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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Story of an Old Woman and 4 Dogs

MTNadezhda, 79, selling newspapers with her stray dogs on a St. Petersburg street.
ST. PETERSBURG -- With the thermometer reading minus 7 degrees Celsius and the wind whipping the large umbrella that protects her and her goods from the snow, Nadezhda, 79, stood bundled up in layers of clothing at her small newspaper stand.

Her stand -- a table, a chair and the umbrella -- on Vladimirsky Prospekt usually does brisk business, as the prices she charges for her newspapers, magazines, television guides and calendars are low. Some of the people who stop aren't interested in buying anything at all, but they give her money anyway.

"It's for dogs," they say.

Every day, four stray dogs sit patiently at the spot where Nadezhda sets up her stand, eyes glued to the corner of Vladimirsky Prospekt and Kolokolnaya Ulitsa, waiting to catch a glimpse of her.

After she arrives, she drags out four large cardboard boxes for them -- portable dog houses -- as she has been doing for more than three years.

"What times these are!" Nadezhda said. "If people throw babies into garbage dumps, then it's just as easy for them to kick out dogs."

Nadezhda started selling newspapers when her daughter, Tamara, stopped receiving her salary on time. They went as long as 10 months without receiving anything and, Nadezhda explained, they had to buy medicine for Tamara's 24-year-old son, who is disabled as a result of a serious head injury suffered as a teenager.

Nadezhda and Tamara would not give their last names.

It was when she began selling newspapers on the corner that Nadezhda first noticed the stray dogs, searching for food and attention. Nadezhda, who came to what was then Leningrad in 1938 and served in an anti-aircraft battery during the blockade, sort of adopted the dogs.

All of the dogs have names, and Nadezhda knows all their stories. She says that Belaya Lapka ("White Paw") -- Lapka for short -- was born on the street, the daughter of Chernyshka ("Blackie"), who ended up on the street when her owner was sent to a psychiatric hospital. Jack also used to have a home, where his owner regularly forgot to feed him, while Sharik ("Ball") lost all his relatives. "Sharik is my favorite, because he is an orphan," Nadezhda said. "They killed his grandma and his sisters."

"They" are city employees whose job it is to rid the streets of stray dogs, particularly when there are complaints that a particular animal is dangerous. When asked how she knows all of these details, Nadezhda answers that she "just knows." "People have scared him," she said. "Now, he doesn't let anyone pet him, not even us."

Yelena Irkhoglainen, the head of the St. Petersburg Animal Protection Society, said that in 1998, the last year for which she has figures, St. Petersburg had about 10,000 stray dogs. She said she doesn't think the number has changed much since then.

"Dogs and cats usually lose their homes because their owners are old and lonely people. So, if they have to go to the hospital or they die, the pets end up homeless," Irkhoglainen said. "However, most stray animals are born to animals already living on the street."

Yury Andreyev, the head of the city's veterinary department, said that educating the public about the responsibility involved in having pets is part of the answer to the problem, and that people have to understand that pets are not just toys or ways to make money.

"People often get a dog or a cat without any idea of what kind of care the pet needs. Others get pets just so they can sell the puppies or kittens," he said.

Irkhoglainen said the situation for animals on the street, although bleak, has improved over the past decade, with more people helping dogs and cats. "I know quite a number of kind grandmothers and other people who take care of as many as 12 animals, and Nadezhda Vasilyevna is one of them," she said.

Watching customers come to Nadezhda's stand, about every third person seems to know her already. Some arrive carrying bags of food for the dogs. Others just give her an extra 10 rubles.

One woman arrives with a young girl and a bag full of hot food. For the girl, it's a lesson in kindness while, for Tamara, it's a chance to learn something new about the dogs' eating habits.

The woman empties out the contents of the bag -- cooked pasta -- for the dogs. "Wait, they don't eat pasta," Tamara said.

But the dogs prove her wrong. "They ate the pasta!" the little girl said, smiling happily.

Nadezhda and the dogs are popular in the neighborhood, and the sight of a reporter with a notebook asking questions worried some of the customers.

"She's a nice woman, and these are peaceful dogs; they never harm anyone," one well-dressed woman said. "Don't do anything bad to them."

Nadezhda's little spot often looks more like a neighborhood meeting place and a mini folk-psychology center, with people stopping to chat with her, complain about life's problems, or just ask about the dogs' well-being.

But not everyone is so friendly. Nadezhda said wealthy men with big, aggressive pure-bred dogs are the biggest problem. Sometimes, the owners sic their dogs on Nadezhda's little group.

Tamara says that taking care of the dogs with her mother has taught her a lot about people.

"When I see a man walking by with a little dog, I know at once that he is brave and wants to take care of little ones," she said. "But the ones with the dogs that are bred to fight are cowards; they have to rely on their dogs' anger.

"The best feeling we get from the dogs is to see their joy when they see us, and when we are able to find owners for their puppies."

While Nadezhda and her daughter have been able to find homes for the puppies, their attempts to settle the adult dogs haven't worked out. Nadezhda has managed to find willing families, but the dogs have always run away.

"They are so used to their freedom on the street," Nadezhda said.

Some customers worry about how difficult Nadezhda's life must be.

"This old woman shouldn't have to spend her senior years like this, freezing outside," said Alexander Melnikov, a young lawyer who adopted three stray dogs and sometimes helps Nadezhda out. "But this hard life makes her do it."

But Nadezhda said she has only one thing to complain about.

"If I were the president, I would build a big house for stray dogs, hire good people to work there, and let them all live normal lives," she said.