By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
With almost no funding and a small but dedicated staff, Khubulava and Chkhartishvili track animal abuse, lobby the government and educate the public through the media. When an article appeared in a popular magazine claiming that pet cats cause schizophrenia, Khubulava and Chkhartishvili countered with well-researched letters. When a local company’s name turned up as sponsor on a poster advertising a “dancing bear” performance (the bears “dance” because they’re subjected to abuse), the Animal Rights Committee sent an official letter to company management and received an immediate, embarrassed reply. And when neighboring Armenia tried to stage a bullfight to celebrate the 1,700th anniversary of Christianity in the country two years ago, the committee joined in an international campaign to stop it, even taking the Georgian government TV station to task for airing ads for it. The bullfight took place nevertheless, but Khubulava and Chkhartishvili believe the relatively high-profile campaign had an impact on public opinion.
But Tbilisi’s municipal government’s mistreatment of homeless animals is the committee’s main concern. To the city’s bureaucracy, control of strays is about public health, not animal welfare, and animal control officials behave accordingly. Even before I went to see the authorities, I had already heard about the horrifying system by which animals are captured and killed. To get the government’s side of the story, I contacted Karlo Chotiridze, one of the top officials responsible for enforcing the system.
My translator and I wandered the linoleum-floored halls of the municipal welfare building until a bored-looking secretary reading a newspaper pointed out Chotiridze’s office. A pleasant-mannered man, he welcomed us warmly, then confirmed the details of the killing system with disturbing relish. Animal catchers capture stray dogs and cats by the neck with tongs, throw them in trucks and ship them to an off-limits facility in a Tbilisi suburb, where they are killed by electrocution and then tossed into underground lime pits. Because there is a shortage of electricity in Georgia, the electrical current is often too weak to kill, and not all animals are actually dead before they’re thrown in the pits. Some animals are shot or beaten to death. Theoretically, some effort is made to separate runaway pets from street animals, but the distinction seems rarely to function in practice.
As we sipped Turkish coffee brought in by a female ‰ staffer, Chotiridze told us proudly that the city disposed of over 10,000 dogs last year (though activists suspect the authorities of inflating the figure to pad their budget). “If we don’t catch them, they’ll increase, and we’ll have more dogs than people,” he explained. But Chotiridze was vague on the actual problems dogs cause. Rabies, he agreed, hasn’t been much of a problem: According to Veterinarians Without Borders, an international animal welfare organization, Georgia had 120 cases of rabies in 2001, six of them in humans. And his records showed only 24 complaints of dog bites in 2001. Neither could Chotiridze explain why his office killed 93 cats in the first five months of 2002, since he admitted that “We have no problem with cats. They’re not dangerous.”
Chotiridze insisted he really wanted to be humane, if only because “It’s inhumane to kill animals in front of children, in public,” he explained. His ideal solution to the stray animal problem, he told us without hesitation, would be to kill all of them and start over.
International research indicates that killing strays does not ultimately decrease the population, and animal experts believe only spaying and neutering really make a dent. But according to Chotiridze, there’s no money for this sort of thing. “For people who don’t even get wages, how can you require civilized methods of controlling animals?” he asked.
What Chotiridze neglected to mention was that his office receives budgetary subsidies for each animal killed, the equivalent of about $4 per dog. Rusudan Khuntsaria, who runs a dog shelter in Tbilisi, told me the government spends around $14,000 a year on killing animals. “Half as much would be needed to build a shelter,” she pointed out. Wherever this money actually ends up (and Georgia’s massive level of corruption makes this a legitimate question), it both belies the argument that money is unavailable, and leaves little incentive to switch to a more humane policy.
In the financially strapped and often corrupt cities and countries of the former Eastern Bloc, some government agencies have nevertheless tried more humane methods of catching and killing strays, suggesting that the problem really is one of mindset, not money. Moscow is working to end a system similar to Georgia’s and replace it with a sterilization program. In Poland, educational campaigns have increased the numbers of veterinarians recommending spaying and neutering. And the Czech Republic has even ratified the 1987 European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals. This Council of Europe treaty, so far ratified by 13 of the Council’s 44 members and signed by four more, addresses treatment of strays and at a minimum requires that killing be done humanely, specifically prohibiting electrocution “unless preceded by immediate induction of loss of consciousness.”