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Meet the Billionaire Saving Sochi's Strays

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The Winter Olympics may be over and the crowds have packed up and left Sochi, but the stray dogs that captured the world’s attention are still there. And so is Oleg Deripaska, the Russian billionaire who developed much of the area and is now determined to do what he can to shelter and find homes for the area’s estimated 4,000 dogs.

“It is a problem, a big problem,” says Deripaska in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, while flipping through countless photos of strays on his cellphone. “Here, look,” he tells his visitor a moment later, pointing to a picture of ten puppies in a cardboard box. “Somebody dropped these off at our shelter a few days ago.”

Every city on the planet grapples with the question of what to do with strays. But when spectators – and the world’s media – descended upon Sochi in early February and discovered scores of friendly dogs roaming the Olympic Village, the issue made headlines around the globe. The problem was further exacerbated when local officials hired an “exterminator,” who described the animals as “biological scum.”

Watching all this unfold was Deripaska, an unabashed 46-year-old dog lover (he’s got nine) and one of Russia’s richest men. Two years ago, he first noticed “puppies everywhere” while traveling around the many construction camps that sprang up to house his 50,000 workers who spent the past seven years building much of Sochi’s Olympic grounds.

The dogs were pets of the workers and his attempts, at the time, to convince local officials that they had a potential problem on their hands proved fruitless. This past summer, as the massive construction project began nearing completion, Deripaska was shocked to see “even more” dogs. “Before I was seeing one or two at a time,” he recalls. “Now there were groups of them running around and it was clear that the workers, who were beginning to move back home, weren’t taking their dogs with them.”

By September, he knew he couldn’t wait any longer for officials to step in. He secured a parcel of land on the outskirts of Sochi, then called in his engineers and construction crews to develop the rural site into what will soon become a modern animal shelter, complete with a staff of vets who will work with scores of local volunteers. Known as Povodog, it currently houses roughly 300 strays, but will eventually be capable of holding nearly a thousand.

“It started out as fairly simple,” laughs Deripaska. “But it’s not so simple anymore.”

Deripaska applauds the efforts of Olympic athletes like silver medalist freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy and snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis, who have helped draw attention to the issue with their efforts to bring dogs back to the U.S. “I think the only way to help these dogs is if all of us work together,” he says. But he also realizes that the “real solution” lies in getting Russians to adopt the animals and hopes to one day transfer a number of Sochi’s strays to adoption shelters in other parts of the country.

Those who know Deripaska are hardly surprised by his interest in this issue. “My very first close friend was a stray I found in the street of my village when I was five,” he recalls of the dog he named Sharik. “I was a lazy child and one of my chores was to go to the mail office miles away to get the mail for my grandfather. So I made a little harness for Sharik and he went for me. They’d slip the mail into his harness and when he’d return I’d give him porridge.”

The billionaire industrialist admits that the issue of Sochi’s strays is far from being solved. But he insists that he’s committed to funding efforts “with as much money as is needed” until it is. He’s even pondering adding dog number ten to his four-legged brood, but admits that the decision will ultimately be up to his two kids.

“Dogs,” he says, waxing philosophical, “help us get back in touch with nature. They understand us on an emotional level. We should all share our time with them.”