LAPA: How you can help animals in Russia while living in the UK
on July 22, 2015 at 1:47 pm
I spoke to Natalia Chumak, solicitor and co-founder of the UK charity LAPA: Helping Animals in Russia
I should say at the outset that my interest in LAPA is rather personal, and the issues it works with are close to heart. The problem of stray animals, for a number of reasons, has always been a sore subject for me. Every time I see a stray I get an overwhelming feeling of helplessness, which has been growing over the years: I desperately want to do something to save them, but do not know how. Finding a home for the multitude of tortured and worn out kittens is an impossible task. And what about the dogs? Especially once they are no longer puppies. Why are there so many strays in Russia? Why does no-one care about them? I have always thought that if one day I could afford to devote myself to solving the problem I would open a shelter or launch a charity, or join one as a volunteer. And what joy: it turns out that such a charity already exists, in London, helping animals in Russia.
I came across LAPA by chance. Having seen yet another plea on Facebook to take in some homeless kittens, I realised that with that approach the problem would never go away – you need a systematic approach. I started researching organisations and charities I could get involved with, and found LAPA – a UK charity helping animals in Russia. I was rather nervous when preparing for my interview with its co-founder, solicitor Natalia Chumak: what if the organisation is just a PR stunt and no-one in it actually cares about animals? Fortunately, they do – I left the interview extremely pleased. What impressed me the most was that behind all the compassion towards animals, there is very clear, strategic thinking.
Natalia Chumak. Photo by Katerina Nikitina
Natalia, let's start from the beginning. Who runs the charity and how long has it been in existence?
We turned two in February this year. LAPA was founded by me and my friend of almost 30 years, Moscow lawyer Olga Klyuzhina. Before setting up our own charity we individually supported a number of animal shelters in Russia – first in the city of Ekaterinburg (where we were both born), and later in Moscow. I then spent around a year researching the work of international animal rights charities, intending to encourage and assist them with expanding into Russia. Unfortunately, there was not much interest on the part of the charities, and in any event it would have been difficult for them to enter such a large and bureaucratic structure. It became clear that we would have to create something from scratch.
Why did you feel you had to? Nobody has to, but you do?
I have wanted to set up an animal shelter ever since I was a child.
Animals are completely defenceless creatures. They cannot tell you what has happened to them. However, they do feel pain, fear, hunger and so on. It was important for us to start acting. Clearly, we will not be able to solve the problem on our own, but we want to make our contribution in every way we can, on a level which we ourselves can manage.
LAPA co-founder in Moscow, lawyer Olga Klyuzhina
Why did you not open a shelter?
In order to set up a decent animal shelter, you need a certain level of investment, not just in terms of finance but an investment of time. In addition, I am based in London, so it was not a workable option for us. Moreover, if you take a step back you realise that shelters are just one link in a whole chain of solutions to the problem – shelters alone will not solve the problem of animal abandonment. Plus shelters fill up almost instantly. We wanted to create a charity with wider strategic aims, and one which would address the root of the problem. A large stray population is a consequence. That is why we chose to focus on two areas: sterilisation which prevents more animals being born on the streets, and education which develops children's sense of responsibility.
How safe is sterilisation?
On a medical level, the operation is a straightforward and routine procedure, provided it is carried out by a professional. It is often the absence of sterilisation that causes disease, as a result of giving birth regularly. Females who have given birth five years in a row are very difficult to operate on, as they are worn out, torn, and there is hardly anything there to stitch. They give birth at least twice a year, sometimes up to 12 offspring at a time! Both cats and dogs often develop mammary cancer. In England, there is also the problem of 'puppy farms' where pedigree animals are bred for sale. Very often, 3-4 year old purebred females are thrown out of such farms, and it is obvious that they were endlessly milked to feed puppies. Likewise, female dogs who are unable to continue breeding (due to uterine or mammary cancer) are often abandoned. 90% of the female dogs we sterilise have uterine disease – either cancerous or infectious. It all stems from constant breeding.
Many ordinary people are opposed to sterilisation. They say that an animal "must be able to breed freely" and "experience the joy of motherhood" etc. What do you say to that?
We frequently hear such views. Animals do not have an emotional need to breed! That is an established fact, and the scientific research is publicly available for those who wish to read it. There is also a wealth of information about this on the websites of major international organisations for the protection of animals. Animals have an instinct, there are periods when they are in heat, it all happens purely on a physiological level.
