It all began four years ago I was invited to run in the Moscow Peace Marathon. I journeyed to Moscow not knowing quite what to expect. Animal rights and related issues had always been a very grey area to me in this country and I was keen to see exactly what the situation was.
Almost from the moment I stepped off the plane it was quite apparent that the rights of animals within Russia were not a high priority. I was horrified to see how many malnourished and neglected cats and dogs were wandering and scavenging on the streets, begging outside the hotels and in the more highly populated tourist areas such as the Kremlin. My first night was spent sitting outside my hotel for most of the night with a waif like little dog who looked and behaved as if he had never been shown one ounce of human kindness in his life. The next morning was spent signing on and preparing for the race. As I walked back to my hotel through Red Square I found a tiny dog lying motionless in front of the magnificent tomb of Lenin. My first and only reaction was to kneel down and pick this little creature up, he looked at me with such despair in his eyes I broke down in tears. At this moment two rather harsh Russian Military Police approached me and ordered me to put the dog down and leave. I was so upset I returned to my hotel and decided to book myself onto one of the guided tours offered in the hotel to try and take my mind off him.
We were taken to various destinations around Moscow by car, we were shown wonderful examples of architecture and art but all I could see were the vast number of helpless creatures wandering the streets trying to find their next meal. After a couple of destinations I was too upset to get out of the car and I couldn't stop crying. My tour guide, Sveta, asked me what was wrong and I began to explain my work and the way I felt about animals. To my surprise she totally agreed, in fact, she and her mother had rescued 5 cats and taken them in to their tiny two roomed apartment. Since that time, Sveta and I have remained great friends. Although not vegetarian, she explained to me that until a few years prior it had been illegal to be vegetarian in Russia and that there were no rights or laws which dictated that animals should be treated with respect or love. Basically, if you own an animal you may do with it as you please. All the Government did was from time to time round up all strays and euthanase them in none too humane ways.
The next day was the race, 26.2 miles of sheer hell up and down the banks of the river Moskva. Despite my upset, I managed to come in the top 10 but swore that on returning home I would try to help the poor animals of Russia who have so few friends. I spent many months trying to find and contact any organisations within Moscow who advertised themselves as Animal Rights Activists. Eventually, I was given the name of a girl who worked for Greenpeace Russia, who campaigned for the welfare of animals in her spare time. I contacted her and she was wonderful. She immediately thanked me for showing any concern and gave me the contact names of two particularly needy ladies, Elena Lonshakova and Iraida Zaitseva, who between them keep over 40 rescued street dogs and cats in their tiny apartments. Both these ladies are pensioners who struggle to feed themselves on the tiny allowance given to them as a State Pension. Both were working as cleaners in 2 or 3 jobs in order to earn anywhere near enough to support their animals. Ever since this time I have been sending them enough money to feed their animals each month. This is not something I can "afford" to do. I have to work a lot of extra hours at the Fire Station or simply go without myself to do this, but these ladies and their animals have no-one else to help them. Elena in particular is extremely desperate as not only does she have many animals to care for but she has cancer to cope with also. If anything happens to her the animals have nowhere to go. This frightens me a great deal.
When I returned toMoscow a year later for the Marathon, I was able to meet Elena and Iraida, which was wonderful but I also met my friend from Greenpeace who told me of a very worrying threat and backward step for animals in Russia. It was intended that some individuals were to seek permission for bull-fighting to allowed in Moscow and the bulls had already been brought from the South for this purpose. Lena and her friends were desperately campaigning to have this banned but it has not been easy. Eventually, after many demonstrations by these few dedicated individuals, and as much frantic e-mailing and letter writing I could manage, the bull-fight was banned in Moscow. Desperate to start the bull-fight elsewhere the owner of the bulls moved them 300km north to the city of Yaroslav and sought permission to fight them there. Again, after much campaigning and many demonstrations it was banned. The problem is that ever since that time this man has been keeping the bulls in atrocious and appalling conditions whilst seeking permission to fight them in other cities. Several of the bulls have died and the others are suffering from malnutrition and illness.
On my last visit to Moscow in September 2003 I met with the 5 most dedicated members of the demonstrating group, Lena, Elena, Kostya, Ira and Annie. We decided something must be done to help these animals and convince ordinary Russians that ALL animals should and could be treated with kindness and to show people that you can be healthy and strong and be vegetarian/vegan. We have started a group called People for Animals within Russia. We aim publicise animal rights throughout the country and promote the vegetarian lifestyle and philosophies. By successfully competing in the Moscow over the past few years, I have been able to raise awareness among other competitors and spectators that it is possible to do the most physically challenging of sports without eating meat or animal products. This is a feat which would not have been believed within Russia a few years ago.
Our group is now seeking to raise funds to purchase the bulls that were brought into Russia for the purpose of fighting and establish the FIRST EVER farm animal sanctuary within the country. So far, I am the only person to offer any support from abroad. Indeed, there has been very little positive interest from within the country. A few shops have offered to display literature or posters regarding the matter if we can get them printed but this is about all the positive assistance we have been offered.
As I am sure you can imagine, the winters in Russia are very cold and the animals are becoming weaker every day. I myself have begun to sell my own possessions in order to raise the money required to assist in this project.
You may ask why I feel so strongly about this issue in particular. The answer is that I feel if this opportunity is lost in Russia, to show people that the idea of humane treatment of all animals is feasible, another opportunity may be a long time in coming.