The Theater of Horrors

by Alexey Tsvetkov
(poet, essayist, winner of Andrey Bely Prize for Poetry)

The Roman emperor Caligula granted his horse senatorship, nominally making it probably the most noble and privileged animal in history (though Russian poet Gavrila Derjavin didn't agree, claiming that the horse ``couldn't shine in Senate, though clothed in gold''). In reality, it wasn't such a happy lot  -- in Caligula's time, fame and nobility often became a reason for execution. We don't know about the rest of this particular horse's life, but most of the animals that we come into contact with can hardly count on our mercy -- even if they don't have a title. The lightest fate they can expect is to be fattened for slaughter and then eaten.

Cats can't get off this cheaply. We don't eat them, but we know pretty well how to torture them Caligula-style. In the Middle Ages people used to catch the ``four-legged Devil's servants'', pack them into bags and burn them, -  just for entertainment. Now such public activities are long out of fashion, but in some subcultures they still get rid of kittens by drowning them.

Of course, it's only a remnant of a dark past. Today cats are one of our favourite pets, at times even outstripping dogs' popularity. In European languages, including Russian, many generally used terms of endearment are somehow feline-connected -- another clear evidence of people's love for cats. It's only logical to try to derive an income from feline popularity. Some limit themselves to posting cute photos of kittens (those that were lucky enough to escape the drowning). Others go further -- like Jury Kuklachev, famous cat trainer and founder of the well-known ``Cat Theater,'' or ``Cat Circus.'' Cats are widely known as stong-willed and hard-to-train animals -- thus the bigger credit for making them change their usual ways, right?

The key words are, of course, ``making them''. Tigers don't naturally jump through the burning hoops, bears don't naturally ride bikes, cats don't naturally walk on their front legs. How can you get them to do things that they obviously don't need to do? The answer suggests itself: by force. Remember the old Soviet anecdote, in which archeologists couldn't identify the Egyptian mummy, until the KGB came and made it speak?

Or maybe, it can be achieved solely by means of kindness and care? Every cat's owner knows that his pet is capable of a lot. But to get an animal to regularly do the same funny tricks in public  - well, it must take a really huge amount of kindness.

When we were kids, they had us believe many things -- for example, that the Soviet circus is the most humane circus in all the world. Since then, many illusions have been dispelled; this one has faded as well. But Kuklachev is constantly claiming that he's an exception to the rule, and that his animals just can't praise him sufficiently. He's been honoured with many international awards, including  (according to his website, rather empty of people and void) an award for a protest performance against the use of natural fur.

Still, unpleasant rumours were circulating, leaking into the internet. Some spoke of an unbearable stench and crazy-of-hunger meowing coming from the cat cages, others -- of  red-hot electric stoves that cats were thrown on, to train them to jump back onto a clown's shoulder. And there were stories about kittens, drowned and thrown into garbage bins. I should have provided you with some links, and I would gladly do that, if not for a little problem. Last year the owners of sites and forums which contained observations of such kinds, got the following notice (signed by a person who introduced himself as a ``press-attachee'' of a cat circus).

``Your resource contains false and defamatory information, tarnishing the honour and dignity of People's Artist of Russia Jury Kuklachev and the professional reputation of the government culture institution of the city of Moscow, the Kuklachev's Cat Theater. In the case that these materials aren't deleted from the site X within 7 days, we will interpret it as an owner's willingness to face trial''.

This letter discouraged many from expressing their opinion -  except the mathematician Mikhail Verbitsky, a man widely known in Russian blogosphere, administrator of the popular resource (founded as a non-censored alternative to He had gathered many of the findings on Kuklachev's cats in his blog, and pretty soon he was put on trial. The courts turned down the charges of defamation, but imposed a fine for the offensive language Verbitsky used, describing Kuklachev's training methods and his personality.

It's hard to establish any real facts on Kuklachev's treatment of cats now -  all the potential informants are obviously cowed down by Verbitsky's trial. I've managed to get in touch with Nikolay Loginov, who once ran a veterinarian clinic under Kuklachev's Cat Theater. He described a few of Kuklachev's violent training methods, for example -- the strangehold which a cat got into if it didn't do the jump required. He also told me that the trainer didn't bother to neuter or spray cats, and used to throw kittens to the garbage can. Of course, Loginov can be suspected of bias against Kuklachev, because the trainer broke their working relations abruptly. But Kuklachev himself writes on his website that he lets his female cats give birth at least once, to ``prevent them from getting cancer.'' For me, it's enough to see the extent of the ``Cat's Best Friend's'' awareness of their physiology.

Also Kuklachev (evidently boasting), has posted on his site a story from Arguments and Facts (one of the biggest Russian newpapers), about his male cat Boris who has ``temporarily disabled 25 cat actresses'' by making them pregnant. Maybe somebody has an imagination rich enough to fancy Kuklachev taking care of about twenty five cat litters (and let's not forget about the cats who are too old for work and ``have retired''), but I have to admit that mine's too poor, and I resort, at least mentally, to the type of language Verbitsky has been charged for.

As far as I know, the fine that was imposed on Verbitsky, is being challenged at the moment, and generally Verbitsky isn't too upset with the verdict. But from an outsider's viewpoint, I'm deeply amazed by the fact that the cats themselves didn't get any attention from the justice system -- nor did the charges of cruelty to animals, implicitly pressed against Kuklachev. Especially considering that cats aren't subjects under the law and thus are unable to bring a suit against their trainer themselves.

The problem is, that in Russia animals not only aren't the subjects under the law, they simply don't have any rights at all. An animal protection bill was vetoed a few years ago by the then-president Putin  -  he mentioned that, in his opinion, this area is regulated quite efficiently, with the law ``On the public sanitary epidemiological safety.' It seems that Putin doesn't see any difference between his own Labrador dog, Koni, and the flea that jumps on his back.

Some may say that in Russia even the laws protecting human beings aren't followed too strictly, and the members of government organizations, who are meant to protect people, prefer to do blackmail and torture, and decrease population by shooting in the supermarkets and driving on the wrong side of the road. Leave aside the juridical implications of such argument -- morally, it's beneath all criticism. We cannot throw all our energy into investigating murders, and leave ``less serious'' problems, like robbery and rape, until some better days come. Morality cannot be divided into parts.

The situation regarding the protection of animal rights keeps Russia aloof from most of the well-developed communities of our time (though, I have to admit, it's not our only problem). Courses on ethical treatment of animals are run in most of the law schools in USA. But I won't get deeper into that matter, I'll limit myself to the absolute minimum: the way we treat animals characterizes ourselves in the first place, that's what we learn from our famous works of literature, like ``Mumu'' and ``Kashtanka.'' The 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who didn't see animals as the objects of ethics, still believed (as well as his colleague John Locke), that cruelty against them dehumanizes the person who performs it. And what we definitely can't leave aside, when speaking about morality, is a lie.

A lie that tells us that a circus using animals can be ``humane.'' All the real animal lovers understand that animals shouldn't be trained to do what they evidently don't like or are afraid of, to perform tricks out of fear of punishment. Now all the leading circuses of the world, including the famous Canadian Cirque du Soleil, are no longer using animals in their show programs. And the ones that linger are boycotted. Both reason and conscience tell us that Kuklachev's Cat Theater's place is among the latter.

Translation by Marina Shuba,