Rescuing Moscow’s Cats
Photos by Liza Azarova
A feeling of trepidation comes over me as I ring the doorbell of Lyuba Zyisalina’s flat. I am here to see the cat shelter that Moscow Animal’s Tatiana Sorokina has told me about. It fits none of the images I had in mind. The flat is typical to Moscow; a Kuzminki area, seventh floor one-room apartment. Yet it is also home to one of Moscow’s small independent animal shelters. The door opens and I am confronted by a small woman with black hair and glasses surrounded by what seems at first count to be about a hundred cats and some ancient dogs. Clearly I have arrived at my destination. As she ushers me in the cats swarm around my ankles, curious as only cats can be about the new human who has entered their domain. Cats are everywhere in the tiny one-room apartment. They line the chairs and tables; peer down from wardrobes and lamps; and as I sit down on the one armchair in the room and put my notepad on the table, I soon find three cats sitting on my lap purring, another one on my head and a wet nose in my ear. As I introduce myself to Lyuba and reach for my pen to take notes, I catch a glimpse of it disappearing round the corner of the door clutched in the mouth of a pure white cat.
Lyubov is a former economist in her late fifties. She retired a few years ago due to ill health, and now devotes all her time and her tiny four thousand roubles a month pension to rescuing Moscow’s stray cat and dog population. She has been bringing stray cats home for years, and even now whenever she leaves the house she carries a bag filled to the brim with cat food in case she meets any on her way. When she gets the cats home she feeds them, treats them for any illnesses (at this point she picks up the little black cat that’s been purring contentedly on my lap and flips her upside down pointing to little lumps on her stomach that she has been treating) and attempts to have them sterilized. This usually costly process has become a lot easier since the local Academy started doing it for free. Lyuba then releases them back onto the streets. Even then they seldom stray far from her flat and later when we walk around the house she points to countless stray cats she has helped and released but still feeds. One large long haired tabby comes running at the sound of her voice. Lyuba picks her up and cuddles her, telling me that this cat is pregnant but after the kittens are born Lyuba will have her sterilized.
Lyuba says that the best way to count the cats in the apartment is to feed them. She goes to one of the massive sacks of Pedigree and KiteKat that stand in the corner. Each one costs one thousand roubles. When I ask her how she manages on such a tiny pension she simply shrugs and says the cats and dogs eat first…then she survives on whatever is left. Her aim is simply to save and feed as many cats as she can, but the strain on her tiny resources is enormous. In an ideal world she would keep them all, but the reality is that most are released back onto the streets and only a minority are placed in a home. At our final count there are twenty eight meowing cats looking expectantly at Lyuba.
Lyuba is always searching for kind people to give her cats a good home. She is too attached to the older cats, such as the seventeen year old greying tabby that sits quietly on the windowsill, to part from them. But the majority are young, barely one or two years old, friendly, and used to human contact, thanks to Lyuba. There is a tiny tabby kitten, two matching bluegrey and yellow cats that she found as kittens in a box, and countless other black and whites, gingers, long and short haired cats of all shapes and sizes, all of whom would make wonderful pets. Lyuba tells me that she is happy to give the cats out to a home even for a short time. She points to the massive black and white tom cat lounging on the chest of draws. The Chinese family who adopted him during their stay in Moscow, simply couldn’t take him home when they returned to China, so they brought him back to Lyuba’s flat. She says she much prefers welcoming them back into her apartment than people simply turning the strays out onto the street.
Life on the Moscow streets is an especially dangerous place for cats. As we walk around the building Lyuba tells me horrific tales about the alcoholics who live in her building. One day they got hold of a cat and tried to throw it off the top floor of her building. Another one of her lost and found cats was being tormented by children. A lack of animal protection laws in Russia means that such cruelty is difficult to stop and even harder to prosecute, although things are slowly changing. Recently 22- year old Muscovite Nikita Golovkin was convicted of cruelty to animals and sentenced to one year of corrective labour. Golovkin set his American Staffordshire terrier upon a group of stray puppies. When a bystander told him to call off the dog, Golovkin grabbed two puppies, slamming one on to the pavement and another against a metal window frame. Four puppies died in the incident. In theory, local district authorities are supposed to round up all the strays, sterilize and release them, but there are more and more cases of authorities rounding up and shooting strays, even though this is forbidden. Police seldom respond to reports of animal cruelty.
On our walk we meet a woman with a Spaniel and a Dalmatian on a leash. Lyuba immediately launches into a conversation with the dog walker. The Dalmatian had been found wandering the streets and as yet nobody has come forward to claim her so they suspect she was abandoned. The Dalmatian is a three year old female; a little shy but obviously used to humans. Lyuba’s face darkens as she recounts these tales of cruelty and neglect. She is one of many kind hearted individuals all over Moscow, battling against the tide to do whatever they can on their meager funds to help these animals. Every little act helps, even the bag lady I see by Paveletsky Vokzal every day, feeding a pack of stray dogs. In a city that can sometimes seems so heartless, acts like this, and people like Lyuba and her selfless work shine, as a light of human kindness towards the animals.
How can I help Moscow Animals?
- Make a financial donation.
- Offer your time and directly assist one of the shelters as a volunteer; dog walkers are particularly needed; one thing to keep in mind is that animal shelters in Moscow are not "Western" and you have to be prepared for smells and sometimes unhygienic conditions. Not all shelters are suitable for child volunteers.
- Donate pet food, bowls, toys, beds, blankets, towels, litter boxes or cat litter for the shelters.
- Organize a fundraising event such as a sponsored dog walk, a sponsored fun run, a quiz night or a charity auction.
- Give a temporary home to a dog or cat from a shelter until a new home is found.
- Display one of Moscow Animals money collection boxes in your office or at your reception desk.
- Sponsor a dog or a cat for a specified period or until it is rehomed.