Men in particular are often opposed to the idea of castration, and my response to that is: "How many times in your life have you had sex? Probably not just once or twice. And how many children do you have? Now imagine that every time you had sex, six children were born, which were yours to look after." Humans use contraception and take the decision to control their reproductive process. An animal is unable to make that decision! Humans must make it for them. Dogs and cats are domestic animals who were tamed by humans and must cohabit alongside humans. The only reason they end up in the streets is when they are abandoned.
Five puppies were found during a sterilisation project in Kaluga. LAPA helped to find them a home
How is sterilisation carried out?
We focus our work on three areas. First: we help small private shelters pay for sterilisation, as they do not have their own financial means for this. And we agree with them that if they find a home for a young puppy or kitten, the new owners must agree to future sterilisation. If the owners cannot afford to pay for the operation, we cover that cost.
The second area is work with stray and so-called 'public' animals. An example is where a dog lives in a square in a residential area and is not owned by anyone, but all local residents say "he is ours". When it comes to sterilising it, no-one is prepared to pay for the procedure – either that or they simply do not understand how vital the operation is. In such cases we fund the operation and then return the dog back to its former habitat. Clearly that is not ideal, as every domestic animal should have a home, but shelters are oversubscribed and there is often nowhere else to send them… The risk remains that something might happen to the animal, but that is not something we can prevent. We do not know whether or not the dog will survive in the streets. But we know for certain that as long as it is alive, it will try to mate. And if it starts breeding, it may be killed by humans. Or its offspring may be killed, and in any event it will endure enormous suffering, as it is very difficult to feed all offspring when you are out in the streets.
The third element of the sterilisation project is helping pet owners who have limited financial means. We have an agreement with two vet clinics in the Moscow region which offer us significant discounts. When they get low-income clients with pets coming in, who are financially just about able to feed their pet and pay for any emergency medical treatment, but do not have the means to pay for their sterilisation, we can step in and pay for the procedure. We now have a stable flow of such cases. It is amazing how eternally grateful people can be! Many are stunned at the fact that someone is giving them something for free.
The mother with pups in this photograph can be killed at any moment. Dubovaya Roscha (in Ramenskoe, Moscow Region) is awash with packs of stray dogs, many of whom are regularly caught and shot dead. Strays are everywhere: at the cemetery, near the church, the shops, local industrial areas. Since 2013 LAPA has been helping 'street' volunteers who look after stray dogs in the area with sterilisation (to prevent more strays being born) and with medical treatment of their pups. There are now plans for urgent sterilisation of pregnant dogs, as well as those who have recently given birth, in order to prevent further expansion of the stray population and the death of puppies.
What is the cost of a sterilisation procedure in Moscow?
The cost depends on a number of factors: whether it is a dog or a cat (cats are cheaper), whether the animal is male or female, and for females – whether or not she is pregnant. An abortion is a difficult and expensive procedure, but we very frequently receive requests for it. Depending on these factors, cat sterilisation can cost between 2,000 and 4,500 roubles (£22-£50) and for dogs it can range between 5,000 and 8,000 roubles (£56-£90). An average pensioner's monthly pension is 10,000-11,000 roubles so they certainly cannot afford to sterilise their pets.
In practice, how does medical treatment of 'public' animals take place? Do you take them to a vet clinic?
Sometimes a sympathiser takes the animal to and from a clinic. But some cases are large scale and more difficult to implement. Last weekend we operated on the first batch of five dogs out of a pack of 15, 13 of whom are female. In such cases we perform the operations on site. We bought a tent under which we set up an operating table and spent the day operating. All the dogs treated that day are recovering well and we plan to sterilise the next 'batch' in two weeks' time – an earlier date is not possible due to a lack of staff. Such sterilisations carried out 'in the field' are very difficult, but they are better than nothing. There are drugs which reduce post-anaesthetic recovery time, the animals sleep it off, we give them antibiotics, dress their wounds and ask locals to keep an eye on them… There is no other way of going about it. If left unsterilised, they will just keep on breeding.
Sterilisation of strays is sometimes carried out in 'battlefield' conditions, but that is better than nothing.
How many operations are performed by your charity?
We have set a monthly budget, and the number of animals treated depends on the complexity of the operation required. At the moment we perform between 20 and 40 sterilisation procedures a month, but cannot manage any more. It is important to stick to the budget and ensure that we do not spend all the money in one month, leaving nothing for next month.
I must say I admire your courage and commitment. But I have qualms about another of your projects – educating children. Are you trying to instill humanism and kindness in children? Isn't that rather a large scale problem for such a small charity to tackle?
Humanism is a fairly vague concept – what matters most is knowledge.
