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THESE DAYS, the inhabitants of the former Soviet Union have a hard enough time trying to survive extreme poverty, cramped living conditions and gang warfare. Pets, you would think, are the last thing on their minds. But their latest obsession is wildlife: both in Moscow and in other large cities across the country, exotic animals have become a prized commodity to be bought, sold and exchanged.

Reasons for keeping wild animals range from the commercial to the compassionate. In Odessa, Ludmilla Popova became so worried about conditions at the city zoo where she works that she took in a new lodger: Fantic the baby elephant (right). "The zoo is so short of money we can't afford to maintain the cages, and we were frightened someone could break in and steal Fantic. He's destroying all my furniture, but there's nowhere else for him."

Back in Moscow, Andrei Skrynnikov and his family share their fifth-floor, two-room apartment with two bears, a lemur, several snakes and a number of birds. One bear, Misha (above), spends time during the day watching television with Skrynnikov's daughter, Svetlana. In the evening, Andrei takes Misha on the rounds of nightclubs, putting on a show for the city's nouveaux riches. "It's the only way I can afford their food," he says. Both Misha and the other bear, which Skrynnikov "rescued" from a zoo, spend most of their time in a steel cage in the living-room. "The conditions aren't ideal," he admits, "but you should have seen the zoo. At least here they're properly fed, and I exercise them every day" - on a children's climbing frame in a courtyard outside.

In Moscow's jungle economy, the illegal wildlife trade is booming. In Gorky Park, visitors are met by two alligators and their owner, camera at the ready to snap tourists with the beasts; one Moscow police station has its own house pet - a wolf; and each weekend, Moscow's Taganskaya pet market parades a bizarre array of wildlife. Alongside the goldfish, kittens and puppies up for sale are baby wolves, snakes, monkeys and even alligators.

Some traders cram their tiny flats with cheetahs, elephants and bears to meet the demand. "People like pets; it's my job to supply them," said one such entrepreneur, Oleg Popov. "I go to the market, and find out what people want. The exotic stuff, like cheetahs, are usually special orders. It's cramped in my flat; the place smells. I need a bigger apartment. But the animals don't complain - they're only animals."

The former Soviet Union is the perfect place for the wild animal black market to thrive in. According to Victor Watkins, of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, "In the whole of the country, there is very poor animal protection legislation. There's never been a law in Moscow forbidding people from keeping animals in captivity; and there have always been markets for exotic animals. Recently, with the country's political problems, there's been an increase in the black market. When many of these animals grow up they may be sold on to laboratories, or dumped or killed."

Last year, the Moscow Zoo helped draft a new law on nature protection, in an attempt to curb the excesses of the animal trade in Russia. The draft permits the keeping of exotic creatures so long as they are not from an endangered species, but potential owners would have to obtain a licence, undergo medical checks and have their premises deemed suitable. So far, the draft has not even been presented for consideration, let alone passed to President Yeltsin for his signature. As Natalia Istratova, an official at Moscow City Zoo, puts it: "Just look at our politicians. Our government cannot even protect its own people - what chance is there that it will do anything for the animals?" !