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"Saving Private Sirko": How Ukrainians are Rescuing Their Animals From The Russians Occupiers

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Photo: Ukrainians are not the kind to abandon their four-legged friends in times of trouble, Source: 12 Vartovykh
Photo: Ukrainians are not the kind to abandon their four-legged friends in times of trouble, Source: 12 Vartovykh

"A nation that treats animals badly will always be poor and criminal," – it seems the Russians have somehow missed this insightful thought from their literary idol, Leo Tolstoy (along with many others). Modern Russia is notorious not only for providing its citizens with a poor standard of living and waging a criminal war against peaceful Ukraine but also for raising hordes of occupiers who are currently implementing a policy of animal ecocide in the occupied territories. However, Ukrainians are not the kind to abandon their four-legged friends in times of trouble. Whole missions of "zoo-heroes" set out to save "Private Sirko."

Once, the Nazis hated Jews, Gypsies, Africans, communists, and homosexuals – and killed them wherever they could. Now, Putin's forces have become more focused war criminals who do not scatter their efforts and aim to destroy everything even remotely associated with the Ukraine they despise. This includes Ukrainians themselves, their culture, infrastructure, architecture, and even their innocent animals – both domestic and wild.

The Animal Torturers of the 'Russian World'

For instance, after capturing the left bank of the Kherson region early in the war, the Russians trampled with their dirty boots the largest steppe reserve in Europe, Askania-Nova, whose zoological park housed about 800 species of rare animals. The occupiers conducted criminal safaris there. Just look at these happy soldiers who supposedly came to Ukraine to liberate people from mythical Nazis, but in reality, liberated a hare, a pheasant, and a noble deer from life:

Source: UAnimals 

Ukrainian animals suffer from the Russians not only in reserves but almost everywhere – on land, in the air, and even underwater. Due to sea mines, explosions, and sonar operations, the Black Sea and Azov fauna are dying en masse – for example, in the last two years, dolphin corpses have washed up almost daily on the shores of Ukraine, Turkey, and Bulgaria. According to ecologists, about 50,000 dolphins died in the Black Sea alone in 2022 due to Russian military aggression.


Source: Telegram

Speaking at the G20 summit in November 2022, Volodymyr Zelensky reported that in the first half-year of the war, the Russians destroyed millions of domestic and wild animals in Ukraine. After the destruction of the Dnipro Hydroelectric Station in 2023, over 300 species of fauna were threatened with extinction, including the Ukrainian Red Book-listed newts – 149 corpses of these very rare amphibians were found on the shore near Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi.


Source: Facebook/Environmental of Ukraine

Shocked by the disgrace committed by the Russians on Ukrainian soil, even migratory birds have changed their routes. Greater spotted eagles from the hawk family, flying from Greece to their breeding grounds in Belarus, now take an 85 km detour to avoid areas with concentrations of troops and tanks, artillery fire, military aircraft, missiles, and "Shaheds."


Source: Wiki, Robert Nash

While free birds might manage to avoid the Russians, the animals on the ground are less fortunate. Ukrainian cats, dogs, and other domestic animals are experiencing what Ukrainians themselves endured under Soviet occupation in the 1930s – total extermination, including by famine. A telling example: before the war, 500 dogs lived in the Borodyanka animal shelter, but when the city was liberated from the Russians, only 150 barely alive animals were found. The rest died of starvation, as the occupiers kept the dogs locked in enclosures without water and food for several weeks.

Moreover, countless animals in Ukraine are constantly dying from Russian shelling, or from the same starvation or even grief when their owners are killed by shelling. The dog Krym, who became known worldwide, cried in grief at the ruins of a private house in Dnipro, where his entire human family, except for his father, who was serving in the Armed Forces at the time, was killed in an instant by a Russian missile. A month after the tragedy, Krym died of grief and heart failure.


Source: Facebook

Considering that the Russian-Ukrainian war has become the largest in Europe since World War II, there are thousands of such stories. Therefore, from the first days of the invasion, a strong movement of animal defenders and volunteers emerged in Ukraine to protect animals from the occupiers.

A Chance for Animals at a Humane Life

Zoo volunteers give this chance to four-legged friends in frontline zones, often risking their own lives. In the autumn of 2023, on a road near Bakhmut, Spanish national Emma Igual and Canadian Anthony Ihnat tragically died in their car from a Russian shelling while helping the UAnimals organisation evacuate a goat and a donkey.


