Court hearings in the case of the murder of wild sheep were again postponed in the Altai Region on 23 March. The animals, which are on the endangered species list, were being hunted by a group in a helicopter, which then crashed, killing seven people. There are figures in the case are well-established names: for example, the President’s Representative in the State Duma, Alexander Kosopkin. The survivors are now possibly going to be prosecuted. The hearings are set for 11 April.
Several days before the hearings were postponed, we were shown a curtailed version of the capture of Mongol, a legendary snow leopard, in the Sayan Mountains. To enable Vladimir Putin to “meet” (as the Prime minister’s press service put it) another rare feline, Mongol was caught in a trap and thrown in a cage. Striving to break out and hurling itself against the iron cage, Mongol smashed his the front of his face.
Both stories have one and the same moral: evil is a common occurrence. Both are about not acknowledging animals as deserving human respect. Animals, who share the planet with us, are still objects for us. They are raw materials for processing. Animals can be killed, caged, and caught for amusement or scientific experiments. Humans, who fly into outer space and split atoms, still have problems with assimilating the laws of co-existence with other living creatures who suffer as much as they.
* * *
There are no snow leopards in Khakass Republic’s coat of arms pictures a snow leopard, but the republic doesn’t have any, because they were all caught in the taiga coniferous forest in the Krasnoyarsk area and brought to the neighbouring republic for Putin’s comfort. Here is a brief history of Mongol, the alpha male of Krasnoyarsk’s snow leopard before he was presented to Russia’s alpha male [Vladimir Putin].
Mongol is over 10 years old. He is the dominant male who has the prime right to mate within the local snow leopard population. He was caught in order to be fitted with a collar with a satellite transmitter monitoring its movements. Putin’s website says the aim was to monitor the study of the snow leopard. Novaya Gazeta has learned that the Russian Academy of Sciences’ A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution Studies had sought a license to catch not one but two leopards at the Khakassky State National Reserve and that, as late as mid-February, the regional branch of Rosprirodnadzor, Russia’s environmental watchdog, turned down the request. The decision was partly based on the reply from the Khakassky Reserve administration which claimed that the Institute’s programme for monitoring and studying the snow leopard was defective and had not been coordinated with the Reserve. Besides, the leopards are coming into estrum (the period when they are particularly sensitive to intrusion into their private life), so the time couldn’t be worse.
People in the know, however, immediately pointed out that the chances of finding leopards in Khakasia were about the same as finding giraffes. They are said to have moved to the south of the Krasnoyarsk region where they would be out of reach of booster rockets launched from Kazakhstan falling from the sky. This is unlikely to be the real reason. The real reason is a food shortage.
Apparently the ill-timed research activities were prompted by a question Putin asked during a live video link with Khakassia last December: the prime minister asked the Khakassky Reserve staff whether they had seen a snow leopard. They honestly told Putin that they had seen a snow leopard, though not in Khakassia, but in the Krasnoyarsk region. Three months earlier, in September, Putin visited the Ubsunurskaya Kotlovina natural reserve in Tyva. His wanted to look at the snow leopard’s habitat. In a photo published by the media a couple of months later, the prime minister is holding a bore rifle (in a nature preserve). Therefore, preparations for catching the snow leopard started well in advance and deliberately during the period when they were in estrum.
The day after unconfirmed reports of Mongol’s cruel capture in the Krasnoyarsk mountains and its transportation to Khakassia leaked onto the Internet, several news organisations reported something quite different: the “unique opportunity to see the rare animal” that the people of Khakassia got. A female snow leopard had been brought to the Abakan Zoo from Kazan. Sarah is a mature 14-year-old. One can merely guess that if something went wrong with Mongol, Sarah would have been shown to Putin instead.
The snow leopard was caught in the Sayano-Shushensky state biosphere reserve. Under law, the animal is protected there. In that area a pride of seven (some say eight) snow leopards has already been studied well enough without Putin’s help.
One more thing: the snow leopard is classified as a very rare animal and it is entered in all the endangered species lists and corresponding international conventions. Still one more thing: for the first time Russian scientists publicly caught an animal in a trap: true, it differs from that used by poachers, but not in any fundamental way. It captures the animal’s leg, but it has a radio transmitter that signals that the animal has been caught.
Besides, the risk that rare animals will become still rarer was highlighted by Putin’s previous demonstrations of love for rare fauna: animals have their feet and teeth put in danger from possible overdoses of tranquillizers (the animals came to, but with great difficulty, and, anyway, what was the point?)
That only begins the saga of the torment the creature was subjected to. In accordance with the targets and permission granted by Rosprirodnadzor, the snow leopard could have had a collar put on its neck and released within half an hour. But the real reason for catching it was of course different. The snow leopard was taken by helicopter from Krasnoyarsk region to the Khakass Republic. Apparently, the satellite detects animals only there. Well, scientists know better.
The animal bangs against the cage and injures itself. It may be off-topic, but I saw a wolf trap in the taiga with a wolf’s foot in it, the animal had gnawed it off in order to gain freedom. It could not have gone far, but the main thing for it was to escape.
Rosprirodnadzor, “scientists” claim, had issued a license to catch the snow leopard (see Novaya Gazeta, No.7, 4 March 2011). If that is so, the license was issued over the objections of the experts whom the regional branch of Rosprirodnadzor had consulted. Stating the reasons for their request, the RAS workers repeatedly mentioned that the programme for studying the snow leopard is under the prime minister’s personal supervision.
