The Exploitation of Pet Bears in Russia

Emily Zaal and Shreeya Khanna investigate two prominent Russian social media accounts that exploit their pet bears in the name of commercial profit.

“Russia has a long history of exploiting bears,” writes the NZ Herald in an article on animal cruelty. In our investigation, we found two examples of this, namely the popular bear accounts of Tom and Stepan.

It’s 1993, and according to Svetlana and Yuri Panteleenko, experienced Moscow circus performers, they saved their bear cub Stepan from hunters when he was just 3 months old. Well, that’s what they say – but whether that statement is fact or fiction is still to be proven. 

Our investigation brought us to differing origin stories, ranging from Stepan being saved from the circus, to being saved by fishermen, and even to being bought from the St. Petersburg Zoo. Experts say “it is much more likely that he was kidnapped from the forest where he lived as a baby.”

Fast forward to 2019, a two month old bear cub lands in the arms of his soon to be owner – Pavel Vyakin. They now live what appears to be a happy life on a farm in Samara, Russia. Where Tom gets to run around in the woods and eat an unlimited amount of fruits, vegetables and meat. 

“Том was born in a traveling zoo, and I am a circus performer” shares Vyakin with us via an Instagram direct message. Summersaults, blowing a horn, flipping people off in a small car – Tom can do literally anything. That is; anything Vyakin tells him to do with the assurance of a treat afterwards. 

Even though Tom appears to be happy, animal activists strongly disagree. Michelle Ahmet, among other animal activists, have started petitions to stop the bear abuse. These petitions surfaced after footage emerged of a muzzled Tom performing at a soccer match.

Tom performing at a soccer match

Bear Exploitation for Commercial Profit

The sad reality is these bears are being kept as pets and being exploited in the name of commercial profit. Owners use them as photo props in order to mint money. Their cuteness may be tempting, but these so-called ‘photo-prop’ animals have most likely suffered abuse and exploitation. All for someone to receive a couple-of-seconds of gratification from surprised followers on social media.

VITA, the oldest and largest center for the Protection of Animal Rights in Russia, feels very strongly about this issue. The president of the organization, Irina Novozhilova, told 9to5 Groningen that they have “conducted dozens of investigations, showing people the inside of the photo business with animals, including bears.” Which they are strongly against. 

Within the animal rights legislature in Russia there are many loopholes, says Sofiya Shukhova, wildlife artist and conservationist. “There is a list of animals that can’t be kept as pets, but can be kept in zoos, circuses, or as a working animal. Meaning you can buy a bear and use it for photo props or photo sessions.” 

Shukhova says it is important to keep in mind that human lives don’t cost much in Russia. “It’s therefore logical that animals are getting exploited. If human lives don’t matter that much, then animal lives matter even less,” she says.  

To create more awareness against these illegal actions, social advertising on the streets of St. Petersburg often occurs. Additionally, Russian activists are trying certain tactics at their own level to better the situation, like posting on social media.

Overall, social media plays a key role when discussing animal exploitation. When one bear influencer engages in this type of profitization, it promotes other influencers and parties to engage in such money-making businesses as well. 

From a network analysis completed on the Panteleenko’s instagram account, we found out that Svetlana and Yuri interact, and at times hang out, with Mikhail Zaretsky. Who, according to this article, used a tiger cub for photo shoots and was unable to prove the cub was his. 

Putin is an example of someone who encourages this harmful type of behavior. He is often pictured posing with exotic animals, showing his affection and love for them. According to a Washington Post article, this action beguiles political scientists. Burdett Loomis goes on to say that “he [Putin] knows they are great photo opportunities.” 

By posing with these exotic animals, Putin sends out a message that it is of normal occurrence to be involved with exotic pets. This encourages people to follow in his footsteps. According to Novozhilova, “we live in a century when most people have mobile phones, so videos of incidents with animals in circuses get onto the internet almost every day. People tend to draw their own conclusions rather than rely on the media.”

Towards the end of January, Tik Tok influencer Lera Izumrud brought a bear into her apartment in Moscow to surprise her 1-year-old son. “She was accompanied by a man who carries the huge animal on a leash,” writes Paris Beacon News.

Through looking at the videos frame by frame, we have found out Vyakin is the mysterious man, and the bear is Tom – who we investigated.

The police were alerted by worried neighbors and an investigation is currently going on to find out whether Izumrud should be charged with animal abuse and child endangerment. Why the police are not looking into Vyakin and his involvement is unknown.

Owners of these bears will do anything with them to make money. Shukhova says that “it is important to understand that a lot of people would use any money-making activities in Russia to have food and feed their animals. Overall, the economic situation favors these kinds of activities where the animal is used to make money.” 