Source: Facebook

Volunteers need no explanation about helmets, bulletproof vests, and the urgency of animal evacuation (sometimes every second counts). Here's what a standard rescue operation looks like, recently conducted by members of the "12 Vartovykh" (12 Guardians) team in a village near Vovchansk, the epicentre of a new wave of Russian attacks. In the video, volunteers risk their lives to rescue a huge Alabai from a locked enclosure, who had been without food or water, listening to the cannonades for five long days, but finally waited for his guardian angels.

The level of danger and threat to their lives that rescuers face in each mission can be understood from the words of Lala Tarapakina, the founder of the "12 Vartovykh" foundation, whose team is currently working in the Vovchansk direction in the combat zone:

"It's very difficult to work in Vovchansk because everyone here is under fire – both military and civilians. The Russians don't care who they target with an FPV drone; they just don't care. They hit everything that moves and see everything instantly because the city is divided into squares, and enemy drones fly everywhere: scouts, spotters, drones with drops, FPVs, Lancets, and large Orlans that see everything within 25 kilometers in all directions. What are our risks? Absolutely everything – from mortars and MLRS to the risk of being captured, because sometimes we operate locations that are 200 meters from Russian occupier positions."

However, evacuating an animal from a dangerous place doesn't mean it's saved. Some dogs only need to be fed properly, starting with small doses of soaked food every 3-4 hours, and ensuring constant access to clean water. But most four-legged friends need treatment as well, such as IV drips, injections, pills, and sometimes even surgery. Therefore, Kyiv veterinarians from the "VetEvac" charitable foundation travel to frontline villages to provide free services to local animals:


Source: Instagram Libkos

For cats and dogs in critical condition admitted to intensive care, UAnimals volunteers have created a blood donation platform. Not all willing animals can donate – cats must be at least two years old and weigh over 4.5 kg, and dogs must be at least two years old and weigh over 25 kg. Additionally, only completely healthy and vaccinated pets are allowed to donate blood.

When an animal is evacuated, fed, and treated, a new problem arises: it needs to be housed until a new owner is found. The adoption process can take weeks, months, or even years, and sometimes it doesn't happen at all. Thus, the burden on shelters has increased to catastrophic levels since the beginning of the war. In 2023, the Save Pets of Ukraine initiative conducted a study showing that the number of animals in rear shelters increased by 30%, in volunteer care by 60%, and in shelters in frontline regions by 100% or more.

To grasp how amazing and heroic Ukrainian volunteers and animal protectors are, consider that during 35 days of occupation at Ukraine's largest shelter, "Sirius," in the village of Fedorivka in Kyiv region, only 8 out of approximately 3,500 animals died – and none from hunger, although the food supply situation under Russian control was catastrophic.


Source: Vitaly Golovin, 24 channel

Rescued animals in shelters are usually sterilised, which not only controls their population but also extends their lives by about 3-5 years by reducing the risk of cancer and other diseases. Animals are also trained if needed before finding them a new owner. For this purpose, some pet stores install special stands with photo profiles of animals.


Source: MasterZoo

Sometimes volunteers manage to place their charges with new owners in other countries. For example, in 2022 alone, forty cats went to live in Berlin. But not all were so lucky – a cat named Zhovten, rescued by the "ZooPatrol" organisation in the autumn of 2022, was supposed to go to a new family in Paris, but a few days before the trip, the Russians managed to kill him. During another shelling, when the shelter's power went out and explosions were so close that all the dogs trembled in fear, Zhovten's heart simply couldn't take it.


Source: ZooPatrol

Who Pays for All This?

It's clear that rescuing, treating, housing, and rehoming thousands upon thousands of animals costs a lot of money. The daily needs for food for the more than 500 official Ukrainian shelters alone amount to 8 tons for dogs and 5 tons for cats. According to research by Save Pets of Ukraine, shelters and volunteers have faced resource shortages since the beginning of the war. Compassionate Ukrainians, who have been the primary financial source for the animal rescue movement, have started donating less, understandably, as many have emigrated, and those who remain have experienced a sharp decline in income. Additionally, Ukrainians have been adopting fewer animals than before the war, as more and more people are uncertain if they can even feed themselves in the future.

A significant portion of the financial needs of shelters and volunteers is currently covered by animal protection organisations, large businesses, and foreign donors. For example, the largest pet food manufacturer in Ukraine, Kormotech, raises funds through the U-Hearts foundation in the European Union and converts this into aid for animals affected by the war. Over 300,000 cats and dogs in shelters and foster care have been fed 1,660 tons of food for free. But even though this initiative is far from the only one, money is constantly in short supply.

