Moscow's young animal lovers take a stand against cruelty
RUSSIA: Illegal trade in pets results in hundreds of animals being left in a forest to starve or be eaten by wild dogs, writes Chris Stephen
Some call it the haunted wood. Others the forest of the dead. A more accurate name for this nameless stretch of woodland on Moscow's southern fringes would be Pet Cemetery, though there is nothing dignified about the way the animals abandoned here are left to die.
Every weekend unwanted kittens, puppies and birds are brought here, from the nearby Tichivinok market, packed into boxes and bags and left to starve or be eaten by wild dogs.
"People can hear their cries at night, it is terrible," says Dennis Smirnov, a 17-year-old animal rights activist.
Tichivinok is Moscow's biggest pet market, home to a thriving, and legitimate, trade in pedigree animals.
But around the fringes, unlicensed traders gather. There is no shortage of produce - Muscovites rarely bother to sterilise their animals so each weekend thousands of unwanted kittens and puppies arrive to be sold.
And for the unlicensed traders, keeping surplus animals fed for a week if they cannot be sold by Sunday night makes no economic sense, so instead they are dumped.
The forest is a distressing sight: snow now hides most of the bodies, but the boxes the animals were abandoned in litter the ground around the bases of the silver birches.
A small lake has frozen over the tops of bags used to drown kittens and young birds.
"People come here, they think they will give their animals good homes, but in reality they rot there in the forest," says Nicolae Podorolsky (16), who is campaigning with Dennis to halt the practice.
In a country awash with human problems such as Aids, poverty and child homelessness, animal rights has low priority.
There are no national animal rights organisations and laws are ignored. "The laws exist but they are not applied," says Dennis.
In fact, the only defence these animals have are the efforts of young activists such as Dennis and Nicolae who come here at weekends to put up posters and hand out fliers warning about the killings in the next-door forest.
This Sunday night we arrive to find the market winding down. Market organisers appear powerless because the dumping of animals takes place outside the market boundaries.
The pedigree sellers in a brightly lit hangar-like building refuse to talk about the unlicensed traders, fearing violence.
"Our trade is legitimate, you can see these certificates," says Natalia, a large woman clad in a huge black fur coat selling well-fed Persian kittens who sit in a glass fish-tank.
Away from the bright lights of the official market, a young trader who will not give his name heaves a heavy box on to a metal-topped table when we approach, and flips open the top.
A dozen kittens - tabbies, marmalade and jet black - poke their heads out, blinking in the light. "You want them? Take the lot." He refuses to say what will happen to them if he fails to find a buyer this night, and when we return 20 minutes later, both trader and kittens have gone.
Dennis and Nicolae, school friends who hope to form a rock band, have few weapons at their disposal - even their parents think they are wasting their time.
On a steel footbridge that spans the highway between market and forest, they find posters put up the previous week have been torn down. While one boy stands watch, the other glues up fresh posters.
"If the people don't buy, then the traders will not come," says Nicolae. He examines the poster with a serious expression. "It will be gone by next week."
They are not entirely alone: although few formal animal rights organisations exist in Russia, the internet has provided a link between disparate animal lovers across Moscow.
Tatiana Filimonova, a twentysomething marketing manager, has got to know the boys through their website. She patrols Moscow streets with a group of friends, trying to limit the supply of unwanted animals by taking strays to sympathetic vets who sterilise them free of charge.
"I don't understand why people are so cruel," she says.
"Some people say it would be better to help children sitting on the streets, but I cannot take them home. I can take these animals home, however, I can do something for them."
Ilana, a 33-year-old computer analyst, created a website that displays horrific photographs of the starved cats of the haunted forest, together with a warning to shoppers.
"The problem is, Russia does not have a culture of looking after animals," she says. "But people do notice, every day my web page gets from 300 to a thousand hits."
A common theme among these young activists is religion: most are Christian Orthodox and say their belief fortifies them.
"When we do this we have a feeling that a little part of God is in us," says Dennis.