By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
European standards on animal rights are generally high, particularly in areas such as treatment of farm animals, animal experimentation and transport. European Union (EU) members must meet some of these standards. But membership in the Council of Europe, a different regional body responsible for human rights, does not require adherence to any particular animal rights norms, and ratification of conventions like the pet animals treaty is voluntary. Georgia, like many former Eastern Bloc countries, is a member of the Council but is unlikely to be accepted into the EU, and thus has little motivation to adopt European animal rights standards.
Even without the pressure of international accountability, however, some things are changing in Georgia. Several years ago, Tbilisi’s veterinary school finally introduced a small-animal specialization, though mainly to accommodate a growing demand for pedigreed cats and dogs by Georgia’s new rich, who covet the status that goes with more exotic pets. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, kennel and cat fanciers’ clubs have mushroomed. (“We live in a poor country,” explained Gia Akhvlediani, “but everyone has mobile phones and drives the newest Mercedes. That’s why they adopt Siamese cats and Dobermans.”) Still, the veterinary school produces some caring veterinarians. My translator and I arrived at veterinarian Gennady Simonev’s one-room office just as he was opening for the day. People were already lining up on the street outside. Simonev’s black Lab gazed at us lazily from a leather recliner, head resting on one paw. Simonev, a bearded, chain-smoking Russian, talked to us briefly as his assistant set up the examining table. “I look at the problem from a professional point of view,” he said. “To be fond of animals is not the key matter. We have an ecological system, and cats and dogs are part of it. If we kill the animals we kill ourselves.”
Simonev himself clearly is fond of animals: He showed us photos of cats and even hedgehogs he’s treated, and he provides treatment free to those who can’t afford it. Yet his practice is far removed from veterinary medicine in the west. The office’s one room doubles as the operating room, and I watched as he performed an operation on a chow-chow puppy, sans gloves or mask and dispensing medications out of old-fashioned glass bottles.
Simonev’s views on spaying and neutering are as old-fashioned as his office. He told me sterilization was fine for strays, but he wouldn’t recommend it for pets: “Of course it’s unhealthy. It damages the reproductive system.” Another veterinarian told an American resident of Tbilisi who tried to spay her dog that she was not allowing it to “live naturally.” If even veterinarians think this way, it’s not surprising that ordinary pet owners, and even some animal rights activists, insisted to me that sterilizing ‰ animals causes cancer or keeps them from living a “full life.”
Nearly everyone I spoke to in Tbilisi knew about Rusudan Khuntsaria, a former concert pianist who gave up her career to devote herself to the plight of Tbilisi’s unwanted dogs. A diminutive woman with a shock of gray hair whose words flow in a continuous stream, Khuntsaria has a reputation for eccentricity, and indeed she does seem obsessed. She has to be, to single-handedly care for more than 70 dogs in two makeshift shelters at opposite ends of the city. With no car or staff, she travels miles each day on public transportation to feed them bread and yogurt (meat is too expensive to be more than a rare treat). I accompanied her on a lengthy trek to one of the shelters, a grassy, industrial-looking expanse surrounded by crumbling concrete walls that used to be part of an agricultural school on the far edge of the city. There the dogs, many of whom had survived brutal treatment, barked threateningly at me, but they crowded obediently around their benefactor as she distributed dinner, called each by name and issued reprimands and praise.
A vocal opponent of the corruption and cruelty of local animal authorities, Khuntsaria is regularly beaten up — her face was bruised when I met her — but the police, she says, ignore her complaints. Her shelters, located on prime grazing land, have provoked local hostility. Shelter buildings have been burned down and dogs shot by strangers, and city workers have broken in and taken the animals to be killed. When I spoke to her she had no permanent home, and despite a heart condition she frequently stayed with the dogs in one of the shelters. Khuntsaria survives by giving piano lessons and with the help of a small number of backers. But she claims that her greatest supporters are Tbilisi’s poorest citizens — retired elderly people with pets who, she says, will go without necessities to care for their companions.
Devoted activists like Khuntsaria, Akhvlediani and Khubulava agree that what Georgia needs most where animals are concerned — even more than money — is education. Popular ignorance about animals and animal welfare allows governments to continue responding violently to the problem of overpopulation. But killing animals itself costs money and, as many Western countries have found, it doesn’t solve the problem. Ultimately, how a society treats its animals may have less to do with finances than with awareness, empathy and priorities. Dali Berikashvili, a psychologist, women’s rights activist and member of the Animal Rights Committee, eloquently sums up her response to arguments that poor societies can’t afford animal welfare. “They say, if people are starving, it’s a shame to care for animals,” she says. “But even in such bad conditions, some people have time to look after their cars. I prefer to look after my cats.”
The animal rights organization FARM is holding its annual Animal Rights National Conference this week, Aug. 1-6, at the Westin LAX. See Politics listings in Calendar for more information.