Our educational programmes are not simply about telling children that they should be kind to animals. Our aim is to influence their ways of thinking and draw their attention to the cause-and-effect relationship between people's treatment of animals and animal suffering. In our lessons we use slides with photographs, pictures and charts. We look at photographs of animals and discuss whether we think they are happy or sad, and why. Gradually we get to the cause-and-effect relationship. We discuss how and why animals end up in the streets and what happens to them afterwards. We tell children stories from our own two-year experience as a charity. We ultimately get them to consider the question: what needs to be done to prevent this, to make sure animals do not end up in the streets? How should you walk your pets to ensure they do not run away, and what each one of us can do to prevent animals being abandoned. Sterilisation is a difficult subject and we do not discuss it during our lessons, as there is generally no sex education programme in Russian schools.
Our programme is aimed at influencing children's ways of thinking about animals and drawing their attention to the cause-and-effect relationship between the way people treat animals and animal suffering.
Are your lessons carried out in Moscow schools?
Yes, we have chosen one school to start with and have conducted 12 lessons to different age groups. We would like to do more, but we are short on volunteers. Our lessons take place either as an extra session for younger groups or as a session in English for older children (our chosen school has an English language specialism). We will soon be launching new lessons focused on safety, and how to behave to avoid being bitten or badly scratched. It is unfortunate that children often do not know some of these basic skills.
This dog was picked up by volunteers on the streets of Pushkino in the Moscow Region. She had a broken paw and her snout was wrapped with wire. She was around 8 months old when she was found, and she almost certainly would have died had she not been found by our volunteers. Our charity paid for her sterilisation, and shortly after the operation, once she had recovered, she went to live in her new home.
Are there any legal mechanisms regulating the problem of strays in Russia?
Technically, there is one – the article in the Russian Criminal Code relating to cruelty to animals. However, the article is drafted in a way that is unclear and ambiguous, and it is very difficult to prove that a crime has taken place, particularly when it comes to cruelty to strays.
Russian legislation describes animals as property rather than living creatures.
There are isolated cases when it was possible to convict someone of a brutal killing… But the crime is punishable by a mere fine. In addition, the law does not incorporate the concept of animal welfare. The UK has the Animal Welfare Act, as well as the animal charity RSPCA established nearly 200 years ago. The first animal charity in Russia was created just 20 years ago and was merely a shelter rather than a charity tackling problems at the core.
A stray puppy found by volunteers in Ekaterinburg
Is that why there are no strays in the UK?
There are hardly any animals roaming the streets in England (although, like in Russia, shelters are oversubscribed), but you do find strays elsewhere in the UK. There are relatively small numbers of strays in Wales and Northern Ireland, where the population is less well off and 'puppy farms' are widespread. You do see stray cats, even in London, and particularly in South London. Some ethnic sections of the population are against sterilisation; they feed stray cats and then sell their kittens for £20 – it is appalling. I am in touch with a charity in London specialising in dealing with that problem – they keep a shelter in a basement where they have around 300 cats and the fill up rate is enormous.
LAPA founder Natalia and volunteer Carla found Olivia in South East London while searching for a lost stray. Olivia was starved and dehydrated, and she weighed just 400 grams when she was found. She was initially taken in by a volunteer from the Celia Hammond Animal Trust, to look after her until a home was found. A couple of weeks later Olivia was adopted by Carla and her boyfriend. Now Olivia is settling in to her new home with her newfound parents in Peckham.
Interestingly, shelters in England do not easily give out animals for adoption. It is not unusual to hear complaints that it is near-impossible to adopt a pet from a shelter as the requirements for adopters are so strict.
In addition, many shelters are very bureaucratic. Much as I try to be sympathetic and understanding, I too sometimes criticise their approach. Their fundamental principle is, of course, correct: you have to show commitment and responsibility if you wish to adopt a pet. Many shelters in Russia take a much more relaxed view and do everything they can to give out for adoption as many animals as possible, and as a result many animals end up back on the streets. They may end up in an environment that is worse than that from which they were initially rescued, which is terrible news if the animal is not sterilised. In the UK the approach is very different: animal adoption is taken extremely seriously. I once tried to adopt two cats and was refused. A different shelter, however, was very happy to allow me to adopt their cats.
What do you do when your charity is asked for advice which falls outside your main areas of focus – for example, a request to find a home for an animal?
In addition to sterilisation work, in our two years of existence we have helped 50 animals in one way or another. For example, during the Sochi Olympics we saved 18 dogs and arranged for them to be taken in to a shelter in the United States.