Zoo Heroes and Their Dynasties

Thus, self-sacrifice is the main trait of Ukrainian zoo volunteers, making many of them heroes, even if not military ones, but media heroes. The whole world saw the photo of volunteer Anastasia Tykha from Irpin, who evacuated disabled animals on foot. At that time, she had around 20 animals: dogs, cats, a chameleon, a turtle, a hamster, and a spider.


Source: Instagram Christopher Occhicone

After the liberation of Irpin, the volunteer returned to the city, and her burgeoning shelter quickly grew to 200 sick dogs and cats. To be able to feed and treat them all, Tykha works as a realtor. But ordinary people also help: for example, when she accumulated a debt of 300,000 hryvnias to veterinary clinics, donations from concerned individuals completely covered it. Moreover, a large mural in the centre of Kyiv was dedicated to the heroic volunteer, called "Family for a Four-legged Friend". 


Source: Suziria Group

Some volunteers found true zoo protection dynasties. For example, over 20 years ago, Asya Serpynska, a candidate of mathematical sciences, saw unwanted puppies being handed out on the street and decided to establish the Hostomel Shelter near Kyiv on the basis of an abandoned cowshed. Today, it is the oldest such institution in Ukraine, housing over 700 animals. Over the years of her volunteering, Serpynska found new owners for 5,000 stray animals. Today, her granddaughter Maria Vronska oversees the shelter. In the early weeks of the invasion, when Hostomel lost water and power, the 78-year-old grandmother did not evacuate but used wastewater to soak dry food for cats and dogs, which her granddaughter delivered to the animals under constant shelling, risking her own life.


Most of the animals rescued by Ukrainian zoo volunteers are domestic, mainly cats and dogs. But this does not mean that wild animals in Ukraine are ignored. For example, Natalia Popova owned a horse club when, in 2018, fellow animal protectors asked her to help rescue an injured lioness from a private zoo. The woman built an enclosure next to the stables, transported the huge cat in her own car, and began to care for her. Soon after, Popova received a flood of similar requests.


Source: Facebook/Wildanimals.ua

When the war began, Popova's work turned into a 24/7 operation, often involving extreme special operations in frontline zones. Typically, her team's van would rush to a location where a wild animal needed to be rescued, capture and sedate the animal within minutes, load it into the vehicle, and quickly leave the shelling zone. Medical assistance would then be provided to the animal on the way to the shelter. Over the years of the war, Natalia Popova has rescued hundreds of wild animals: lions, leopards, tigers, Przewalski's horses, camels, foxes, porcupines, deer, bears, raccoons, and more.

Source: Facebook/Wildanimals.ua

Reality More Fantastic than Cinema

The animal rescue operations that Ukrainian volunteers carry out almost daily are sometimes so incredible that even Ace Ventura would be amazed. For instance, the rescue saga of a cat named Gloria has become a national meme in Ukraine. Gloria miraculously survived for about two months on the seventh floor of a partially destroyed building in Borodyanka, without any food during that time. Her owners had gone visiting when the shelling began, preventing their return, and later the building was bombed by the Russians. But Gloria turned out to be a survivor, not willing to give up just because Putin decided to invade Ukraine.

Source: State Emergency Service of Ukraine

Gloria was accidentally spotted by members of the ZooPatrol team, who immediately involved the Ukrainian State Emergency Service. Using a fire crane, they managed to rescue her from the high perch. The cat's grumpy expression, typical of her Persian breed, resonated with Ukrainians, reflecting their own feelings towards the Russian invaders and their criminal bombings.


Source: State Emergency Service of Ukraine

Sometimes people become zoo volunteers not out of love for animals but out of love for the people who need evacuation from dangerous zones yet refuse to leave their farms without their animals. For example, to evacuate a farmer from the village of Karlivka in Donetsk region, volunteer Denys Khrystov had to order a huge truck, which not only fit the man but also more than a hundred animals: 71 goats, 45 chickens, two cats, and one dog. This, despite the fact that the evacuation route was constantly being shelled by the Russians.

However, not all Ukrainian farms on the front line are so lucky. For instance, in the spring of 2023, the occupiers destroyed a farm in Lastochkyne, Donetsk region, where 300 animals died, but two horses managed to escape the shelling. They ran free for six months, eventually becoming feral and settling in the Avdiivka area. Policemen from the "White Angels" special unit, who rescue civilians in frontline zones, involved a zoo volunteer who rode in on his own horse. Seeing him, the two runaway horses finally approached people, after which they were taken to a safe distance from the front line.

