quiet about issues of human rights.

But it would be heartening if, before the Games are over, a whole bunch of athletes make a very difficult decision, choosing to speak out about what’s being done to Russian men and women, and not just man’s best friend.

Josh Levin is executive editor of Slate. Readers may write to him at sportsnut@slate.com.

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