The level of harm to animals in the run up and during the Sochi Olympics was astonishing. According to unofficial figures, around five thousand animals were poisoned, and every single night animals were either poisoned or shot.
Our charity was established shortly before the Olympics and we did not at the time consider ourselves to be ready to take action during the Games, thinking we would instead get ready for the football World Cup in Russia in 2018 (it is expected that a similar 'cleansing' of strays will take place in the run up to 2018). However, as we are UK charity speaking both languages and operating both in England and in Russia, foreign staff volunteering at the Olympics had found us on the internet. We received letters with stories of Olympic volunteers feeding and befriending dogs, only to find out the next day that the animal had been shot. We received pleas for help. We were therefore faced with a dilemma: to do nothing (because we do not specialise in securing homes for animals and have no staff in Sochi), or to respond. We quickly created a mini infrastructure, found a fee-based animal hotel (all temporary and full-time shelters were full to the brim), negotiated substantial discounts (we were lucky to have come across very sympathetic hotel owners), found people on the ground in Sochi and saved five dogs, later finding a poisoned female with 13 two-week-old puppies, whom we also took under our wing. Thus we ended up with 18 dogs. What could we do with them? Finding homes for them in Sochi would have been impossible, and in Moscow there are enough strays wanting homes as it is. We found a charity in the United States willing to take them in, and arranged transportation. That work was important both for the development of our charity (demonstrating that we are capable of turning around serious projects) and, of course, for the 18 dogs themselves. However, we are generally against moving animals from one country to another, as it simply moves the problem as opposed to removing it.
Who provides funding for LAPA? Do you get financial support?
Not much, although there are a number of individuals who do support us, and we are extremely grateful to them. Much of our work is funded with our own money. Projects such as Sochi generated quite a lot of fundraising and we did get a stream of donations. We also ran a successful project last Christmas when we picked four dogs, some of whom were disabled, from shelters with poor living conditions, and re-homed them in the United States. One-off and high profile projects like that do attract a level of financial support. We also held a successful fundraising event last September by putting on an exhibition of Sochi photographs in a small restaurant in London. It was a fun social evening, we sold a good number of photographs, gained new contacts and raised money. However, the success of such networking events hangs in part on my professional reputation and connections, and I doubt the event would have been as successful without such connections, as we are not a well-known charity.
LAPA organises fundraising campaigns at Christmas time and other holidays, although there are still very few regular supporters
What do you do in your professional life?
I am an English-qualified solicitor and have lived in the UK for 20 years. I first arrived here to study at university and was one of the first few Russians to do so. Today I am a Partner at a law firm specialising in dispute resolution, with many of the disputes having a link to CIS countries. LAPA's co-founder Olga is a Russian-qualified lawyer who has worked in a number of law firms in Moscow. We had the financial means to launch a charity, although clearly our personal funds are insufficient to allow the charity to grow and develop successfully. I do not wish for people to get the impression that I am a rich lawyer in London with an animal hobby. Running a charity is no mean feat: it takes a huge amount of energy, effort and emotion. You are constantly confronted with dilemmas whereby whichever option you choose it will not be ideal. So you choose the lesser of two evils and always wish you could do more.
Natalia Chumak with her pets
Do you have pets of your own?
I have four cats and two dogs. The dogs were brought back by me from a holiday in Spain: I had found them wounded and tied to a tree in the woods. I arranged medical treatment for them and tried to find a shelter for them but all the shelters were full. I was told that my only options were to take them back with me or to release them back into the woods or have them put down. So I brought them back to London with me. Two of the cats are a mother and son. The son has mental health issues as a result of a childhood spent on the streets of London. I adopted them both from a shelter in South London. The third cat was found near my own home, for several years I would see him walking around in the area, and eventually found out that he was homeless and was being fed by the local residents who did not realise that he was sleeping out in the cold and wet streets. He had developed rheumatism and now lives with me. My fourth cat was inherited by me from a former neighbour.
Text by Ekaterina Nikitina
How you can help
There are several ways in which you can support LAPA, all of which are listed on their website. Please spend a few minutes exploring it to see what you can do to support this worthwhile cause!
You can make a donation via this link >>>.
There are other ways you can help, and we encourage you to check their website. For example, LAPA can help with adopting a pet from a Russian shelter.
http://www.lapauk.org/ru/ (Russian language version)
http://www.lapauk.org/en/ (English language version)
LAPA. Helping animals in Russia – in English
LAPA Помогает животным в России – in Russian