ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – For two years, a 36-year-old bear who performed during the 1980 Moscow Olympics has been kept with other retired circus animals in a rusty old bus parked on the outskirts of St. Petersburg.
Animal rights activists say they receive only minimal care in their cramped and stinking cages.
Katya the bear was a longtime star of the Big St. Petersburg State Circus on Fontanka, where night after night she and another bear delighted children by riding motorcycles around the ring.
During the 1980 Summer Games, the bears were applauded by thousands at a ceremony opening the football competition in St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad. Katya also performed in two movies released in the 1980s.
Since her retirement in 2009, Katya and the painted bus on which she once toured with the circus have not left a parking lot near a busy highway. The aging bear spends the long hours jumping up and down in her cage and trying to crack the rusty metal railings with her chipped and yellowed teeth.
Dozens of other retired circus animals also live in the smelly cages placed inside the bus and a minivan parked nearby.
Some occasionally are taken out to accompany photographers to downtown St. Petersburg to have their pictures taken with children and tourists. Others never get washed or examined by veterinarians, animal rights activists say.
"They can't move normally and start going crazy," Zoya Afanasyeva of the Vita animal rights group said as she stood by Katya's sweltering bus on a hot summer day.
"Apparently they are being taken care of, but not more often than once a day, and this care is perfunctory because the smell here in the parking lot is unbearable," Afanasyeva said.
Klava the bear shares a small cage with Pasha the boar. Birds with atrophied muscles live next to cats that don't meow and stare straight ahead with pus-covered eyes.
Circus director Viktor Savrasov said the animals are cared for and Katya's fate would have been worse if her trainer had agreed to have the bear put to sleep.
"Whatever happened, she did not leave her," he said of retired trainer Natalya Arkhipova, who still visits Katya to feed her.
Animal rights activists have long urged Russia's government to strengthen animal protection laws.