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|Photo by Belinda Cooper|
It’s a chilly spring day in Tbilisi, capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and Gia Akhvlediani is feeding his cats. Akhvlediani, a bluff, charming 47-year-old who likes to talk about his former girlfriends, is the unlikely director of Georgia’s only cat shelter — an informal log-cabin refuge in Tbilisi’s park-like open-air ethnographic museum, where Akhvlediani has worked for years. Although he’s a talented artist whose work has been shown in a number of countries, Akhvlediani’s true passion is for his stray cats. He looks after as many as 30 at a time.
Caring for strays is an uphill battle in much of the former Soviet Union, where life is hard and concern for animals is often viewed as a strange and suspect pastime. Georgia, a country of 5.5 million in the Caucasus Mountains, was known during Soviet times not only as the birthplace of Josef Stalin, but also for its friendliness and relative affluence. But since independence in 1991, Georgia, like much of the post–Soviet empire, has suffered increasing impoverishment. Its once-beautiful capital, Tbilisi, has been ravaged by a ruined economy, corruption, and, for good measure, periodic earthquakes. Gas, electricity and water shut down regularly. Children and elderly women beg in the streets next to the Mercedeses and BMWs of the new rich and the regional mafia.
If post-communist chaos brought misery to humans, it’s been even tougher on the country’s animals. When civil war broke out following independence, Tbilisi’s venerable city zoo became a battleground, its animals hunted down and shot for target practice. Domestic animals suffered too, as people abandoned pets they could no longer afford. Now Tbilisi’s cobbled streets are home to thousands of bedraggled dogs and cats, dodging cars and sleeping in courtyards and doorways. If they can’t avoid the city’s dogcatchers, they are caught and electrocuted.
Georgia is not alone in its neglect of animals. Although European regional institutions increasingly attempt to set humane animal welfare standards, many former Eastern Bloc countries have moved in a different direction. Throughout the region, brute force commonly solves such problems as overpopulation and strays. In Romania, where former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu forced pets into the streets by forcing their owners to give up their private homes for tiny apartments, packs of strays roamed the streets even before the fall of communism, and dog bites and rabies remain real dangers. Now the city poisons strays in large numbers, and even private citizens shoot and club dogs to death. Closer to Tbilisi, the city of Yerevan, capital of neighboring Armenia, last year instituted a program to pay bounty hunters to shoot stray dogs.
It’s hard to be too smug; economically healthy, stable countries like the United States also kill millions of strays each year. In Los Angeles alone, L.A. Animal Services killed nearly 35,000 unwanted animals between 2002 and 2003. But American cities and private organizations also spend millions to rescue, spay and neuter, and place strays; in West Hollywood last spring, the city council voted to outlaw the common practice of declawing cats.
Yet we tend to believe that such concern for animal welfare is a luxury of affluent societies. I went to Georgia — a country whose problems are typical for post-communist Eastern Europe and indeed for many developing countries — wondering whether concern for animal welfare can be justified even in the midst of poverty and social dislocation.
Gia Akhvlediani believes it can. In fact, he believes that the way a society treats animals is a measure of its health; many Georgian animal rights activists are also involved in human rights or women’s rights. “If people don’t respect animals,” he maintains, “they’ll never respect each other.” He spends most of his own small salary, supplemented with contributions begged from museum visitors and friends, on supplies for his furry wards and tries to protect them from cars, dogs and the hostility of other museum workers. The cats return the affection, rushing to meet him when he arrives and crying for his attention.
Lexo Khubulava is an affable 26-year-old lawyer with the Westernized manner of a young businessman, although his interests lie in more humanitarian directions. Khubulava manages computer systems for an American non-governmental organization in Tbilisi, but in his spare time, he heads up the Georgian Animal Rights Committee (www.animalrights.ge).
It was Khubulava who introduced me to the small but feisty Georgian animal rights movement, which he helped instigate after working on several human rights projects. He also introduced me to a fellow activist, veterinary student Lasha Chkhartishvili. Both men came of age in the post-Soviet period, with its new opportunities for private initiative that were absent in Soviet times.
Soviet agriculture was vast and industrial in scale, Khubulava told me, and its policies on animals reflected that trend. Chkhartishvili explained that animals were treated as tools, and that even veterinary medicine considered them “a means to get milk, meat, or fur, not living beings.” Veterinary training is still a branch of agricultural sciences, not medicine. “When I graduate,” he explained, “I can become either a veterinarian or the person who examines the quality of meat at the market.”
(Photo by Belinda Cooper)