Vera Mitina: "A week before I was born, my parents had bought a German Shepherd puppy..."
18 august 2022
Can you tell us, Vera, how did it all begin? How did you start helping homeless animals?
My family has always kept pets. A week before I was born my parents had bought a German Shepherd puppy. That's how I got a playmate my age that I grew up with. We scattered our toys and ate porridge together. Growing up with a big dog leaves a lasting impression on your soul forever. My dog died when I was 14. I was really upset, and I saw how hard my family was taking it. To us, the dog had been a member of our family whom we all loved very much. Later, I frequently approached my parents with a request to take home another dog but they kept telling me: “No, we can't do it anymore, we don't want to feel any more heartbreak when we lose a pet again”. And so my mom suggested that if I wanted to take care of dogs, I should go to a shelter and help the animals there.
And so did you go to a shelter?
I've always had a penchant for it, so much so that at one point I even wanted to study to become a veterinarian, but in those days the professions of lawyers and economists were all the rage, so I enrolled in a college to study economics. When I was in my second or third year, I decided to visit a pet shelter. I am myself from the city of Zelenograd, and it turned out that at the time there was only one private shelter there. I had used to watch a lot of Animal Planet programs where they showed awesome-looking shelters and cases of animal rescue. And it had seemed to me that it would be exactly like that here, too. I would show up there now, and everyone would be happy to see me, and everything would be great. But that's not how it turned out to be. The reality was that the problem of homeless animals was just overwhelming. At that time - we are talking about 2011 - this problem was practically not being addressed at all, the conditions the animals were kept in were horrendous, shelter owners often did not have enough money to buy animal food, so they fed the animals expired food that had been given away by Zelenograd’s supermarkets and stores. Not to mention the fact that the animals were not spayed, they kept reproducing, and nor were they vaccinated. The shelter was in a true state of destitution.
Let me guess: was that how you started helping the shelter?
That's right, I just couldn’t ignore something like that. It's an amazing feeling when you walk in there and all the animals are looking at you from their enclosures. Some of them want you to pet them, others want food. I started visiting the shelter and helping them on a regular basis. Soon after, I started spreading the word about the shelter through my webpage, and, as a resulted, I teamed up with a few other volunteers and we decided to set up a charitable foundation. Our main goal initially was to help that specific shelter and the animals that were kept there. We hadn’t thought about it strategically at the time and did not know what this would evolve into.
Why did you pick the name "Nika" for your charity?
That happened to be the name of the very first dog that was brought to the shelter. In the end, the choice of the name was a spur-of-the-moment decision. We had been discussing what name to give to our foundation. And since nothing had seemed to ever work out well at the shelter, we decided that we would name our foundation after Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, and everything would fall neatly into place and work out just fine. And, all things considered, that is exactly how things turned out: I guess the name of the foundation might have given us strength. Today our foundation is the largest in Russia. Perhaps its name played a key role in this.
Could you please tell us more about the foundation and its projects?
With time, we came to the realization that the shelter, in fact, does not actually help solve anything. It is just a place where animals are held temporarily or permanently. But this doesn’t solve the problem, not conclusively. This is more of a way of mitigating the consequences, rather than attacking the root of the problem. And so, by now the foundation has adopted a multi-pronged approach to its operations, making sure that we “engirdle” our pets from all sides as we try to take good care of them.
The first area of focus involves dealing with street animals. This primarily involves sterilizing stray animals on a mass scale. Every year, we neuter up to 3,000 feral dogs and cats. The foundation has its own dedicated team of vets and a trapping team responsible for taking animals off the street.
The second area involves interacting with the public, with the public opinion by means of holding various kinds of event, exhibitions, and festivals. We also provide veterinary care to animals that have been injured on city streets; and we have our own veterinary clinic to deal with that. We work with the government, we take part in roundtable discussions, and we offer recommendations on how to improve the situation. We advise our colleagues in the regions on how to start working with homeless animals, including using the TVNR (Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return) process. Our foundation has been operating TVNR programs in 11 administrative districts of Moscow region which accounts for about a third of the entire region.
At the moment, we are beginning to study urbanism and everything related to comfortable cohabitation of animals and people living in cities.
Is this a new area of activity for your foundation? What does it involve?
