oDR: Feature

Pandemic downturn leads to animal abuse crisis in Kazakhstan

Activists demand lawmakers change law to punish violent owners as shelters become overwhelmed by influx of hurt and abandoned pets

Yuliya Khaimovich
10 March 2021, 5.00am
Strays have increased in Almaty city
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CC BY 2.0 Alexey Komarov / Flickr. Some rights reserved

Kazakhstan is facing a multitude of problems, including a weak currency, dependence on fluctuating oil prices, a closed political system and dire human rights. Amid all of this, the fate of its abused pets may seem trivial. However, passionate activists are rising up to take a stand for animal rights.

As the Central Asian state’s socio-economic conditions have worsened over the past year due to the pandemic, more pet owners have been abandoning their animals or committing violence against them. And just as animal shelters are more needed than ever, they’re grappling with an influx of animals, a lack of funding and a legislative vacuum on animal rights.

“In 2020, the number of cases of violence against animals was egregiously high,” said Anastasiya Nismelyainina, an animal rights activist in the city of Almaty.

Over the past year, several cases of violence, caught on video and through testimonies, have provoked heated discussions in local media. Last June, a man in the western city of Atyrau tried to suffocate a dog with a fridge door. One month later, a group of teenagers attacked a seal with sticks and stones at the Kuryk beach in Mangistau, again in western Kazakhstan.

Tip of the iceberg

Even Kazakhstani president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev commented on the seal incident and urged the minister of education to take note: “This is savage. But you can’t really blame kids and teenagers, because no one explained to them at schools or homes that this is not right.”

Unfortunately, these brutal incidents are only the tip of the iceberg. The mistreatment of animals in Kazakhstan is ubiquitous, from outright sadism to the negligence of owners, who fail to sterilise their pets and then abandon them.

“We need laws that would regulate every sphere of the relationships between humans and animals. Every animal must have a right for proper nourishment, veterinary care and a healthy amount of physical activity and communication,” Nismelyainina said. She is a co-founder of the Almaty-based fund Ayanish, which provides legal aid to those who have witnessed animal cruelty and organises educational campaigns.

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Ayanish shelter, Almaty | Image: Karina Pogosyan

On the city streets, stray cats and dogs are constantly exposed to dangers like starvation, car accidents, injuries and human cruelty. In the northern city of Pavlodar, one rehabilitation centre, Hearts of Pavlodar, said it was receiving about 45 animals in a severe condition every month. At one point last year, the shelter was hosting a record 120 animals.

The founder of Hearts of Pavlodar, Maria Grebenkina, said some of the animals were victims of cruelty, such as children throwing kittens off the roof, while others were hit by vehicles after being abandoned by their owners.

“Legally speaking, pet owners don’t have any liability,” she said. “They can do whatever they want to their pets and never get punished.”

Despite the city having a substantial number of shelters and foster homes, their capacity to help is shrinking. “In Almaty, there are at least ten big shelters. However, they are all packed,” Nismelyainina explained. “Many refuse to take in more strays because they cannot find homes for the current residents. No one wants to adopt old mongrels.”

“Owners twist their dogs’ ears until they fall off or perform surgeries on them which vets then have to try and fix”

These shelters are unsustainable without private donations and personal funds of the founders, as the government has failed to step in. “We completely depend on the generosity of people,” said Grebenkina. “If they donate, we can feed and cure the animals. If not, we are left with no means.”

Since the onset of COVID-19, many shelters have experienced a new set of difficulties. One shelter in Kendala, near Almaty, reported that it was unable to take ill animals to the vet due to lockdown. Staff in another shelter in Almaty said that they had experienced a shortage of donations, and had to postpone construction work as a result.

Several shelter owners told of an increase in strays, because many pet owners became unable to provide for their cats and dogs after losing their only sources of income. Nismelyainina added: “Some people got rid of their pets because they believed a popular myth that pets can be carriers of the virus. Some [shelter owners] overestimate their ability. As a result, their animals remain underfed and are kept in unsanitary conditions. Many animals are not sterilised, so they keep breeding in the shelters.”

