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Aid groups in Ukraine help animals in danger

March 17, 2022

As Ukrainian citizens have been forced from their homes in search of safety, many have taken their pets with them. But not all animals can be evacuated. Rescue groups are helping those who have been left behind.

A woman holds a dog while crossing the Irpin River on an improvised path under a bridge as people flee the town of Irpin, Ukraine
Those who can have taken their pets with them on the flight out of UkraineImage: Vadim Ghirda/AP/picture alliance

Millions of people have fled Ukraine since Russian troops launched their invasion on February 24. Most have crossed the border south and west, in the hope of finding a safe haven in western Europe — primarily women and children, many with four-legged companions in tow.

Antonina, 84 years-old, sits in a wheelchair after being evacuated along with her 12 dogs from Irpin
Animals, along with people fleeing the conflict, are in urgent need of food, medication and health careImage: Vadim Ghirda/AP/picture alliance

Alongside the thousands of volunteers bringing refugee aid to the border, animal welfare groups like Humane Society International have mobilized to provide bags of food, medication and veterinary care for pets and other animals caught up in the conflict.

"Leaving pets behind to starve or be injured in the conflict is understandably for many an impossible decision, and we have heard from refugees we're helping in Berlin that the loyal companionship of their pets has kept them and their families going on the arduous journey to safety," said Sylvie Kremerskothen Gleason, the organization's director in Germany.

"For children especially, their pets are an enormous source of comfort to help them cope with the trauma of war. These refugees are frightened and exhausted, so being able to help them care for their pets means they have one less thing to worry about at a time when they need help the most," she added.

Charities and NGOs are collecting funds to help the animal shelters still operating in Ukraine. These donations are being used to ship urgently needed supplies for the animals who can't be evacuated — those who are injured, abandoned or are unable to make the journey.

A dog walks at the border crossing in Palanca, Moldova
Many people have been forced to abandon pets and farm animals, leaving them behind in the war zoneImage: Sergei Grits/AP/picture alliance

Among the volunteers is this young woman who has been rescuing disabled dogs from shelters, an image taken by photographer Christopher Occhicone for The Wall Street Journal, as tweeted by Ukraine's Foreign Ministry.

When it comes to certain larger creatures, evacuation hasn't been possible. At the Kyiv Zoo, a small group of keepers have stayed behind to care for animals including elephants, camels, big cats and a gorilla.

"The war is causing terrible stress for the animals," wrote the zoo on its website in late February, in the first days of the war. Some animals have needed sedatives to help calm them down during the explosions and gunfire in the fight for the Ukrainian capital.

A baby lemur in the Kyiv Zoo
A lemur born at the zoo in early March has been named Bayraktar, after Turkish-made drones used by the Ukrainian militaryImage: Jamie Wiseman/Daily Mail/dmg media Licensing/picture alliance

On March 9, the zoo reported it had only enough food to feed its roughly 4,000 animals for another two weeks. A week later, as reported by news agency dpa, the zoo called for a humanitarian corridor to help the animals, at risk of dying from cold and hunger.

"We can't get the rhinos and giraffes out of there, and we don't even have medication to euthanize them," said zoo spokesperson Mykhailo Pinchuk, according to the Ukrainian UNIAN news agency. In recent days, the zoo has received a shipment of long-lasting food pellets from zoos in Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, along with supplements and medicine, according to its Facebook page.

Animal keeper Kirilo Trantin comforts an elephant at the Kiev Zoo in Kyiv, Ukraine
Larger animals, like elephants and giraffes, can't easily be evacuated and are under stress as fighting rages nearbyImage: Emilio Morenatti/AP/picture alliance

However, some larger animals have made it out of the country to the safety of shelters abroad. Around 80, among them lions and tigers, were evacuated in early March from a sanctuary near Kyiv and taken to a zoo in Poznan, western Poland.

