'Loosely organized chaos': Founder of Jacksonville animal-rescue group joins Ukraine pet effort

Mike Merrill of St. Augustine holds two Ukrainian rescue pups. He has been in Poland helping get animals out of war-torn Ukraine.

For 10 days a Northeast Florida animal rescuer was in Poland helping European shelters and rescue groups bring pets from war-torn Ukraine to Polish nonprofits.

Mike Merrill, founder and executive director of Jacksonville-based Florida Urgent Rescue Inc., or FUR, was part of multiple group trips that crossed the border into Ukraine rescuing a total of 44 dogs and six cats, then returned to Poland. He said he was never fearful of attack. His focus was on the animals.

"Although many Ukrainians with pets are taking their animals with them when they evacuate, some animals are being turned away at buses and trains," said Merrill, who lives in St. Augustine. "They have to make the heartbreaking decision to get their family to safety or leave their pets behind. As rescue groups operating in Ukraine try to get these animals to safety, we all want to see them reunited if at all possible."

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He said there are also many animals trapped in Ukrainian shelters that rescuers are trying to reach.

"Once they get them to the border, then what? That’s where we’re trying to help," he said.

Merrill planned to return to Florida this week and head back to Ukraine with reinforcements in about two weeks.

He joined the pet-rescue effort because of his nonprofit disaster relief experience from hurricanes in Florida and the Bahamas to tornadoes in Kentucky.

Jacksonville-based animal rescuer Mike Merrill comforts a dog being rescued from war-torn Ukraine.

"The problems are very similar," he said. "People are evacuating not knowing if they’re ever going to be able to come home, and animals are homeless and in danger. The differences in a hurricane are nobody is getting bombed and they are not preventing relief workers from coming in."

One day Merrill worked with rescue groups coming in from France, Austria and Portugal, among others.

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Another day he met two Irish rescue groups that brought multiple dogs from Ukraine to Poland. Two of the dogs were injured, so he introduced them to a local nonprofit that ran a veterinary clinic, Ośrodek Rehabilitacji Zwierat Chronionynch W Przemysl, or the Center for Rehabilitation of Protected Animals, in Przemysl.

A Tuesday post on the center's Facebook page described the conditions and sought public help.

At a veterinary clinic in Przemysl, Poland, Jacksonville rescue founder Mike Merrill (left) and a clinic staffer care for a rescue dog from Ukraine who was being treated at the clinic.

"We are located right next to the border and we are at the moment closest to an armed conflict. From the very beginning we became a frontline on the path of rescue animals," according to the post. "It's the most difficult cases that come to us, we give first aid, we test vaccinations, we help find a safe place.

"So much of this drama is beyond our local capabilities. Dozens of animals are adopted by us every day and many of them have to go through mandatory quarantine," according to the post. We don't want to refuse rescue to anyone. Please … help us save the animals."

Pet-rescue effort 'loosely organized chaos'

The rescued dogs cannot go directly to the United States because of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's temporary ban on importation of dogs from countries listed as high-risk for rabies, which includes Ukraine. But it does not include Poland.

So rescue groups can send dogs from Poland to the United States, which would make room at Polish shelters for more incoming animals from Ukraine. Florida shelters have used similar strategies to free up shelter space before and after hurricanes.

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Also, the rescue groups can send Ukraine shelter dogs and cats to Europe and Canada and bring cats from Ukraine to the United States.

"Given the distance, we will need help from a charter company, private aircraft or airline to make it feasible," Merrill said. "Either way, we’ll do everything we can to work with European partners."

He said he has met — and been impressed by — many dedicated animal-rescue workers and volunteers from across Europe.

Mike Merrill, who founded Florida Urgent Rescue Inc., or FUR, helps a Ukrainian woman who runs an emergency animal shelter in the war-torn country. Merrill has been helping get dogs across the border to Poland.

One of them was a woman named Oksana, who is operating a temporary animal shelter in Ukraine. She is taking in animals from across the country "and holding them until someone can get them out across the border. It’s a huge undertaking and a monumental amount of work," Merrill said. "Everyone I meet here calls Oksana an angel."

And there was Yannick, a German man who took a leave of absence from his architectural drawing job to come to Poland and help.

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"Yannick has been a rock star, driving back and forth over the border many times saving animals," Merrill said. "He’s operating as a free agent, volunteering his time and helping wherever he’s needed."

Getting the animals out of Ukraine can be onerous. Polish law typically allows no more than five animals per person.

"A truck with 20 dogs and two people will be turned back unless they can find two more people to go with them," Merrill said.

Mike Merrill (second from right) poses in Ukraine with animal rescuers who came to help from multiple other countries. Merrill founded a Jacksonville-based animal rescue.

One day the Polish border crossing at Medyka changed the rule to five animals per vehicle. At the time, Yannick was driving a group including Merrill on a rescue mission. They heard about the change before they arrived at Medyka, so Yannick diverted to a different crossing at Korczowa.

"It was a longer drive each way, but there were no issues and we got the animals through safely," Merrill said.

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"This is a dynamic situation, with constant changes and a lot of moving parts," he said. "I’m continually impressed by all the people from all over the world who are stepping up to help. I can best describe it as loosely organized chaos, with so many people moving in so many directions and the sheer magnitude of the problem is almost overwhelming."

The ongoing challenge, he said, is finding an ultimate safe haven for the dogs.

"There are a lot more animals in danger," he said. "We’ll continue working at both the tactical and the strategic level to help where we can. This is a huge problem and, unfortunately, I don’t see it going away anytime soon."

At a border crossing, a woman leaving Ukraine for Poland pulls a large suitcase behind her and her muzzled dog in front of her. Many people abandoned their homes as they escaped but brought their beloved pets with them.

If only Americans who surrender their pets because they are moving could see Ukraine families carrying their children, suitcases — and pets — across the Polish border, he said.

"Imagine life as you know it just ended. Everything you own is in one suitcase or backpack, and you don’t know if you’ll even have a home to go back to," he said. "But you wouldn’t imagine evacuating without your pet. We can learn a lot from the Ukrainian people."

bcravey@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4109


To support Merrill and his Ukraine efforts, go to floridaurgentrescue.com or donate via Venmo @FloridaUrgentRescue or PayPal at floridaurgentrescue@gmail.com. To follow his work in Ukraine, go to facebook.com/MikeMerrill84.

Also, Merrill recommended these European groups that are working on the same cause:

• Animal Rescue Algarve-ARA (Portugal) — animalrescuealgarve.com

• Fondateur GIAPA (France) — facebook.com/GIAPA.NouvellePage

• Star Rescue (Ireland) — facebook.com/starrescue1

• Husky Rescue Ireland (Ireland) — facebook.com/huskyrescueire

• Ośrodek Rehabilitacji Zwierząt Chronionynch (Poland) — facebook.com/dzikiezwierzetaprzemysl

For other ways to help the cause, go to today.com/pets/pets/animal-charities-ukraine-russia-war-rcna19960.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Ukraine pets getting help from Florida animal rescuer