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The name of the game is cruelty Why Russia's State Duma wants to ban ‘baiting stations’ in the training of hunting dogs, and why the Senate is opposed

Meduza
A hunting dog trains at a baiting station in the Murmansk region, June 2015
A hunting dog trains at a baiting station in the Murmansk region, June 2015
Lev Fedosyev / TASS / Vida Press

In mid-January, the State Duma created a mediation committee to review draft legislation that would ban “baiting stations,” where hunting dogs are trained to attack leashed wild animals. Co-sponsored by Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, the bill passed the lower house of Russia’s parliament in December 2017, before running into rare opposition from the Federation Council, which soon voted down the draft legislation. Senators argue that the law, which is intended to protect wild animals against cruelty, would actually “destroy hunting dog breeding” in Russia. The legislation’s supporters in the Duma say the Senate only rejected the law because of lobbying by “high-placed hunters.”

Never cross five million loyal voters

On December 21, 2017, the State Duma passed reforms to Russia’s hunting laws that would have prohibited the use of “baiting stations,” where big-game hunting dogs are trained to be aggressive with wild animals through exposure to chained animals in a closed area. There are currently 150 such facilities operated privately in Russia.

The legislation’s explanatory note states: “Wild animals receive serious injuries and are often killed during training. In order to prevent the animals from causing injury to the dog, they are mutilated (their teeth and claws are removed) and starved.” Lawmakers proposed that this form of training should be replaced by “contactless baiting,” where a net or sheet of glass would separate the animals.

One of the bill’s cosponsors, former Kremlin deputy chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin, has spent years trying to ban baiting stations. It seemed as if he’d finally succeeded on December 6, 2017, when the Duma passed his bill, but the Federation Council voted it down two weeks later in a rare rebuke. This was only the second time since the current Duma took office that the parliament’s upper house rejected one of its laws. (The first time, the Senate voted down a law that would have banned advertisements on utility bills, arguing that it was a “nonsense” regulation.”)

The Senate has struggled to come to a consensus about Volodin’s baiting-station ban. Vladimir Lebedev, the deputy chairman of the Federation Council’s committee on agriculture and food policy, told the newspaper Kommersant that the law would “destroy hunting dog breeding,” arguing that so-called contactless training doesn’t work. Lebedev also warned that the legislation would “harm five million loyal citizens,” referring to Russian hunters.

Before Volodin even introduced his bill, Lebedev started polling officials from different parts of Russia, claiming that “not a single” region endorses the prohibition and “roughly 60 areas” actively oppose it.

The legislation did have some support in the Federation Council, however. On December 23, three days before the Senate voted, Chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko said she’d discussed the bill with Vyacheslav Volodin and come to the conclusion that it “struck a balance between animal rights activists and hunters.” The law also had the endorsement of two Senate committees: the Constitutional Committee and (over Lebedev's objections) the Environmental Committee.

In the end, however, senators rejected the legislation, agreeing to a recommendation that a mediation committee should be created with 11 representatives from each house of parliament to negotiate a compromise. State Duma Deputy Speaker Olga Timofeyeva told Meduza that the mediation is estimated to last a month. “We expect our colleagues [from the Senate] to offer meaningful and rational suggestions about how to improve the existing law. Many of my colleagues who aren’t involved in hunting haven’t even read the law,” she said.

Oleg Shein, a Duma deputy from the “A Just Russia” political party, told Meduza that the Senate’s criticisms of the law have been more emotional than rational. “[They] are taking this personally. Most hunters go after only fowl and small animals. The number of licenses issued for hunting bear and other large animals [requiring dogs trained at baiting stations] is negligibly small. It’s fair to say that the law would have affected no more than 0.5 percent of all hunters in Russia. Senators took this personally because a lot of them are big-game hunters themselves,” Shein said.

State Duma Deputy Speaker Olga Timofeeva
State Duma Deputy Speaker Olga Timofeeva
Anton Novoderezhkin / TASS

Shein also blames lobbying efforts for the bill’s defeat in the Senate, and Olga Timofeyeva told Meduza that there was “rigorous lobbying by high-placed hunters,” though she refused to single out anyone. Olga Savastyanova, a United Russia Duma deputy who also cosponsored the bill, said the Senate’s vote breaks down into simpler terms: “We are divided into those who support animal cruelty and those who are against it.”