There are also other famous videos of Tik Tok influencers (some have more than 49.2 million views) who pay money to take videos and pictures with Tom. The comments range from people thinking it being, “a normal day in Russia” and finding it cute, to people being worried for Tom; “I think he’s tied to the tree. I wish the creator would explain what’s going on.”

But Vyakin never explains to his viewers what is going on, meaning they are left to make their own conclusions. 

The exploitation of these bears does not only stop at using them as photo props. They are also sexualized. In the following photos Stepan can be seen posing with women in sexual, mythic and weird photos on Instagram. According to an article published in the NZ Herald, “Stepan has become a sex symbol and something of a cult figure where he can constantly be seen posing with lingerie models and being sexualized.”

 ​​Animal Cruelty

Profiting off and sexualizing these bears is, according to VITA, animal cruelty. They define this as the “deprivation of animal life, causing them to suffer or experience physical harm or injury,” says Novozhilova. It can also be, “based on sadistic, hooligan motives or profit.”

Animal cruelty is not exactly easy to distinguish. An animal may seem happy, but that does not mean there is an absence of animal cruelty. “It is difficult to translate animal behavior to human behavior. Sometimes we think animals are happy, when in fact they could be miserable,” says Shukhova.

VITA often comes across these types of cruel situations. “Some of these families work in the circus and bears take part in circus performances,” says Novozhilova. Both Stepan and Tom, the bears we investigated, are subjected to this type of animal cruelty in the name of commercial profit. 

Novozhilova and her organization are “against circus performances with animals. We consider them to be a relic of the past, archaic, primitive and cruel entertainment of Ancient Roman times.”

Stepan’s influencer lifestyle seems fabulous at first glance. But as famous American musician John Spence once said, “people are more what they hide than what they show.” When asked on Instagram whether Stepan was a circus bear, Svetlana Panteleenko responded to us saying that they “have not been working in the circus.”

Pictures found on Svetlana Panteleenko’s Russian Facebook (VK) and Instagram prove otherwise. These photos, ranging from when Stepan was just a baby to a grown bear, show a muzzled, often dressed up bear being paraded in front of an audience. Torgerson notes that there was also a video circulating on Yuri Panteleenko’s Facebook of Stepan being smacked by a female trainer. The video has since been removed.

One common statement people use to combat activists’ strong claims of animal cruelty is that it seems like the bears are happy and have a good home. Novozhilova responds to this claim saying, “It is impossible to create adequate conditions for bears in human houses and it is unsafe.”

In a positive light, according to Novozhilova, the number of people visiting animal circuses have decreased. They do, however, still receive state subsidies. “The circus lobby is very strong and has patrons in the governing elite,” she says, which aids these circuses to keep running.

Looking closely at photos of Stepan, it becomes notable that he barely has any teeth. Experts at Humane Society International wonder whether his teeth have been pulled, a common mutilation with circus animals that would make Stepan less threatening.

When asked about his teeth, Svetlana Panteleenko responded that he still has all of his teeth, and that his front teeth turned yellow from old age. In early photos all his teeth are present, yet later photos show no signs of bottom teeth. It is important to note that we could not find any photos of Stepan with an open mouth in between ages 1 and 17. Even in photos where Stepan is 17 years old, all his bottom teeth are gone, leaving us to presume his teeth did not fall out due to old age.


Even though legislation has been introduced to diminish the illegal activities, this does not mean it is working. “There are also illegal nurseries for breeding bear cubs,” says Novozhilova. These cubs then get brought to either zoos or are sold to people.

It is interesting to note that Stepan has a son named Savva. It is not known where Savva comes from. Furthermore, Stepan is a male bear, meaning the Panteleenkos have had to use external sources to inseminate a female bear. It can therefore be questioned whether the Panteleenkos have used illegal nurseries to breed Savva. Additionally, Savva was born on January 20th, 2020, 19 days after The Responsible Animal Care Law came into place, questioning the legality of this cub.

Just a Fad?

The exotic pet fad surfaced during the 90s. “This was a demonstration of millionaires’ wealth,” says Novozhilova. Fast forward to 2022, and this trend is still in full swing.

The Responsible Animal Care Law No. 498 of 2020 prohibits keeping many exotic pets, including bears, at home. However, if you bought your pet before 2020, you are legally still allowed to keep them. The imperfection of the Russian legal framework still allows this abuse to happen, says Novozhilova. Shukhova adds that the corruption in Russia does not help.

There are currently no significant changes in Russian legislation regarding the trading and keeping of exotic animals. Shukhova hopes something will change. “There are currently more changes happening in terms of trading animal parts and the conservation of endangered species instead of keeping exotic pets.”

But when videos of animal cruelty and exploitation flood social media, turning a blind eye is not an option. According to Shukhova and MacMillan in their article on people that keep exotic pets, they suggest that governments and independent organizations monitor legislation on exotic animals. They believe that continuous consulting with exotic pet owners can help detect if the legislation works.

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