Animal Rescue in the Time of War 

Abandoned and lost pets are unaccounted-for victims of the war in Ukraine. A wide network of volunteers is trying to save every life.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has taken a huge toll on Ukrainians. Millions were forced from their homes, and tens of thousands were killed. Cities and towns are destroyed beyond recognition. And as people of Ukraine and the World try to make sense of a senseless war, there are victims who are unable to do so. Neither are they able to evacuate from non-stop barrages of Russian artillery. Wildlife, farm animals, and house pets have also been caught up in this brutal war, tearing apart everything familiar around them–be it forest, farm, or house.

A massive effort materialized to rescue animals as the war started and became a horrifying normality of life in Ukraine. The effort has been undertaken by thousands of animal rights activists, volunteers, and people who found themselves in a position to lend a helping hand. Today, as at the start of the war on February 24th, they wake up every day with a single mission–to save another innocent being.

Asia Sepinska, 77, sits in the kitchen that doubles as her office surrounded by several dogs. Dogs are everywhere; there is a German shepherd napping on a chair across from her, others run in and out of the kitchen into a large space that used to be a dairy farm that now hosts cats, chickens, and other animals. Some try to sit on her lap or at least put their head on her knees.

This year her shelter celebrated its 22nd birthday. It all started with Ms.Sepinska’s visit to a government-run shelter in Borodyanka in 1999. Its condition was so abhorrent and inhumane it made a lasting impact on her.

“It was absolutely terrible,” she described of what she saw then. Dogs were standing in the mud mixed with their own excrement and snow. They weren’t fed. They were not being looked after.” According to what she recalls, the workers at the Borodyanka shelter didn’t care for animals at all. Dogs were eating each other, killing each other – it seemed to her that they were brought there to die, and in the most horrific way imaginable.

Cat house at the Hostomel shelter

In May 2000 she opened the doors to her own shelter hoping to give ethical treatment and loving home to all the street dogs she could find. Ms. Sepinska has managed to keep her shelter open since then. Her granddaughter, Maria Vronska, 24 now helps to run it. They manage to support the operations with grants, personal donors, and support from the city of Kyiv. Before the full-scale invasion in February began, the shelter was taking care of about 870 dogs.

The city of Hostomel saw some of the most fierce fighting in the first days of the war and her shelter wasn’t spared from the shelling. More than a hundred dogs ran away or were killed by the shrapnel. A few projectiles landed right on the property damaging buildings and fences and killing animals.

During the occupation, she stayed. On the morning of February 24th, she rushed from Kyiv to Hostomel worrying, not about what could happen to her but of the animals under her care. Ms. Sepinska saw people rushing out of Kyiv in panic as she went against traffic to make it back to her shelter. Miraculously, she was able to catch a ride to Irpin, and then to Hostomel as the active fighting in the outskirts of Kyiv was starting. The following day, the Russians controlled the area.

The Russian National Guard set camp right next to her property line and the day after, on February 26th, they were heavily shelled by Ukrainian artillery. Ms.Sepinska’s space didn’t have a bomb shelter of any kind, or even a basement. All they could do with the remaining shelter workers was to hide inside the massive farm building and hope for the best. Starting from that day, and for 5 weeks after, the shelling continued.

The electricity was cut off, and their water pump stopped running. They had no heat, electricity, or water for the entire occupation which lasted for one month and one week. They had to stay put, fearing being killed by Russian soldiers if they were to leave the property. “People were shot at for just walking on the street,” Ms. Sepinska recalls, “we had a body laying outside of the gates for 5 weeks, and nobody picked him up.”

Asia Sepinska

Maria Vronska

For water they melted ice, collected snow, and prayed for rain. “We didn’t stop our work for one day,” Asia says. On March 30th Russian soldiers stormed into the shelter. They suspected that Asia and her team had been feeding Ukrainian Armed Forces information about Russian units in the area. There were 4 people living on the premises, and the Russians found one hidden cell phone. After locking the three women in a back room they took the only male with them, giving him a beating in front of everyone.

The next morning he was back. Bruised and tortured, but alive. The Russians retreated that day and left Hostomel. When Ms. Sepinska saw Ukrainian troops entering town on the following day Asia broke down in tears.

Now Asia’s shelter has over 600 dogs and about a hundred cats, many of them were saved from the abandoned apartments and the streets after the occupation was over. But not all pets could be saved, and those that were still have a tough life ahead of them as it is getting increasingly hard to find people who want to take older and injured dogs - Ms. Sepinska’s specialty.