Biting a jeep covered in bearskin

For the past two or three years, the Russian media has drawn attention to baiting stations. In 2015, the newspaper Sobesednik described these facilities as “well-organized brutality,” publishing a story about a bear named Masha that, according to animal rights activists, was mauled by dogs at a baiting station outside Moscow.

Last summer, Elena Bobrova, the president of a regional animal rights charity, told Radio Liberty about a bear named Motya that was used as bait to train hunting and fighting dogs in Perm. The dogs reportedly tore off the animal’s nose and genitals, before ripping out its throat.

In 2016, VITA Animal Rights Center president Irina Novozhilova said that a group of foxes at one baiting station were fed “bits of their own species” by staff she described as “torturers,” “sadists,” and “monsters,” accusing them of starving and blinding the animals.

The Senate’s refusal to pass the legislation has prompted a lively debate on Russian social media. On January 8, publicist Vladimir Tverskoi uploaded graphic footage of two small dogs attacking a muzzled, chained fox. At the time of this writing, the video has been viewed more than 1 million times. The footage was originally shared by Tatyana Mazunova, who worked at several baiting stations near Moscow. People commenting on the video demonstrated a range of views on the issue of animal rights. Some Facebook users said they’d like to see the dogs’ owners in the fox’s place, while others criticized Tverskoi for spreading “sponsored propaganda,” telling him to become a vegetarian if he wants to tell hunters they can’t brutalize animals.

One of Tverskoi’s most vocal critics was Maria Maltseva, a clinical psychologist with a PhD in veterinary medicine and the director of the Russian Society for the Support and Development of Therapy Dogs. Maltseva was, in turn, accused of acting as a paid troll for the hunting lobby.

“No legal baiting station was involved in any of the outrageous practices described by this man [Tverskoi],” Maltseva told Meduza. “This isn’t because hunters are true animal lovers; it’s due to the simple fact that there’s no profit in killing the animal during the baiting process. The stories about bears or boars being ripped apart are sheer nonsense. Just try sinking your teeth into a jeep covered in bearskin, and you’ll see what I mean.”

A hunter with 22 years of experience and a professional dog trainer who manages hunting-dog breeding at the Russian Hunting and Fishing Association, Maria Kuzina told Meduza that she’s never heard of bears being killed during baiting. She says the animals at baiting stations aren’t prevented from moving around and can actually defend themselves.

“The dog and the animal engage in a mutual struggle, and the animal isn’t constrained in any way. Even on a chain, a bear can still move freely. The chain is only there to keep it from running away. The animals fight back and are able to swat at the dogs, which they often do,” says Kuzina, dismissing reports that trainers declaw and bind the animals. While boars do have their tusks removed, she admits, the operation is performed surgically, with anesthesia.

Animal rights activists’ main objection to baiting stations concerns the physical and mental suffering inflicted on the animals, but Maltseva says there’s not as much pain involved as people think. “The animals used as bait are adults that already have experience with dogs. They lean into the dogs with their shoulders, where the hide is thick. Animals have 25 percent fewer pain receptors than people and almost none in their shoulders. Their skin is also twice as thick, plus they have fur,” she argues. “They certainly don’t suffer psychologically. They’re facing off against young puppies that only fool around. The animals have fun chasing after them, feeling superior.”

“Animals at testing stations are training the exact same way,” says dog trainer Marina Kuzina. “Some animals are very interesting to watch. They provoke the dog, luring it in and swatting with a paw, instead of ripping it to shreds.” Kuzina says it’s instructors and animal owners who face the real danger at baiting stations.

“Of course, the animals suffer both physically and mentally,” says biologist Ilya Volodin, a senior researcher at Moscow State University’s Biology School. “What should concern us is minimizing this pain. If we want to eliminate animal suffering altogether, we’ll have to ban all zoos and animal testing, and stop making vaccines, and so on. Bioethics can be tricky, you see. It’s a whole subject all its own in higher education, and it’s very hard to draw the lines. I think experts, not laws, should regulate these issues. A sadist shouldn’t be allowed to operate a baiting station. A rational person wouldn’t want his foxes torn apart by dogs because that’s his own money on the line.”