On 13-19 March the animal was in captivity. On 18 March, apparently in time for the arrival of the other alpha male (two alpha males cannot be together) the animal was immobilized. The prime minister looked at Mongol, and the animal was freed. The Ecology and Evolution Studies Institute reported: “A snow leopard has been caught and provided with a satellite transmitter in Russia for the first time. After treatment, it has been released into its area of habitat.” Observations have started via the Argos satellite system. How much truth is there in the stated that Mongol was being treated, which is now being trotted out by the RAS Ecology and Evolution Studies Institute? The Institute reported a scar on the animal’s neck from a poacher’s noose. (Indeed, a photo trap did make a picture of Mongol with a poacher’s noose in 2009, but later it posed for pictures without it, miraculously getting rid of it without our help), as well as inflamed wounds over the left eye, on the cheekbone and shoulders. In the opinion of “scientists”, Mongol received these injuries fighting other males during the mating season. After carefully studying the animal’s condition, the members of the expedition decided to administer a course of antibiotics.
The coordinator of WWF Russia, Natalya Dronova, had this to say: “We saw fresh wounds Mongol received because he was put in a cage. It smashed his muzzle when he jumped on the cage. Footage is not clear enough to show in what condition the animal was caught. One thing is obvious: if the wounds had been serious, they wouldn’t have recommended putting the collar on.” Ms Dronova rightly noted that it was not so much about the prime minister as about the scientists who, in organising the capture of animals, have in mind the convenience of an official, his press service, etc., and not an animal’s fate.
In short, it makes no sense to probe the reasons why the snow leopard was treated as he was. This is an abiding feature of our relations with nature and its children. There is, however, yet another, subjective aspect to this story.
* * *
A scandal broke out before Putin flew to Abakan. Mongol could have been freed without bringing the prime minister into this grisly story. But a different decision was made. I stress that there is no point in guessing. Clearly, as part of his job the prime minister has to meet a lot of people of a very special kind – because there are few angels in government or in business—and it is hardly a very pleasurable experience for Vladimir Putin. Compared with the people in the Kremlin, Duma and other offices, cats are much more pleasant to deal with in every way. The animals are beautiful, strong and honest. One can have sympathy with Putin’s love for these animals and the persistence with which he advocates the conservation of rare species at first glance prompts joy, if not respect. The question is in the results, and in a country such as Russia, the Tsar is much more powerful than the law.
But what about all the dismal circumstances that accompany this much publicised love? Putin has already marked (put a collar) on the Amur tiger and released a female leopard in a Sochi open air cage. He also put a collar on a polar bear and, standing waist-deep in the water, fixed a satellite transmitter on a beluga whale named Dasha. Invariably, the prime minister’s communication with nature is accompanied by bewildering questions from nature conservationists.
The prime minister’s logic and principles hardly have much room for sentimental worship of nature, for “waxing lyrical” about its beauty. His putting collars on animals makes one think rather of the amusements of feudal lords which may look amusing but essentially mark the triumph of one alpha male over another, subjugating a lion or riding a tiger is cool. It is a stunt similar to flying a fighter plane, or delivering the Munich speech  or recent talk about crusades and poking fun at Moshe Katsav (the ex-President of Israel recently sentenced to 7 years in prison for rape): “Give best regards to your president. He turned out to be a real man. Raped ten women. I hadn’t expected it from him. He surprised us all. We all envy him.” In the “street kid’s” model of the world, putting one’s own freedom and rights above all else gets you top marks.
In the minds of many great people nature is divine chaos and awe, entropy, a negative substratum, the essence of fate that rules supreme over all and sundry. Putin comes across as a hero, more, as a superhero who challenges mother earth itself. Well, no matter what we may think about his feats, he is doomed to lose out. Life evens everything out, it likes doing that, as Rilke wrote rivetingly. It will treat premium-class people just the same as everybody else because there is nothing special about them: they have the same hands and feet and head. The animal will be sent back, its muzzle will heal and the faces of those who were dragging it into the cage will be smashed. According to local legend, the spirit of the snow leopard is extremely strong and it will hardly forgive people who marked him after defeating him in what was by no means an honest fight.
What do we want from Putin? To emulate the example of Francis of Assisi, who regarded animals as his brothers and sisters? This is hardly a realistic proposition, but we want Putin’s people not to lose touch with reality. We want them to believe in something other than their own impunity. We want people to get rid of their complexes in ways that are not so dangerous for others. You want to ride a lion, buy yourself a toy one. People, including Vladimir Putin, are weak compared to animals. They cannot do without clothes, houses, many cannot live without women, drink, football and cars… What makes us think that we are the bosses?
* * *
The aesthetics of Putin’s regime – machismo, among other things, could provide a topic for many dissertations in psychology. I am not a specialist. I don’t know what complexes are gnawing at the prime minister, and if perchance he does not have any, I think at least one, an inferiority complex, would be appropriate, because in the real world, including in his capacity as a politician, he is just that. Communicating with felines, protecting rare animals and destroying huge spaces in the Asian part of Russia – how does one square all this? Russia has no luck with its rulers, though they probably never think about it.
Regarding Mongol, when his fate was still unclear, the World Wildlife Fund reported: “The removal of the dominant male will change the structure of that group which will inevitably have a negative impact on its reproductive potential.” The struggle for the top place in the food chain is again on Russia’s short list of things to do. We emerged from the animal world a long time ago, but occasionally we could do with a change of the dominant male.