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Ayanish shelter, Almaty | Image: Karina Pogosyan

Feral cats and dogs that do not end up in shelters are put down by animal controllers. In some regions, such as Pavlodar, feral animals are shot, whereas in others, such as Almaty, they are caught and placed in overcrowded, dirty cages with barely any food, only to be euthanised after three days. In February 2021, the KTK news channel reported that at one public stray animal facility in the Almaty region, dead bodies of dogs were burned right next to cages containing living animals.

While cats and dogs who live with their owners may seem more fortunate than stray animals, this is not always the case. Some owners fail to feed their pets properly or to bring them to the vet when needed.

More worryingly, others perform unethical surgeries, such as onychectomy and tendonectomy, which are claw removal procedures. This type of surgery is illegal in many countries and is painful, causing long-lasting damage.

Cruel treatment

A Persian cat owner said he declawed his pet simply to protect his decorating: “We did it because of the furniture and the wallpapers. We had just finished renovating our flat.”

However, Timur Kayumov, a vet in an Almaty clinic, explained how cruel it is for cats: “The animal experiences constant frustration, as it fails to even realise that it has no claws. When the cat tries to climb, for example, it cannot understand why it is unable to do so.”

Other dubious surgeries include ear docking and tail cropping for dogs, which, for certain breeds, may be beneficial. Some owners, however, prefer to perform the procedures without visiting a vet, in unsanitary conditions and without anaesthesia.

“One of the methods owners use is twisting a dog’s ears until they fall off,” said Kayumov. “Owners bring their dogs to me to fix the consequences of their improperly performed surgeries, and damage to the ear canal is quite common.”

Call on government to act

Several animal rights activists believe that the only way to stop what they see as a worrying trend in violence against animals is to enforce new laws.

“As of 2020, not a single person was imprisoned for violence towards animals,” said Nismelaynina, whose fund gives legal assistance to owners whose pets suffer cruel treatment. “Two or three people contact us every month. However, every single case we filed was denied before it even reached the court.”

“The most important goal is to adopt a law that would truly protect animals and obligate people to act responsibly”

Kazakhstan’s Inucobo Association includes 12 organisations, including pet shelters and animal rights NGOs, located throughout the country. Some of these activists work directly with animals in trouble, while others are more focused on legal and education work with the public. But they all share the belief that the problem can only be solved at the national level, and are appealing to the government for change.

In June, the Kazakhstani parliament is due to discuss new legislation proposed by animal rights advocates that will cover all categories of animals including wild animals, pets, and animals held in zoos, laboratories and circuses. The draft law would also provide regulation for shelters, foster homes, pet hotels and rehabilitation centres.

Kindness lessons for children

Currently, Kazakhstani law punishes cruelty towards animals if it leads to their death or mutilation and was committed in a brutal or sadistic fashion, or in the presence of children. But for Yulia Kovalenko, who runs the Kazakhstan Animal Rescue Education (KARE) organisation, this legislation is “too vague to be effective”.

“The term ‘mutilated’ is not properly defined anywhere,” Kovalenko noted. “And not all cases occur under circumstances covered by the law.”

In response to this problem, Grebenkina believes that every pet should be chipped and sterilised on a compulsory basis. “There will always be a person who thinks it’s okay for their cat to give birth,” she said. “If there are 20,000 people like that in the city, their cats will give birth to 100,000 kittens, far more than the number of citizens willing to adopt. Inevitably, the animals will end up on the streets and continue to multiply.”

The KARE organisation has tried to fill the educational void by teaching “kindness lessons” for animals in elementary schools. The activists believe that such lessons should be included in the curriculums of all public elementary schools.

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November 2020: rally against violence against animals, Almaty | Source: Bagdat Asylbek / RFE/RL

To attract attention to the multitude of problems that animals encounter, activists spread information through social media and public demonstrations. However, they have found it difficult to organise rallies during lockdown. Despite bureaucratic challenges, another group of activists in Almaty successfully organised a silent rally in November – a compromise with the authorities, who banned a fully-fledged demonstration.

“The most important goal is to adopt a law that would truly protect animals and obligate people to act responsibly,” concluded Kovalenko.

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