Yes, we have only been involved in urban studies for a relatively short amount of time. For the most part, we are involved in research activities. We recognize that by creating a comfortable environment, we will make sure that there are a lot less animals ending up on the streets. To give you an example, we often demand from dog owners around us to clean up after their pets on the street. But how can we enforce this if there aren’t any trash cans for this sort of waste? If a person forgets a bag, they can't collect their pet waste and throw it in the trash can.
This also applies to the time we spent with our pets: visitors with dogs are not allowed to visit our shopping centers or even some of the parks. Our life is organized in such a way that our dog has to wait for us at home, even though it is a highly evolved and a highly emotional creature, and this has been proven by scientists. A five-minute walk around the dog walking enclosure or walking up and down a couple of street blocks is clearly not enough for them. Our pets are desperate to spend more time with us, but the infrastructure of our cities often offers very limited opportunities for such pastime. And we understand that if there were more of such opportunities, more people would probably want to keep pet animals, including pets adopted from shelters.
Your foundation has started a multifunctional animal help center, known as the "Wet Nose" independent republic. What makes the center unique?
The first shelter that I visited in Zelenograd had not had the land it was occupying registered in its name, and at one point there was a risk that city authorities would kick the shelter out and it would have to be relocated somewhere else. As someone with an international economics background, I decided to study international experience. It turned out that in many countries there is no such thing as a shelter being a stand-alone unit of infrastructure. Instead, it is usually a loose collection of different buildings, which more often than not are home to some kind of commercial activity, complete with veterinary centers, pet stores, and dog handlers who train or otherwise take care of pets, etc. It's a whole ecosystem that not only offers a solution to a social problem, but also provides services to its community and supports itself financially. We really liked this approach, and we started moving in that direction.
Has Wet Nose already started its operations?
Yes, we are already open. Our center is the site where TNVR sterilization takes place. For now, the Center only works with dogs. The cat shelter, the lecture hall, and the park where people will be able to walk the animals, have not yet been completed.
Vera, what is your role at the Nika foundation?
I am the head of the foundation. At first, I spent more of my time with the dogs at the shelter, but now I focus more on organizational activities: I approve programs, raise funds, make sure other employees are doing their jobs properly and in time. In a word, what I do is comprised of typical administrative duties of a director, a combination of supervisory and financial functions
Please tell us about the foundation's team.
At the time of the foundation’s founding, the team consisted of 3 like-minded individuals. Since then, we have grown into a fairly large team of 40 people. These are mainly employees who work directly with the animals: kennel workers at our two shelters who care for the animals, dog handlers, shelter administrators, veterinary teams consisting of a surgeon and veterinary paramedics, plus two trapping teams made up of trapping technicians and drivers. There is also 10 more people who work with our partners, promote the foundation, raise funds, and handle incoming letters from people who need help. All in all, these 10 individuals are mostly busy with administrative and fundraising activities.
In addition to our permanent staff, we have a large team of the foundation's volunteers. Each of our two shelters is visited by roughly 300 people a month. There are also volunteers who visit us every week, doing this as if they were going to work. Many of the volunteers who visited our shelters early on continue to do so now. It's gratifying to read the surveys that say that some of our volunteers have been with the foundation since 2011.
Why do you think it's important to help homeless animals?
Helping Stray Animals isn't just about helping the animals themselves. This is also about safety. We all realize that stray animals on the street can become the cause of all kinds of accidents. In order to prevent this from happening, we need to approach the issue responsibly and we ought to begin with ourselves. At the root of the problem with stray animals is man. A lot of animals are let loose by their owners and they keep mating outside their homes. They often have irresponsible owners who dump the newborn puppies somewhere or give them away. This problem can only be solved if people started treating animals responsibly. Feral dogs and cats were all originally domesticated animals and pets. They did not end up on the streets by their own choice. Our responsible attitude toward our pets and towards our environment directly affects the number of homeless animals on the street.
Stray animals are a safety hazard, a source of infections, biting, all sorts of ugly incidents that affect our cities. If you read and watch the media, you often read and hear about stories like that.
Why is it so difficult to find a permanent solution to the problem of homeless animals in Russia?
Quite often cities do not know what to do about it, or they are doing things wrong. The problem is quite straightforward, solvable, and its solution is relatively inexpensive when compared to other problems. But unfortunately, there is often not enough proper monitoring, the authorities do not know how many homeless animals are living in the area under their purview. More often than not, they rely on guesswork rather than on a professional estimate. There is no understanding of how many animals need to be captured so that their numbers would go down. Plus, quite often people even fail to grasp the point of the TNVR program. This is a big problem – they just don't know how to do it.