Viktor Drachev / TASS

Malsteva says that hunters are actually some of Russia’s fiercest critics of animal cruelty. “They’ll lay you out and take your animals,” she warns, arguing that animal abuse only occurs at illegal baiting stations (which are relatively uncommon, she says). “[Abuse] cases discredit all hunting and they insult the community and its ethics.”

A threat to hunting dog breeding

On YouTube, you can find videos from baiting stations uploaded by dog owners. Most of these videos feature wild animals moving around freely within an enclosure, sometimes chasing after a dog and sometimes trying to hide. The dogs bark and often bite the animals. Rights activists say the practice instills cruelty in both the dogs and their owners, including owners’ children, who sometimes witness the training sessions.

“When you see the baiting, you feel sorry for the animals. But after a while your compassion weakens and you become more cruel. And the staff at these facilities go home to their families and kids, so we have parents with diminished emotional capacity and especially low compassion. This can lead to stricter and crueler parenting,” clinical psychologist Margarita Izotova warned Radio Liberty.

“They have created rules that celebrate cruelty and aggression. A dog receives points in a fight with a fox. It’s given several points for barking and for approaching the game, and up to 50 for showing aggression. That’s treated as the most valuable trait,” says animal rights activist Elena Bobrova.

Aggression is indisputably valued in hunting dogs, and it’s even assessed formally in competitions. Defined as “the ability of a dog to attack the fox during the entire length of the test,” judges look for “biting, lashing, and aggressive barking,” as well as “fearlessness in attacking the fox.” Dogs receive certificates for these achievements, which, as dog trainer Marina Kuzina explains, are essential for breeding.

“It’s just like assessing milk production in cows and egg-laying in hens. It’s testing a dog to see if it meets the expected standard. There is no other way to evaluate this in breeds of hunting dogs. This is why we work with baiting stations, where they have strict rules and specially dug fox holes. It has nothing to do with ‘showing off’ or giving the dog ‘a workout,’” says Kuzina. She believes a ban on contact baiting would make it impossible to evaluate hunting dogs, posing a threat to the whole breeding business.

Cruelty to wild animals

Not all the objections to the Duma’s legislation on hunting-dog training are about ethics. The law would also restrict training stations to designated hunting grounds, arguing that these facilities shouldn’t be anywhere near cities or small children. Kuzina says trainers like her share lawmakers’ concerns about baiting stations in populated areas, but she points out that some towns and villages are technically located inside hunting grounds.

Kuzina also believes the Duma’s hunting law amendments wouldn’t actually bring about the reforms lawmakers say they want. The laws on hunting don’t apply to wild animals held in captivity, she says, which includes the animals held at baiting stations. Senator Andrey Klishas, who’s also president of the Russian Hunting Dog Federation and show chairman of Moscow’s annual Sabaneev Memorial National Dog Show, pointed out in committee that the ban in question would only prohibit the use of domestic animals, such as in “hen baiting,” which isn’t practiced in Russia.

Meduza asked the law’s sponsors to respond to these criticisms. “I see no contradiction,” said Duma deputy Olga Savastyanova. Oleg Shein dismissed the issue as “a well-known debate,” promising to send Meduza “a link to the legal statute” that resolves the apparent conflict. (We never heard back from him.)

“We have one basic aim here: to outlaw cruelty against wild animals at baiting stations today,” explained Duma deputy Olga Timofeyeva, who has visited two baiting stations. Shein and Savastyanova say they’ve never been to a baiting station. “The videos were enough for me,” says Shein.

When forming the mediation committee that’s meant to bring the Duma and Senate to an agreement, Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin stated that the lower house’s position has not changed. “We are pushing for the humane treatment of animals,” he said. If the mediation committee finds a compromise before February 10, the Duma might tried to override the Senate’s rejection, which would require a new vote and a two-thirds majority (300 out of 450 votes). Volodin might get his wish, too. The country’s ruling political party, United Russia, has signaled its willingness to call for another vote.

Story by Evgeny Berg, translation by Alexandra Besedina