The Painful Truth from Laima Vaikule
Laima Vaikule is a Latvian singer, actress, director, and choreographer. Originally trained as a nurse, she started out singing with a local band in the Latvian capital, Riga, before moving to Moscow in the 1980s to study acting and directing at the prestigious State Institute for Theatrical Arts (GITIS). She scored her first hit as a pop singer in 1985 and has since become an icon in the Soviet Union and its successor states.
During the 1980s and ‘90s, Vaikule was a regular participant at international music competitions and festivals across Europe, the recipient of numerous awards and popular recognition. She was designated National Actress of Latvia and in 1996 was awarded the Grand Prix for her special contribution to Latvian music and culture.
Over the course of her career, Laima as been asked lots of questions, some more interesting and easier to answer than others. But what Laima Vaikule really wants to discuss is a topic few journalists ask her about — animals.
And it is not merely Laima’s words that are raising awareness of the need to protect animals but her actions as well. Last March, her convictions brought her to the ice of Archangelsk to protest the slaughter of baby seals. Recently she sat down with Passport’s Anna Kulyagina and told her all about it.
Photos courtesy of Laima Vaikule
How did you get started in your work to protect animals?
The work itself started recently, when I got involved with the VITA Center for Animal Rights Protection. I always had dogs. Interaction with dogs and other pets teaches you to love all living things — trees, animals, everything. Then I stopped wearing fur. When VITA contacted me and said they needed help, I, of course, said yes. They asked me to go to the White Sea, where hunters are killing baby seals for their fur.
On the plane, they showed me photographs and a film about how they kill the seal pups. It was sickening. Everything human and reasonable in me protested against these brutal images. I can’t describe my horror and pain. And aft er that, I felt ready to go to the ends of the earth to try to help these innocent creatures.
It’s shocking to me that in our technologically advanced age we refuse to stop exploiting animals for their fur. We’ve gone out into space and down to the depths of the oceans; we’ve split the atom and broken the sound barrier. All that effort and brain power, with such fantastic results. If people saw the spectacle of a man devoting his prodigious strength to overpowering and killing a baby seal, they would be disgusted and would want to stop wearing fur. And we’ve developed such wonderful and beautiful synthetic materials to keep us warm. So why put our strength and energy into killing baby seals when we could be putting it into other, more constructive things?
Do you think your popularity helps your work to stop the slaughter of animals?
I cannot say that my voice is loud enough to reach everyone. But I hope that I can help raise awareness of VITA’s activities and that when people hear about them, they’ll stop and think. After the trip to Archangelsk, I got a lot of calls from people interested in joining us, even from people I don’t know, people who aren’t in show business.
Do you think it’s possible to extinguish the human impulse to hunt?
At this point we are focused on the next generation. On one hand, a generation is not that long, just 18 years or so, but on the other, you can make enormous changes in that short time. So if we start now, in 18 years we’ll have a population with an entirely new consciousness about animals.
A friend of mine told me a story she heard about children attending a circus. When they brought animals out to do tricks, the kids started yelling that the rights of the animals were being violated! I dream of seeing that generation in Russia. Awareness of how we treat animals is essential because people who understand the importance of treating animals with respect also understand the importance of treating people with respect.
So, if we are looking for a national idea, here’s my suggestion: protecting the environment, defending domesticated and wild animals and our natural surroundings in general. I think that would be a great national cause for Russia.
If you were asked to join a political party and advance the cause of animal protection from the political side, would you accept?
I am not into politics, but I would do everything I could to help. My heart aches for what is happening on the White Sea. The person who works in politics has to keep emotions at bay. I’m not a good candidate because my heart is very vocal.
What do you think of zoos?
I don’t like circuses and zoos, or anyplace where animals are exploited. Like humans, animals were created by God and have their own rights, regardless of the profit they bring to man. Each animal has its own meaning as something very precious to Nature. Its life is important just as a human life is, and it surprises me when people don’t understand this.
When you go to Africa or the White Sea, you experience a feeling of unity with nature, a sense of being a part of it. I had planned to go out onto the ice of the White Sea, point to a baby seal, and say to the camera, “Look at this miracle! Let it be!”
But it turned out very different from how I anticipated. When I got there, I felt like a guest, and this sensation persisted the whole time I was there. I think that everyone should have this feeling of being a guest of Nature.
If zoos aren’t the answer, then what is? We have to help and protect animals, but don’t they die in nature?
A zoo is acceptable only if it is properly equipped and provides the animals with the conditions they need. We have to learn how to understand and care for animals. This is true of all animals, wild and domesticated, in captivity and in the wild. It’s a question of responsibility. Before taking in an animal, people must calculate the expenses involved and make sure that they have the resources to maintain it properly. Remember what Exupery, the author of The Little Prince, said: “We are all responsible for those we have taken in.” If people treated animals responsibly, there would be no need for zoos. They would be able to live in nature as they were meant to.
As to protecting animals in the wild, the principle of responsibility is the same. Russia is blessed to have such an exquisite place as Archangelsk! I don’t usually use words like this, but the place really put a spell on me. After I left, I realized I’d fallen in love with it. To have such a treasure right here and not let people enjoy it, not let them experience the beauty and sense of openness there, would be a crime. They’ve built a small hotel right on the sea. It’s just fantastic — made of logs, great service, fresh food.
This economic development is creating jobs so locals won’t have to kill seals for their livelihood. It’s just not the case that seal hunting is the only option they have to support themselves. And hunting isn’t even profi table! The pelt of one baby seal sells for $1 on the market. So think how many pups a hunter has to kill to support a family? It’s awful. And such horrible things happen in such a gorgeous place. The disconnect is mind-boggling.
The place is so beautiful. With potential like that, it could become another Nice or Monaco. Ecological tourism could be the city’s industry and provide well-paying jobs for the local population. That sort of development could be the area’s social and political program.
Doesn’t that take a lot of effort and resources?
I think it requires less effort than slaughtering animals does. Moreover, with each passing year, wearing fur goes more and more out of fashion, so there is no economic future in commercial hunting. Now plastic surgery is all the rage!
It is high time to change our attitudes in a fundamental way. Animal protection is a cause I care deeply about. Every time I see a homeless dog on the street, it hurts me that people can allow this to go on. We can’t sit back and turn a blind eye to the problem. We have to take action. I can’t just sit back while people are doing brutal things around me like killing helpless seal pups. To ignore it is to forget your humanity. I am not looking to blame anyone. I just want us to think about what we are doing. Are we behaving responsibly?
VITA Russia — Voices for the Voiceless
The VITA (Latin for “life”) Center for Animal Rights Protection is a nonprofit organization devoted to the protection of animals. Its goal is the prevention of cruelty to animals in all forms.
VITA employs peaceful methods to raise awareness of and protest against the maltreatment of animals. In addition to its campaigns to end the slaughter of animals for fur, VITA also works to stop the exploitation of animals in circuses and zoos, medical experimentation and commercial testing, and factory farming.
VITA activists — which include professional biologists, veterinarians, medical experts, and others — aim to raise awareness of the suffering of animals at the hands of humans and the need for responsible treatment of all animals.
The organization’s activities include Design Against Fur, an annual competition for animal-free fashion design held in Russia and other former Soviet countries, as well as an ongoing campaign to introduce animal welfare legislation in Russia.
For more information, visit www.vita.org.ru.