“Sometimes you have to follow your heart, with a crazy amount of courage, and be prepared to risk everything,” says entrepreneur and philanthropist Anna Kogan, who spends her entire yearly salary helping Russia’s stray animals.
At the same time, the Russian-born credit trader is involved with Britain’s first cat café: Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, opening in London next month and filled with cats from the Mayhew Animal Home. When founder Lauren Pears raised £100,000 through crowdfunding and later realised she needed even more money, Kogan stepped in to get the project off the ground. “I knew straightaway that it was a business I needed to be involved in, as I love animals, and cats in particular,” she says.
“I’ve always wanted to make the world a better place for animals,” Kogan tells me over coffee in her spectacular all-white split-level penthouse flat in Great Portland Street, which she shares with her boyfriend, a fellow banker, and their two rescued cats Bonnie and Clyde.
Despite the glamorous home, which is in part courtesy of her partner, Kogan is a world away from other young well-heeled Russian Londoners, with their conspicuous shopping habits. “My boyfriend pays for this flat and our living expenses. Every penny of my salary goes into my animal charity. It’s bleeding money, but it’s money well spent,” she says.
Kogan’s Moscow-based Big Hearts Foundation neuters 400–500 stray dogs and cats every month; helps create shelters with humane education programmes; brings painkillers and other essential drugs, as well as euthanasia, to cities and towns; trains vets; and negotiates with federal and regional governments.
Kogan, 30, arrived in London with nothing in 2006, becoming a well-paid banker in her early 20s. “In Russia, if you want to change something, no one listens to you unless you have money, power or some sort of status,” she says. “Since I was a child, I had it in my head that I had to make money, so that’s why I became a trader. I always grew up with animals but I was also exposed to a lot of animal cruelty and suffering in the streets. It was the saddest part of my childhood.”
Originally from Rostov-on-Don in remote southern Russia, Kogan was brought up as an only child in a tiny flat in an industrial port city of quiet riverbanks, Byzantine churches and crumbling 18th century mansions. Her mother was an opera singer and her father was a scientist, whose work took the family to Holland.
She was profoundly affected growing up in communist Russia in the 1980s. “I was always adopting these little, skinny starving alley cats,” she remembers. “And I was constantly running out in the middle of the night to hide homeless dogs in the basement before the shooting brigades came out to kill them. Sometimes you’d wake up in the morning and find bloodied little corpses behind the garages. With the cats and kittens they’d block off cellars or derelict buildings where they hid with cement, so that the cats slowly died of starvation. It was deeply upsetting and not something you’re likely to ever forget.”
A little more than a year ago, Kogan started her Moscow animal-welfare organisation from London, employing a full-time vet, lawyer and administrator, along with an army of volunteers across the country. “Before I started the charity I used to spend all my emotions, time and money on rescuing individual cases, which broke my heart. For every animal I helped there were hundreds more horrific cases sent to me with greater speed. I was a member of 150 animal-welfare enthusiast groups in Russia. Pretty soon you realise that you can actually do more if you can control your emotions and desire for immediate reward.”
From her perspective, Russia is lagging decades, if not centuries, behind other developed countries when it comes to animal welfare and basic things associated with modernity and progress. “Unfortunately there are whole societies who haven’t made any effort to sort out the stray problem and regulate human/animal interaction,” she says, and one of her priorities is working with an animal-rights lawyer and politicians in the Duma to form anti-cruelty legislation. Torturing strays seems to have become a national sport in Russia, according to Kogan. “Since there are no federal laws that protect animals, these abuses go unpunished. You start asking yourself where does this come from and how do you stop it? How do you get the message across to an ignorant society?”