A group of activists from the Russian civic groups Vita and Dolphin Embassy gathered Monday morning in Moscow’s VDNKh park, a private aquarium, to save two orca whales who have reportedly been living in rusty tanks. The activists believed that the animals “were being tortured” in the park, where they say the creatures, often called killer whales, have been held secretly for 10 months. Visitors to the sea park reported hearing “horrifying screams” and loud sounds of splashing water. According to the activists, at least one of the whales is female and goes by the name “Narnia.”
Among the activists was the president of Vita Animal Rights Center, Irina Novozhilova, who had struggled for months to discover the truth about the orcas. The idea that the park, the All-Russia Exhibition Center, once famous for trade shows of horses, was now turned into a prison for animals used to flying at speeds of up to 65 kilometers per hour in the open ocean, sounded unbelievable to anybody who loves nature. “We find it hard to understand how anybody could can these animals alive,” Novozhilova said in an interview with The Daily Beast.
The activists asked about orcas at the locked gate. On the other side of the warehouse gate, the voice said: “Nyet, there are no dolphins, no orcas here, only construction materials.”
But what about the screams, the salty puddles, and big empty packages of frozen fish lying on the ground outside the fence? Vita activists have demanded that police investigate how the sea creatures appeared in Moscow and why. Finally, on Monday, the shroud of secrecy was lifted: An official police report confirmed that the orcas had been fished out of the sea in the Amur region last November, transported to Moscow in December, and that currently they were kept in VDNKh “under strict veterinary and medical control.” The report claimed that five trainers were watching the orcas and checking their health daily—everything was normal and legal, the report said.
To some people, keeping orcas in metal cans is violent animal-rights abuse; to others it is apparently “normal and legal.” According to the police report, the orcas—originally fished out for Sochi dolphinariums—were rented by a company called Renaissance, which is supposedly building the biggest oceanarium in Europe on the territory of VDNKh. Since then, almost a year has passed and the oceanarium is still not ready; nobody at Renaissance could confirm to the activists the exact date for its opening.
“India has declared dolphins non-human persons. We believe they have intellect, they communicate; but by now, the orcas have surely gone crazy,” Nicole Gratovsky, the leader of Dolphin Embassy, explained to The Daily Beast on Saturday. A few years ago, Gratovsky and her anthropologist husband, Alexander, founded an international community of scientists and artists who sail around the world, swim with dolphins and whales, and try to understand the animals and the way they interact with people in nature. They fear for the orcas at VDNKh. “When the poor orcas, whom their jailers drove insane, kill somebody later,” Gratovsky said, “once again everybody will blame it on the animals and not on people responsible for their imprisonment.”
On Monday night, VDNKh explained on Facebook the reason the park did not acknowledge the presence of orcas for 10 months: The sea creatures were meant to be “a surprise” for Moscow. The park’s administration sought to comfort horrified Muscovites, saying the orcas were kept in “a spacious” 82-foot-long pool. But that was not a satisfying news for the environmentalists. “The size of the jail does not matter. The message we are trying to convey to the oceanarium owners is that the day we stop torturing dolphins and orcas, we’ll become better people ourselves,” said Yevgeny Manzyrev, spokesman for the Dolphin Embassy.