Traumatized and often injured, animals that were abandoned or ran away often need much greater care. Maryna Shumeiko, 46, has been caring for pets like this since the first day of the war. Ms. Shumeiko is one of the founders of an animal shelter with an unassuming name CatDog in a town called Ivankiv, about 80 km from Kyiv. CatDog is located in a small building given to the shelter by the town, their existence depends on money from the local budget which is never enough, donations, grants, and pure enthusiasm. Ms. Shumeiko is a known figure in the area, and a fierce fighter for animal rights and animal sterilization, which often goes against the school of thought on how animals should be treated, particularly in rural Ukraine. During the occupation, the town was frozen in stillness as people were fearful of venturing beyond their gates, not to risk getting shot by Russian soldiers. Ms. Shumeiko however, would go to the shelter every day to feed the animals that were already there. 

Injured cat named Bucha, named after a town liberated in the spring in the CatDog shelter

She would wait for a quiet moment between the artillery barrages, then hop on her bike and head towards the small red brick house where 17 dogs and 27 cats were waiting for her. “I had a little icon in my backpack and it protected me,” Ms. Shumeiko says. Not only has she been taking care of the animals in her shelter and her home, but she also feeds the animals left behind by neighbors that fled, leaving their pets behind. “I went on Facebook and wrote a judgmental post saying that I don’t approve of it but I’ll help you take care of your pets,” she says.

Rescuing 5 animals during the occupation that were either abandoned or ran away, probably scared of noises from the bombings, Maryna has been taking care of every living soul she could find. But the work after liberation was nothing like she has seen before. People started bringing wounded animals from all around the region. She had to find extra help from a veterinary doctor in Kyiv that would come and volunteer once a week. She also had to find a new home to accommodate all the animals coming in.

The interest from Europeans to rescue Ukrainian pets picked up this year because of the war. But without a mechanism in place, everything landed on the efforts of volunteers and activists trying to find a better home for the rescued animals. The only proven way to deliver a pet to a new owner, often found via the Internet in Western European countries, would be to dispatch a person carrying a fully vaccinated and sterilized animal across the Western border of Ukraine–either on a train, car, or bus.

Maryna Shumeiko

A dog named Trudy that went through Ms. Shumeiko’s care during the occupation was the first to travel to Germany this way. Immediately after Ivankiv was returned under Ukrainian control Ms. Shumeiko headed to Kyiv with the injured Dachshund in a crate, making the first leg of her journey to her new family in Germany. After a 7 hour trip to the capital, a journey that usually takes about an hour, she put her first adoptee on a bus accompanied by a volunteer that was taking several dogs across the border to reach their new homes.

Since then, 11 dogs that went through her shelter have been welcomed into new homes across Europe. It’s a monumental task to deliver each of them to their new owners, but for the volunteers, each time is a worthy cause as it means another life was saved.

The process of bringing an animal across the Western border of Ukraine can be tricky. During the first weeks of war, among the mass exodus, papers for animals being brought into the EU weren’t required. By the summer the situation had changed and it became increasingly difficult to bring more than one or two pets over without supporting documents. For volunteers and organizations trucking rescue animals to European shelters, or directly to new owners, it became a problem as they weren’t let through into the land border with Poland and had to return back to Ukraine. There were reported incidents of people in distress releasing scared animals into the fields near the Polish border. Organizations started withdrawing from the Polish-Ukrainian border, partially because it was not possible to do their work, and partially because interest from Europeans to adopt a pet from Ukraine started fading.

Rescue dogs at Sirius shelter in Fedorivka

“Now all shelters in Europe are overwhelmed with Ukrainian rescue animals”, says Victoria Shaulska, a volunteer with a German non-profit Save A Life Today. Ms. Shaulska had been working on finding new homes for rescue pets from Ukraine long before the war and saw the jump in enthusiasm and then a gradual decline during the war. Over the past 8 years, Save A Life Today has found homes for around 7600 dogs and cats in Germany, but the war changed everything. First, there was an explosion of desire to house pets from Ukraine, then a gradual decline. “Pragmatic Germans are now worried to take on an additional member of the family,” says Victoria.

Cynthia van de Kamp, 24 has felt this decline as well. Her husband Vadim and herself have become accidental animal activists during the war. They moved to Ukraine two months before the full-scale invasion and a couple of weeks into the war they found it impossible to be focused on their work. Both of them were working remotely for a call center in Poland and took time off to find something where they could be useful. Scanning the telegram channels of volunteer organizations they saw an unaddressed demand for help with animals. Before the war, Cynthia and Vadim had two rescues and just took in a third –a pitbull named Dio that arrived from Turkey, where he was facing a dim future as a banned breed. Dio arrived at Kyiv Borispyl airport a few hours before the airspace was closed for civil aviation, as the first Russian missiles were on the way to hit their Ukrainian targets. The big war has started and they wanted to help.

