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2 bears starve in legal vacuum


MOSCOW -- Deep in one of Moscow's vast city parks, Top and Foma, two very unlucky brown bears, pass the time with their chins and paws poking between the bars of the abandoned building they've been locked in for three years.

Two weeks ago they were celebrities. Television crews and newspaper photographers recorded their plight as victims of a legal vacuum in Russian animal protection. But today, the only serious attention they get is from the flies that are their constant companions.

Top and Foma are not the only ones. There are at least 15 other abandoned bears in the Moscow city limits right now, says Natalia Istratova, who fields complaints for the Moscow Zoo about everything from stray boars to full grown lions living in cramped high rise apartments.

"I suppose it's because we have no laws for the protection of animals," sighs Ms. Istratova.

The bears have an owner. He doesn't want them. But there is no law that can compel the owner to care for the animals. Nor does the law allow public officials to seize the bears.

Ms. Istratova rakes her hair with her fingers in exasperation when she hears about Top and Foma -- yet again. Their recent notoriety is a sad rerun, she says, of the headlines and television coverage of the bears when they -- and their smaller cellmate Gosha -- were discovered two years ago.

But then as now, the abandoned creatures were largely forgotten. No one in these lean, post- Soviet times -- not animal control officials of the city, not the zoo, not conservation officials -- could afford to do anything with the bears. So they sit in the squalor that has built up behind padlocks that look as if they haven't been opened for years.

They have lived on the handouts of passers-by. But when that wasn't enough, the two larger bears ate Gosha.

"Park officials want to put the bears down. But the owner wants money for them," says Vera Maximova, who runs the animal protection society.

"These two poor bears symbolize the legal vacuum [for wildlife] in Russia -- we do not have legal mechanisms to take care of them," says German Gan, vice president of the All-Russian Society for Nature Conservation.

He explains that Russia has signed international treaties to protect endangered species, and local and federal legislatures have drafted many laws to protect animals from cruelty. Some have even passed.

LTC But in effect, he says, anything goes because, "It's not that we don't have any law, it's that we're not stable enough to successfully enforce what we do have."

Moscow's "bird market," a weekend outdoor bazaar, is a prime example of the problem.

On a recent weekend, for example, at least a dozen monkeys from South America and macaques from Africa sat crammed in shoe-box size glass containers, shivering in the Russian autumn chill. A monitor lizard, and a South American crocodile were folded inside glass boxes half their size. And literally hundreds of puppies and kittens -- most of which will never find a home -- were for sale.

Mr. Gan explains that in Soviet times there were funds to police the market and cite violators of animal protection laws. But now, he knows of no agency that does this.

Russian brown bears -- which like Top and Foma can grow to 300 pounds or more -- are common sights here in Moscow.

The Arbat, an ancient commercial street, always has someone with a bear -- selling the opportunity to pose with the animal or just pet it. Zoo officials say cubs are easily purchased for about $300.

That kind of easy access, says the zoo's Ms. Istratova, is why so many bears are abandoned around the city. Owners can't keep up with the appetites -- let alone the strength -- of full-grown bears.

"I'm always getting people coming to me who have bought a cub and want to know what to feed it," says Yuri Starostin, a bear trainer at the Durov animal theater. "It's only going to be tears later, I tell them."

But they don't listen, he says, because Russians are animal crazy. Most cramped Moscow apartments always have room for at least one pet. Dogs accompany people everywhere -- they're common in grocery stores and in airplane aisles, where they are allowed to roam freely on domestic flights.

In March, Ms. Istratova says, the zoo shot a tranquilizer dart into ,, a full-grown lion to remove it from a high-rise apartment. The lion belonged to one of the tenants and got a bit too nippy for the two other families who share the apartment, she says.

"This [lion] and the bears are not unusual here. I've worked here 25 years and these are not the first I've had to deal with, nor will they be the last," she says.

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