"They had to go a long way around to avoid Zhytomyr and other bombardment zones. They had to turn back many times, because all the roads were blown up, full of holes, impossible to pass with such cargo, which is why it took so long," Malgorzata Chodyla, a spokesperson for the Poznan Zoo, told the Reuters news agency.

After some time to rest and recover, and the necessary veterinary checkups, some of the animals have since traveled further west to find safety in other European sanctuaries. The video below, posted to Facebook, shows two of the lions adapting to their new home at the Nature Aid Center in Oudsbergen, northeastern Belgium.

Animal welfare organization Four Paws International, which has been leading emergency and rescue missions in places like Syria, Gaza and Iraq since 1988, has also been active in Ukraine. Its team of veterinarians, rescue workers and crisis managers has been in contact with local counterparts, where they are helping send resources to shelters which are nearly inaccessible due to the fighting.

"For the time being our priority in Ukraine is not so much rescuing animals out of a war zone but protecting and caring for them in a country that has become a war zone," said a spokesperson for Four Paws. "Therefore we are not on a rescue but a protection mission, in order to help and preserve the health of our colleagues and animals."

A brown bear pulls on a stick, playing near a tree in an outdoor shelter
Seven bears were evacuated from a sanctuary near Kyiv, and have begun adapting to their temporary homeImage: Maryna Shkvyria/FOUR PAWS

He said that in early March, the Four Paws team helped evacuate seven bears from a sanctuary near Kyiv to relative safety at another shelter run by Four Paws in Domazhyr, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) from the Polish border. There, they joined 29 other bears already in residence.

"Although there are recent reports from increased war incidents also in the western part of Ukraine. our team and all the animals in Domazhyr are doing fine," Ihor Nykolyn, sanctuary director in Domazhyr, told DW. "Some of the bears have already ended their hibernation and are being fed by our caretakers."

A brown horse is led to a transport truck by two volunteers
Four Paws helped Romanian aid group ARCA to bring four horses to safety in MoldovaImage: Maryna Shkvyria/FOUR PAWS

Four Paws has also supplied food for stray dogs and coordinated an emergency evacuation of horses from a stable near Odesa. Outside of Ukraine, the organization said it has been working with local groups in places like Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova to provide refugees with free services like vaccinations, microchipping, veterinary care, food and other necessary supplies for their pets.

A veterinarian and a volunteer examine a cat at a shelter in Przemysl, Poland
Veterinarians and volunteers in Poland and other border countries have been taking care of hundreds of dogs and catsImage: Czarek Sokolowski/AP/picture alliance

Most of the animals that have fled the war zone are pets — cats, dogs, rabbits and the occasional reptile. But animal charities from Poland have also been caring for displaced farm animals, such as sheep.

"We have been involved in many rescue missions over there, rescuing animals that we have been told about or who have been taken to shelters," Konrad Kuzminski, a veterinarian with the animal rescue group Dioz, told the British newspaper The Daily Mail. "A lot of them are in a bad way, they are sick, hungry or suffering from broken limbs we collect every animal we find and bring them back to our shelter to be looked after."

Radoslaw Fedaczynski, a vet and the owner of 'Ada' pet clinic, is performing a medical examination of a lamb
Farm animals trapped in the war zone also need urgent careImage: picture alliance / AA

"Some of the dogs and animals we get are so weak and undernourished there is nothing we can do for them, it's very distressing," Radoslaw Fedaczynski, a veterinarian with the ADA Foundation, a no-kill animal shelter in Przemysl, Poland, told The Daily Mail.

Fedaczynski and other vets have been working nonstop since the war broke out, treating animals and giving them a safe place to live. Once they've recovered from their ordeal, many will eventually be put up for adoption. But some refugees have asked the organization to keep their pets safe until the war is over and they can come and take them home.

A woman shelters a black cat with yellow eyes, as it peeks out of her khaki-colored jacket
Animals who no longer have a home will be put up for adoptionImage: Visar Kryeziu/AP/picture alliance

Edited by: Tamsin Walker

Martin Kuebler Senior editor and reporter living in Brussels, with a focus on environmental issues