Cynthia van de Kamp

Cynthia found her schedule full of tasks working with one particular shelter called SOS Kyiv–finding and delivering cat food, picking up run-away dogs, or saving abandoned pet rats from occupied Bucha. Besides that, they were delivering food and humanitarian aid to people in need. It all came in a windfall. “Anything we could do, we did”, Cynthia recalled the first weeks of volunteering.

By summer, their little group had six people and picked up some steam. They chose the name Van De Kamp Group, made a website, and opened some social media channels for fundraising. The scope has widened–they delivered food and medicine to recently liberated territories, and help the military with supplies, while still rescuing animals. As the scope of their services has grown, so have the expenses. At the same time, in June and July, Cynthia started seeing a decline in foreign enthusiasm. “I guess it became boring for the people outside of Ukraine,”  she noticed as Youtube videos and Instagram posts asking for help were not getting as much attention as before. “Less and less people were watching videos, less and less people were donating.”

With the realities of war settling, becoming a very grim reality, larger organizations and non-profits have developed some mechanisms to aid animals. Most large organizations have representation in Ukraine and aid local shelters as well as rescue efforts. However, the main goal for Ukrainian shelters is to find homes for animals suffering because of the war.

“I want to find them as many European and foreign families as possible,” says Oleksandra Mezinova, 53, a Ukrainian animal rights activist and the founder of Sirius, the largest animal shelter in Ukraine, which hosts about bout 3200 dogs and more than 300 cats, as well as two chickens and a hedgehog named Eugenia. “We have a war going on, and our lives, as well as our animals' lives, are uncertain.”

Oleksandra Mezinova founded the shelter on a farm she rented in 1999. She was running it out of her own pocket for about 3 years before the first donations started coming in. Now the shelter gets by on a combination of her team’s enthusiasm and donations, as well as grants and organizational support.

Oleksandr Mezinova

Fedorivka, where Sirius shelter is located was occupied early in the war. Facing the terrifying prospect of hundreds of animals starving to death, Oleksandra took it upon herself to go to the Russian soldiers and convince them to be granted permission to drive around the nearby villages in order to find food for the shelter from local farms. This gave her a bit more freedom under the occupation but the risks were still great. “Every time I was heading out I’d leave the instructions to the staff what to do if I don’t return,” Oleksandra recalls. She came to terms with the fact that she could be killed on the road by the occupying Russian forces, like so many other civilians.

Once, it nearly came to this. On March 22, while traveling in her minivan with two of her co-workers, they were stopped by Russian soldiers at a checkpoint and accused of spying for the Ukrainians. Shelling erupted during the interrogations. Seeking cover with the Russian soldiers they were first led into a nearby warehouse, and then thrown into a basement. There, the three of them were sitting holding hands, confident that this was the last day of their lives. “And you know what’s funny, we were asking each other what each of us was thinking about and every one of us said: that the dogs will go hungry.” Eventually, Oleksandra and two of her colleagues were released even though the Russians were partially correct in their assumptions.

At the shelter, cut off from the world–no electricity, water, or Internet–Mrs. Mezinova found a way to communicate through a hidden cell phone. Typing up text messages throughout the day and saving them on her phone she would walk over to a spot on a hill nearby where she could find a signal and she’d send the messages out.

One of the rescue dogs in the Sirius shelter

Her assistant in Kyiv would receive them and resend them to a wide network of animal rights organizations and political parties across Europe, that started a campaign to help her shelter. This activity could have cost Ms. Mezinova her life. Especially taking into consideration that she wasn’t only passing the information on the needs of the shelter, but was also sharing intelligence on Russian movements in the area.

As a result of her activism and cries for help, a stream of volunteers working for animal organizations from all over Europe started making their way to Sirius immediately after the region was liberated by the Ukrainian Army at the beginning of April. There was help coming to feed the animals and to find them new homes in Ukraine, or elsewhere in Europe. If the percentile of adopted pets outside of Ukraine was only about 10% before the war, by mid-summer it reached 70%.

Though enthusiasm for Ukrainian animals started dwindling at the end of the summer, the number of animals coming to Sirius’ doors hasn’t let up. “We don’t say no,” Oleksandra exclaims. Every time Ukraine liberates a part of its territory, a new stream of animals is to be expected. The last wave came from Kherson area in November. Sirius is well known among the military and volunteers, and many think of them first when it comes to finding a shelter.

And even though Sirius, as well as most shelters in Ukraine, are way over capacity, Oleksandra is looking forward to tomorrow. “I hope we’ll finish the cat house soon contrary to Putin’s plans,” she says laughing, standing in the middle of the half-built structure, among dozens of cats who are waiting for their new home in Ukraine, Europe, or elsewhere.