In war-torn Ukraine, humans were forced to flee their homes, leaving behind everything they held dear, including their family pets. But the dogs stayed—many in broken, crumbling structures, suffering Russian bombs, hunger, and severe injuries, waiting for their owners to return.
Some humans may not ever return and some might take a few years. But the hundreds and thousands of cats and dogs left behind are in desperate need of food, medicine, a safe shelter and love. Thankfully, there are a few people from Ukraine and around the world, risking their lives to help these scared, confused and lonely furry babies. While a lot more needs to be done, what’s commendable is that individuals from around the world are funding their efforts.
UK war veteran and animal rescuer Tom NS’ Breaking the Chains Foundation was one of the first respondents to animals’ SOS in the war-torn country, working there since February this year.
As ex-military personnel, he knew that animals would be the worst sufferers of the bloodshed. “On our rescue missions, we found dogs caught in gunfire and rendered handicapped because of the bullet wounds. We have also dogs covered in first-degree burns and with broken bones and three legs, and many dead,” says Tom, 35. His dog-rescue work is inspired by his blind Springer Spaniel, who helped him deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “Gypsie wasn’t a therapy dog, but he gave me the strength to leave the house, the love I needed when I was at my lowest and he protected me emotionally that no other could,” says Tom.
He and his team have been working in Ukraine since the beginning of the war, and have so far extracted over 6,000 animals to safety, provided food for over 100,000 animals and tried to unite the dogs with their old families or help them find new homes and rehabilitate them.
One of them was Johnny, a dog whose hind legs were paralysed by gunshots. The little fighter crawled a kilometre in search until local rescuers found him. When Tom heard about Johnny, he and a friend drove for 22 hours to get the dog urgent medical attention. Tom managed to save his life. Johnny was then taken to Romania, from where he flew to the US and got a set of wheels for his back legs from Walkinpets, an organisation that designs the necessary aid to help disabled pets lead a mobile life. Breaking the Chains has also rescued other animals such as cats, bears and chimpanzees.
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Another organisation doing incredible work is Ukraine’s Hachiko UA Charitable Foundation. They have been installing pet feeders, rescuing injured dogs, building shelters, supporting individuals helping dogs, and finding new families in Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kherson and Kyiv. The organisation’s founders, husband-wife Sergey, 38, and Ekatarina Onishchenko, 37, founded the organisation this year during the war after they lost their jobs. “We find so many dogs that haven’t eaten for a long time,” says Ekatarina, via e-mail. The challenge, however, is if you give them too much food at once, they will die. Moreover, abandoned animals are infested by fleas and worms and many are seriously ill. “There are not many funds for volunteers and a good stable donor. We need more help,” she adds.
US-based humanitarian Nate Mook, 40, and his team have been helping Hachiko since October. They have managed to give 3 tonnes of pet food to charity with the help of funds from individual donors. “These are people donating $10, $15, and every cent of it is going towards protecting these animals,” he says. He and his team have also procured warehouses and vehicles to store pet food and distribute in various liberated areas in Eastern Ukraine.
Mook, who was earlier with the non-profit World Central Kitchen, has been working in Ukraine on various humanitarian projects since February this year. As Russians started bombing different regions of Ukraine, Mook encountered several pet animals whose owners were either killed in the war violence or had to flee their country. “Ukranians love their animals. Even in such dire situations when they do not have enough resources for themselves, they are helping the pets,” he says. There are elderly women, and couples, taking care of 20 dogs, and 30 cats. Their effort is heartwarming, and I just had to do my bit for them.”
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Animals, too, have shown great resilience in devastating times. Several pet dogs have packed up and are living together. “They often queue up to get fed on the streets,” says Mook. Tom too has an incredible story of a rescued chimpanzee from a zoo in Russian-occupied territory who, on being brought to safety, shared half his banana with Tom, despite not being fed well for several days. “Animals are an integral part of the Ukranian culture, so, you will see most locals and even the military take care of them even in tough times such as these,” says Onishchenko.
The rapidly progressing harsh winter is posing another problem to the animals looking for a warm place for shelter, and for the helpers who need extra funds to mitigate this crisis as well. Then there is also the challenge of inbreeding as pet animals are now roaming the streets of Ukraine. “The scope of work and the requirement of funds are astronomical. But we are all determined to do the best we can," says Tom.
Riddhi Doshi is a Mumbai-based independent journalist, Kathak student, and first-time pet parent