|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)
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.”
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.