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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Guardian Angel for Orphan Dogs

Nina Starostina's heart is bigger than her apartment.

Visitors to her three-room flat are met by a cacophony of barks and howls. Jim, a healthy red-brown mutt, growls from underneath a kitchen table, while Naida, a black resemblance of a Chihuahua, yelps in defense of her mistress. A litter of six black-and-gray puppies suckle in the hallway, and a huge black Belgian shepherd lounges on the bed. Other dogs fight with a rug, while a cat watches it all from a hat rack, meowing nervously.

"I've lost count, but there are more than 20 of them," said Starostina. "I never thought I'd end up with so many. I'm too soft-hearted."

Starostina is one of a handful of animal lovers who have turned their cramped quarters into dog pounds to provide homes for the rising number of strays in Moscow. But what started as a hobby has taken over these people's lives, and they are looking desperately for a new home for their canine orphans. Another woman Starostina knows has 30 dogs. A third woman has run out of food for her dogs and was malnourished herself, Starostina said.

Alexander Romanovich, editor of Drug (Friend), a magazine for dog lovers, estimates that roughly 10,000 stray dogs roam the city's streets, parks and waste dumps. Starostina said the poor abandon their dogs because inflation has pushed up the price of food, and the rich banish their dogs in favor of pets with a purer pedigree.

Gennady Pogrebnyak, deputy head of the city's veterinarian department, said the city has few resources to cope with the rise in homeless hounds. There is only one city-run dog pound, which holds only 10 dogs. If they are not claimed, they are killed after three days to make room for newcomers. The number of dogcatchers has been cut to only three teams. Pogrebnyak said the city had recently asked each of its 10 districts to set up dog pounds, but had not provided any funding.

Starostina said she decided to devote her life to saving stray dogs after visiting the pound. "It's awful there," she said. "They are not fed there. They just sit there and wait for death."

Staff at the pound refused to let a reporter in, or to answer questions.

Starostina, who has taught Latin at a medical school, said she convinced the pound's veterinarian to hand over dozens of stray puppies. She then washed them, rid them of fleas, and sold them to passersby on the street.

"But some animals were ill and had to be treated," she said. "By the time they had recovered, they had grown big, and no one would take them. So I shifted my priorities. If puppies are worth saving, why not full-grown dogs?" Soon word got out that Starostina could not say no, and she began finding sick dogs, pregnant dogs and whole litters abandoned on her doorstep. When a neighbor was murdered, Starostina adopted her dog, too.

At least twice a day, Starostina takes all the full-grown dogs for a walk and visits a nearby school cafeteria to collect leftover food for the animals. Oleg Shchekaturov and his wife, who saw a documentary about Starostina on television, are among a number of volunteers who bring in donations and bags full of leftovers, collected from neighbors.

In the meantime, Starostina's mission of mercy is becoming a strain. "I don't know how to get out of this mess," Starostina said. "The neighbors are going mad. I can't leave the house."

"They give me a lot of joy too -- when they don't bark," she added with a tender smile at Jim. "But I'm tired. I would like to move them somewhere else. Is there anyone who can help?"

Dog lovers can call Starostina at 392-2654.