And this week, the action movie star helped save a puppy in real life.
Mr. Van Damme barreled into an international kerfuffle over a Chihuahua named Raya, who was in danger of being euthanized because, Norwegian officials said, she had entered the country on a fake Pet Passport.
Mr. Van Damme’s puppy crusade became a hit on social media. Apparently, amid a coronavirus pandemic that is roaring back just as many countries were tentatively emerging from various levels of lockdown, it was the feel-good, tough-guy-has-a-tender-side tale that many people craved.
Animal rights activists said that Raya’s plight most likely exposed a ring of East European breeders trafficking dogs to Western Europe. Dog breeding in Eastern Europe is cheaper and far less regulated, and animals like Raya can be claimed as purebred and vaccinated without real documentation of their origins. They are then often sold online at inflated prices.
The 3-month-old puppy’s ordeal began in September, when she was purchased by a Norwegian man from Bulgarians who transported her to Oslo, Norway’s capital. The new owner took her to an Oslo veterinarian, who became suspicious about Raya’s documentation because of the date of her rabies vaccination. According to the date on the passport, she had been vaccinated at 2 months old, but a dog must be at least 3 months old before it can be vaccinated.
The vet promptly informed the authorities.
Within a week, Raya was apprehended by the Norwegian Food Safety Authority and placed in quarantine. After concluding that she had, indeed, been brought into the country on a fake passport, they informed her owner, Alexey Iversen, that the puppy, which they described as an undocumented arrival, would be put to death.
“There were several issues with the documents, and I also understand that this is also my fault, as I have not checked the dog’s documents properly,” Mr. Iverson wrote online. But he added that “the dog is innocent, and I think the punishment does not correspond to the crime.”
After battling unsuccessfully with the authorities to free Raya, Mr. Iversen contacted a lawyer, who managed to delay the euthanasia date to October, he said. Mr. Iversen also started a petition online to save the dog’s life.
Somehow, the Belgian-born Mr. Van Damme — known as “The Muscles From Brussels” for films like “Missing in Action,” “Kickboxer” and “Hard Target” — became aware of Raya’s story, and he stepped in.
In a Facebook live video posted on Sunday, a bespectacled Mr. Van Damme implored his more than 27 million followers — and others on Instagram and Twitter — to sign the petition to save the Chihuahua.
“We cannot kill that little Chihuahua. It’s bad luck for the future, it’s bad luck for Covid, it’s bad luck for all that stuff,” Mr. Van Damme said in the video, while clutching his own Chihuahua by its tiny barrel chest.
Mr. Van Damme really, really loves dogs. He has donated tens of thousands of dollars to animal rights organizations, rescued dozens of strays from around the world, once scrapped a tour to be with one of them (named Scarface) when it was sick, and has said that feeling a dog’s beating heart beside him helps him fall asleep at night.
Nearly 200,000 people reacted to the actor’s Facebook video, in which Mr. Van Damme offered to pay any fees associated with saving Raya’s life. Shortly afterward, the authorities told Mr. Iversen that the dog would be returned to Bulgaria.
But it is unclear whether she and Mr. Iversen will eventually be reunited. The Norwegian Food Safety Authority could not immediately be reached for comment.
Yavor Gechev, the representative for the Bulgarian office of Four Paws, an international animal welfare group that became involved in Raya’s case, said that hers was not a unique situation. “It seems that this, indeed, is a very lucrative business,” he said, adding, “This is a serious issue for the European Union.”
Mr. Gechev said that the Bulgarians who had sold Raya claimed she had been bred in Varna, a port city in Bulgaria infamous for its unregulated breeding industry. He said a veterinarian there, who has since been accused of wide-scale forgery of dog passports, provided Raya’s documents.
In Norway, the puppy was probably sold to Mr. Iversen for up to 10 times her original price, Mr. Gechev said. Animals bred and sold in Western Europe can bring in more than 1,000 euros (about $1,820) each, which fuels the trade in illegal documents, he said.
“I believe we are talking here about thousands of dogs being exported on an annual basis,” he added.
All animals in the European Union need documentation to cross borders. In 2018, a cow named Penka was sentenced to death after it wandered from Bulgaria into Serbia. Like Raya, she ultimately survived thanks to another celebrity, Paul McCartney, who promoted a petition on Twitter to save her.
Mr. Iversen, who would communicate only through Facebook, described Raya as “a very sweet, active and kind dog” who was terrified of being alone, and who liked to sleep in his bed and be carried in a bag.
“My family and I are dreaming about getting our family member, Raya, back,” he wrote.
He thanked Mr. Van Damme not only for saving his dog’s life, but also for restoring “many people’s hopes in humanity and kindness.”
Mr. Van Damme could not be reached for comment. In the past, he has melded his love of animals with his onscreen fame.
In April, he released a short YouTube film made with his family, in which he rescues canines using a series of karate tricks.
“Even my first ancestors, like Jean-Claude ‘Bam Wam’ Van Damme the Fifth, help the path of the dogs of the world,” he says tongue-in-cheek in the clip, as the camera pans over a painting of Mr. Van Damme in a Renaissance-era ruff, with dogs at his feet.
“I’m trying to do the same.”