Animal Rights Movement Finds Growing Following
MOSCOW ' Eight animal rights protesters posed in T-shirts printed with fake blood, several hiding their faces in surgical masks, outside the trial of a man accused of shooting pet dogs.
The trial could result in one of the country's first serious convictions for animal cruelty. It also provides a showcase for a new, more radical animal activism that is gaining popularity in Russia.
Dmitry Khudoyarov is on trial at Moscow's Cheryomushkinsky District Court on charges of killing a dog and permanently disabling a puppy by shooting them from his all-terrain vehicle.
He has pleaded guilty and could serve up to six months in jail, a year of community service, or pay a fine of up to 80,000 rubles ($2,580).
Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times
Activists standing outside the courthouse during a recent hearing wore T-shirts with splattered blood and the slogans, "Prison for the Slaughterer" and "Prison for the Serial Killer."
'Khudoyarov is a disease of our society,' said one protester, Emilia Nadin. 'This is really the first case in Russia where people have managed to bring a case to court, and it's very important for us to create a precedent.'
Fueling their cause is the fact that the country's courts have handed down few convictions for animal cruelty. In 2007, a guard was convicted of killing a stray dog named Ryzhik who lived in the Konkovo metro station. He received a suspended sentence of two years and eight months.
This year, residents in both the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk and the Oryol region were convicted of killing dogs and received sentences of three months and six months of community service, respectively. A man from Samara was given a suspended sentence of one year and fined 12,000 rubles.
In 2002, a model deemed by psychiatrists to be psychologically unstable stabbed a stray dog at the Mendeleyevskaya metro station. She was sent to a psychiatric hospital, and shocked Muscovites paid for a statue of the dog to be placed in the station.
The protest outside the courthouse this month was officially a flash mob, since officials had asked them to hold the rally 2.5 kilometers away. Police stood outside the courtroom and made no attempt to move on the protesters.
'We want the guy to be jailed ' and for a long time,' said protester Marat Makhmutov.
The protesters represent a secretive grass-roots organization called Alliance for Animal Rights, which Nadin said she quit her job to join full-time two years ago. She has no office, and activists print up leaflets at home or work, she said.
The group provides a more attractive face for animal rights, Nadin said. 'Our position has got better, we appear on television. They used to film crazy women with unwashed hair, now it's young people,' she said.
Makhmutov and another protester, Emil Baluyev, both wore surgical masks, which they said were to prevent them from being identified by 'boneheads,' members of a group of skinheads who target and beat up anti-fascist groups.
'They monitor all this with photographs and can find us later,' Makhmutov said. 'They could beat us up or kill us.'
Baluyev, a law student, said he wants to become a rights campaigner after he graduates. Makhmutov, who works in telecommunications, said he became an activist 1 1/2 years ago.
Both said they came into the animal rights movement through the punk subculture.
A nebulous organization, the Alliance for Animal Rights has no formal registration, and it is unclear who is in charge.
Its spokesman, Semyon Simonov, answered e-mails from Sochi. He said the group has 500 members and was set up five years ago, initially as a purely Internet-based project, but had been holding rallies since 2005. He said the protests usually attract 50 people, but sometimes all 500 members show up for popular issues such as homeless animals.
Among the causes that the group backs is the controversial Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, or SHAC, campaign against British animal testing company Huntingdon Life Sciences. The international campaign calls for targeting all shareholders and partner companies. In Britain, activists have vandalized houses, published the names of investors and sent letters with threats.
Seven British activists were jailed for blackmail last year. 'We call for everyone who takes part not to break the law,' Simonov said. 'For us it's important because our society could react badly to illegal actions.'
Nevertheless, he warned, 'In Russia there are people who have been disappointed by legal methods, and they could ignore laws that allow the killing of animals.'
Activists said they knew of the jail terms for the British activists and were sympathetic.
'Such radical activities are over the top,' Baluyev said. 'We hope to achieve success with peaceful methods, but we support these people all the same.'
'We think this is bad,' Makhmutov said of the jailings. 'We feel that any defense of animals isn't a crime.'
Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times
A woman holds a soft toy as part of animal rights protests outside Soyuz Pushnina, where a huge international fur auction is held every year, in St. Petersburg.
Last month, the activists picketed pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers-Squibb in Moscow. They have also picketed AstraZeneca and Novartis, Nadin said.
Novartis has 'experienced protests by animal rights activists and extremists at our offices in Russia,' spokeswoman Tatyana Loginova said in answer to e-mailed questions. 'Overall, we have seen an increase in the number of acts committed by these groups, as well as an escalation in the severity of their actions across continental Europe.'
Loginova said the campaign was 'directed at the entire research-based pharmaceutical industry.'
A spokeswoman for Bristol Myers-Squibb said the company did not comment on animal rights activists.
The alliance was given permission by Moscow officials to picket the pharmaceutical companies, Nadin said.
There are an increasing number of supporters of radical action in Russia, Simonov said, including supporters of the Animal Liberation Front, a movement of activists who use tactics such as removing animals from cages and damaging property of targets.
'In Russia there are supporters of the Animal Liberation Front and their numbers are growing, since there is more deprivation of animal rights in our country than in many others,' Simonov said.
He listed the lack of a law on animal rights and public monitoring of laboratories, farms and slaughterhouses.
'It's obvious that if the situation doesn't change, many people will turn to direct action,' Simonov said.
Last year, American activist Steven Best visited Russia and talked to students in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Best, who teaches philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso, is a controversial figure. He co-founded a media information center for the Animal Liberation Front in the United States. He was banned from visiting Britain in 2005 under anti-terrorist legislation after telling a conference, 'We will break the law and destroy property until we win.'
'The Moscow animal rights community is one of the most active and dedicated I know,' Best said in an e-mail.
He described it as comprising 'both a highly visible legal and aboveground presence' and also 'underground activities of the Animal Liberation Front.'
'Activists tend to be young students and workers,' he said. 'Many activists are anarchists and anti-fascist and understand the connections between animal liberation and human liberation.'
Animal rights protesters aren't yet seen as a threat by the authorities, Best said. He was 'able to speak freely' in Russia, he said, although he was told that plainclothes police officers attended some of his talks.
Although Best initially was little- known in Russia, 'people found out about him and he became a favorite with many animal rights activists because his ideas reflect their views,' Simonov said.
The alliance opposes mainstream wildlife organization WWF over its involvement in a law on hunting and the preservation of hunting resources in Russia that was signed by President Dmitry Medvedev in July.
'They are our enemies,' Nadin said of WWF, adding that the law allows 'VIP hunting' and hunting in nature reserves.
'They collect a huge amount of money. They buy a lot of television advertising and they themselves carry out such laws,' she said.
WWF 'thinks about its personal profit. That is our general point of view,' Baluyev said.
Last month, the group held a protest in which one member dressed up as WWF's panda symbol.
'This view is voiced by people who simply haven't bothered to read the law on hunting,' said a WWF representative, Vladimir Krever.
The law does not allow hunting in nature reserves but only in some sections of national parks, Krever said. A WWF researcher took part in a working group that helped draft the bill.
'I think that all citizens have the right to their views in a civil society, but there needs to be a balance,' Krever said. 'I really don't like it when they stop using a normal tone in a discussion.'
Nevertheless, Krever said he did not think that Russian radicals would resort to violence. 'I don't think that could happen in Russia,' he said.
'Sometimes we don't very much support the methods that these organizations use, let's say, extremist ones,' said Olga Pegova, head of the WWF's information service in Moscow. 'But we support them when their position is reasoned.'