Some rescue stories are not so much technically difficult as they are painfully touching. In the summer of 2023, a black, exhausted dog with wire wrapped around his neck, causing wounds and infection, approached builders in Pereyaslav. The builders removed the wire, fed, and watered the dog, but left on a bus after finishing their work. The dog then started coming to the bus stop every day, where he had last seen his rescuers, diligently waiting for their return, earning the nickname Pereyaslav's Hachiko.


Source: URSA

Other people who tried to feed him only scared him. Volunteers from the "12 Vartovykh" team hired a dog handler who managed to catch the dog and bring him to a shelter. From there, he was adopted by the First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Emine Dzhaparova. 


Source: URSA

War Through the Eyes of Animal Rights Advocates


Source: Facebook

Rescuing animals during war is not for the faint-hearted who simply love animals and enjoy looking at cute photos and videos on social media. It is, rather, a calling for those willing to go to great lengths for animals, first and foremost seeing firsthand how cruel people can be. Oleksandr Todorchuk, head of the humanitarian movement UAnimals, knows that animal activism is not for romantic idealists:

"Our evacuation team was at a menagerie where literally only a few animals survived (a bear, I think, and a lion). We evacuated them at the request of Ukrainian soldiers. And we found that Russian troops, retreating from this location, killed some animals and skinned them (just for trophies to take home). Such cruelty for cruelty's sake."


Source: Facebook

In addition to the horrors that animal volunteers witness daily during the war, their work also requires the ability not to lose composure amidst chaos. War is always chaos, where cats and dogs are often the last concern. Thus, Serhiy Ludensky, founder of the Animal Assistance Center, like all his colleagues, learns to live in constant turbulence and uncertainty:

"The difficulty lies primarily in the lack of communication because we have to search for animals by driving around the area. Moreover, we need to coordinate with the military, as the situation is very dynamic."


Source: Facebook

The cruelty that Russian invaders inflict on Ukrainian animals is one problem, but there is also the indifference of some Ukrainians towards their four-legged companions. Natalia Popova, head of the Wildlife Rescue Center, understands why people flee from war but does not understand those who leave their pets behind:

"I can't judge owners who were forced to flee, but to part with their pets this way… I understand that it's difficult to take a lion with you, but there's nothing difficult about informing someone. One thing is when a rocket hit the house and killed the animal living there... Yes, it's terrible, the animal is a pity... But when the animal is alive, and the owners left and told no one about it?! You come to such a house – everything around is bombed, and a barely alive animal is locked in a cage. In such a situation, it has no choice but to die of thirst and hunger. Can you imagine this scene?"


Source: Facebook

Unfortunately, in any society, anywhere on the planet, there will always be a small percentage of those who see general misfortune as an opportunity to profit. In the field of animal rescue during war, this happens rarely, because mostly at the sight of a cat or dog in trouble, humanity, not greed, awakens. But it does happen, for instance, when some slick transporter in the frontline zone raises prices. Yevhen Dubovikov, the owner of a shelter in Dnipro that saved hundreds of dogs and cats, personally saw such "helpers" behind the wheel but did not lose faith in people; instead, he decided to bet on volunteering, not business:

"Transporters who for money evacuated people from under shelling, but for an animal took the same amount as for a person... We did everything for free. We evacuated cats and dogs from Bakhmut, from Chasiv Yar, Sloviansk. And our latest charge is a puppy with broken legs that we picked up near Lyman, right in a ditch. We named it Lima. Because it's from Lyman. Four fractures, we set the pins, treated it."


Source: Facebook, 12 Vartovykh

And what everyone who cares about the existence of stray cats and dogs notices everywhere is how with the onset of war, their numbers in Ukraine are increasing. With masses of people impoverished by Russian aggression unable to afford to take in all the animals, sterilization becomes almost the only way out. Lala Tarapakina, a zoo volunteer from the "12 Vartovykh" charity team, sees a serious threat to the ecosystem in the event of uncontrolled animal breeding:

"The war leads to a significant increase in stray animals. Their numbers have grown dozens of times since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. In frontline areas, where many people have left, thousands of puppies and kittens are born uncontrollably. Of course, this affects the ecosystem."

How to Help Ukrainian Animals

Foreigners can support Ukrainian animals affected by the war and the heroic people who care for them in three ways. By spreading information about the horrific ecocide committed by the Russians in Ukraine. By donating to animal protection organizations, volunteers, and shelters. Or even by "adopting" a Ukrainian dog or cat – in their new home, they will become not only a source of positive emotions but also a symbolic part of the legendary Ukrainian resilience.

You can start helping animals in Ukraine here:


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