There is one more thing - ours is a very large country, it’s very diverse. And yet a systematic approach to the problem must be applied everywhere at once. For this we need clear instructions, for example, guidance on how to set up the appropriate infrastructure that has to include shelters, vets, trappers, vehicles, anesthetics, surgical tables, etc. Without such an infrastructure, the TNVR program simply won’t work. A bare-minimum infrastructure has to be built.
How can volunteers help deal with homeless animals?
Volunteers are actually a driving force; they are indispensable for many shelters. Speaking of supporting shelters in their own cities, volunteers can organize fundraisers, teach lessons of kindness at schools to educate the future generation, they can come on site and help build something. Shelters always need volunteers’ help and there is always a shortage of hands.
The animals spend 90% of their time confined to their enclosures, their level of socialization is very low. And every volunteer's visit represents an opportunity to go for a walk, experience new things, smell something new, do something. If you do this on a regular basis, you can see how the animals change. In the long run, socialized animals find their adopted homes with greater ease.
Our foundation offers plenty of opportunities for those who volunteer to help: we arrange corporate outings to shelters for companies, we offer to adopt a dog or cat financially if one is unable to take the animal home. Our joint campaigns, fundraisers, and volunteer-initiated projects help bring on board those who may not have yet heard about our foundation and never experienced the fruit of its work.
Volunteers are often a driving force in addressing local problems. If an animal gets run over by a car, there is a good chance that, by the time information about the incident reaches the foundation, the injured animal will have already been helped by a volunteer on the spot by administering first aid and taking it to a clinic. Volunteers are the best local caregivers in cities, towns, villages, and suburban compounds. Without them, we would have known about fewer than a half of all animal cruelty cases.
Another very important role of volunteers is the intellectual assistance they are capable of providing. Very often, foundations that help homeless animals were often set up somewhat haphazardly following an emotional impulse. That is why they are often helped by volunteers to create a website with pictures, to solve legal issues with the shelter’s registration or with getting a permit for the land plot, or to deal with purely administrative issues. They can often suggest how to best organize your operations most efficiently. This helps to raise the standards of our sector in general.
In your opinion, do volunteers who help homeless animals need to receive any special training??
By and large, you can do this without any special training, but you need to know some basics. Usually, one learns the ropes during the very first few visits to the shelter. You’d learn, for example, that if you see a stray dog in the street, you should not stick out your hands, hug or kiss the animal. You just don't know whether or not the animal is sick. There are still confirmed cases of rabies, and a stray animal can turn out to be a carrier of this deadly disease. You need to help consciously.
I'm personally opposed to people feeding stray animals near their homes. Not only is it ineffective, but this can also be harmful to the animals in the end. We should not only care about our own comfort or our desire to help animals, but also think about the fact that other people may not share your ideas. We should try to avoid doing things that may seem good and kind to us, but could instead end up doing more harm than help to stray animals.
Fortunately, there are now a plethora of useful materials and online lectures that one can benefit from. For example, our foundation's website has a section titled "Useful Materials". You can also listen to lectures given by dog handlers; such lectures can be found online.
And, in keeping with our tradition, let me ask you my final question. What are your next immediate plans?
We hope that our Woof festival will see a great start this fall. This is the largest pet adoption show, taking place in various cities with a population of more than a million people. This year, we plan to hold the festival in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don, and Krasnodar. We hope that our animals will find new homes and that people will look at shelter-held animals from a different perspective.
Another line of activity we are keen on developing is a comfortable city for animals and for people. We hope that by the end of the year we will be able to develop guidelines for developers to help them build cities and neighborhoods in keeping with the latest trends that are favorable for dog and cat lover. We want to make people want to keep animals in the city.
Dear Readers! If you want to help homeless animals or join the team of Nika Foundation’s volunteers, you can acquaint yourself with the activities and projects of the Foundation on its official website at www.fond-nika.ru or in its Vkontakte group at vk.com/ournika.
We invite everyone who cares about our furry friends to take part in SIBUR's #DayLapuDrug volunteering challenge. To join, you need to help homeless animals in any way you can. The terms of participation can be found on our website.