Moskvarium: Not a Whale of a Time
It is no secret that my favourite place in Moscow is and always has been VDNKh (ВДНХ). So imagine my disappointment and distress when, in 2015, I found out what the latest attraction in the park was to be: the biggest aquarium in Europe. Although I have been to many aquariums myself and, when managed correctly and with the precise and observed aims of conservation and education, I believe they can be (but are not always) cruelty-free homes for small fish bred in captivity, my alarm bells went off when I saw what Moskvarium’s (Москвариум) main attraction was going to be: killer whales.
This shocked me on so many levels but not least of all because Seaworld in the USA and the animal cruelty debate around their exposition of captive orcas has enjoyed so much media coverage in the last few years. Every change in law that limited Seaworld’s ability to thrive was met across the world with excitement and triumph; apparently not so in Russia. I cannot say exactly to what extent the Seaworld issue has been covered in Russia since its beginning, but the opening of Moskvarium suggests to me that news headlines and documentary films such as Blackfish, which details the trauma endured by orcas and other marine mammals in captivity at Seaworld, have not enjoyed such a wide audience here.
In Their Unnatural Habitat
Construction of the Moscow “centre of oceanography and marine biology”, as it is described on VDNKh’s official website, started in 2013 and was completed two years later. However, evidence gathered by Russian and international animal rights activists suggests that orcas were brought to the centre towards the beginning of the construction period, and were housed under an inflatable roof in disused water tanks. The immense secrecy around the arrival of these animals and of the 14 or so dolphins at the aquarium has raised huge amounts of suspicion about their housing and care since their very discovery. Now, the animals are in more or less plain view of the (ticket-buying) public and it is obvious to see how very atrocious the animals’ situation is. Three orcas in all live within the confines of the aquarium – as big as it may be by aquarium standards, a stroll past the building towards the back of VDNKh is enough to see that this is not an adequate home for orcas, dolphins, beluga whales, seals, walruses and more than 500 species of fish and other marine life. The trained animals perform in an indoor arena, they spend their entire lives at the aquarium, which is entirely housed inside with unnatural lighting and, for a relatively small price, you can even swim with the dolphins yourself.
For most of my own friends and family, the whole concept that a new establishment such as this could open and expect to thrive in 2015 is shocking. I cannot speak for all Brits but I think a large number of them would be appalled. However, the Russian public remain uneducated on topics of animal rights and animal cruelty, as shown by the far too small enclosures housing bears in tourist areas and many animals in zoos, by the continued prevalence of circuses that use animals and the ever-growing fur industry. This is mostly due to a lack of basic debate around the topic and insufficient laws protecting even the most fundamental rights of animals, especially of those in captivity. There is no animal welfare legislation in Russia, thus the issue is not even considered worthy of discussion by government officials and consequently struggles to enter the discourse of Russian society. Most (but of course not all) Russians, whilst understanding that hitting an animal is cruel, do not have the same understanding of animal cruelty as many (but again not all) of us in the UK and USA do, and animal rights remains a non-political and largely ignored topic.
Just a Drop in the Ocean
As a result, the opening of the Moskvarium has been portrayed as a great triumph for VDNKh and Moscow tourism, much to my own chagrin and to that of the few animals rights groups that manage to survive in Russia. Not only are the new habitats of these marine animals and their continued submission to training and decidedly “human” stimulants cruel, but the animals themselves are linked to a wider network of animal abuse. Whilst the Moscow orcas were caught in Russian waters, albeit most probably resulting in the death some other killer whales and meaning that babies are separated from their mothers, the bottlenose dolphins offered to the public as swimming partners are almost certainly linked to the cruel practices of Taiji, Japan. The species is endangered in Russian waters and therefore it is illegal to catch them, but even the centre itself has named its supplier as Japan, a country whose dolphin industry is centred on Taiji, in whose coves dolphins are slaughtered for meat as well as captured for delphinariums.
Keeping a Wide Berth
Muscovites looking for a good day out have become unwitting investors in this cruel and controversial industry. Without news channels willing to show the gritty truth rather than pictures of Putin fawning over the animals at the Moskvarium, without documentaries such as Blackfish and The Cove gaining mainstream popularity, without a credible animal rights debate within the society, led by activists but supported by the government and transmitted to the masses, tickets will be sold and the wool will be pulled over the eyes of their buyers. That is why I refuse to buy a ticket, and you should too: without having a look for myself, I can say with absolute confidence that what is happening in this building is wrong and a black mark on the Moscow tourism industry.
If you want to find out more, visit http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/the-fate-of-russias-two-captive-orcas-is-starting-to-look-a-lot-like-seaworld/
Or watch this interesting video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LVCm2fq5Fg
Ellie, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz Moscow