Born to Be Free premieres in Moscow

The documentary film Born to Be Free produced with support by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) will open the programme of the ECO CUP International Green Film Festival in Moscow today. The screening will be held at the 1,500-seat N1 hall at Octyabr Cinema (operated by Karo film company).

This film exposes the cruel trade of marine mammals, investigates animal dealer chains in various countries, and tells the stories of the unfortunate animal victims.

The investigation is focused on the story of 18 beluga whales (or white whales) that were captured in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Russian Far East. Initially, they were supposed to be sold to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia. When relevant information was reported in the news and it attracted wide public attention, animal advocates managed to achieve a ban on the importation of these whales into the US.

While this matter was being settled in court, the animals were kept in small concrete reservoirs at the biological research station located on the Black Sea Coast.

The producers of the film discovered them there, and based the film on their plight.

Born to be Free

I met two of them, Gayane Petrosyan and Tatiana Beley, about three years ago. I was captivated by these young women’s enthusiasm and their intention to make a documentary film about these animals, and was willing to help them.

We arranged filming in the wild around the Solovetsky Islands, where IFAW-supported researchers of the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology group have been studying the behaviour and communication of wild beluga whales since 1995.

Since this project has been in existence, beluga whales there have been exploited for commercial purposes on various occasions.

Recently, one of the creeks along the coast of the Solovetsky Islands was fenced for holding beluga whales brought from the city of St. Petersburg for “summer holidays,” and tourists were offered tickets to “performances.”

An enclosure was built in the dive station located at the mouth of the Nilma River and several beluga whales were moved to the enclosure so that the divers could swim along these marine mammals.

The producers featured both situations in the film.

Perhaps the most tragic beluga situation I have ever encountered is the case of commercial hunting of beluga whales, aimed at the trade of their meat to the Japanese market. Back in 1999, we were suddenly informed that hunting beluga whales had started in the Sea of Okhotsk. We urgently sent a film crew there, and my Japanese colleagues found out about the customers. Allegedly, it was an elderly couple who owned a small fish restaurant in a provincial Japanese town. I remember being very surprised when thinking about the money they needed to pay for 200 tons of beluga whale meat.

In that case, the support of the Russian State Committee for Environment Protection and intense public pressure helped to stop the slaughter of these whales. Hunting has since ceased, though there were still capture quotas in place, and licenses were granted for capturing these animals for educational and research purposes.

There is a heart-breaking scene in the film in which everyone celebrates the capture of calves, saying, “At this rate, we will all become millionaires quite soon!”

Sadly, it is money that rules the bloody business of the trade in beluga whales with China and using them for entertainment in oceanariums.

“Science is underfunded, so we have decided to earn money showing belugas to public”, says Lev Mukhamedov in the documentary. But we must be aware of pain and suffering that are behind the scenes. I believe that the faithful account of events given in the Born to be Free documentary will help change the situation.

In December, an IFAW delegation including Pamela Anderson presented the issue of beluga whale captures and captive management to Sergei Ivanov, the Special Presidential Representative for Environmental Protection, Ecology and Transport of Russia, who was very interested in what he could do to address this problem. Since then, Sergei Donskoi, the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, has addressed the topic in an interview with journalists.

The good news is that the work on the development of the state of animal cruelty law has resumed. It is time to stand together for animal welfare, and the Born to be Free documentary is one of the strongest arguments in favour of this advocacy in Russia.

--MV

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