When the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, Ukrainians with pet carriers were a frequent sight among the stream of refugees heading west. Ukrainians carried their dogs, cats, rabbits and even fish for hundreds of miles as the scale of Russia’s attack on their country became clear. The mass exodus of pets was such that bordering nations waived their normally strict quarantine protocols to allow in the displaced with four legs.
However, many animals did not accompany their owners to safety. Whether owing to the speed of the initial Russian advance or because some creatures ran away in sheer terror at the sounds of explosions and artillery fire, many were left behind to fend for themselves. This tragic reality was particularly noticeable in eastern Ukraine, where many dogs and cats surviving in the bombed-out ruins still wore their collars and name tags.
Animal shelters have since sprung up, staffed by dedicated teams of Ukrainian volunteers looking after all the strays.
Yahoo News visited one such shelter run by Maxim and Tanya on the outskirts of Odesa, in southern Ukraine. Situated on an old farm on the outskirts of the port city, the shelter takes care of over 150 dogs, 27 goats and 14 cats. Maxim and Tanya began running it before the full-scale invasion and have continued caring for their animals throughout the war, despite the frequent missile and drone strikes on Odesa. “Most of the animals come from the front,” Maxim said, explaining that the noise from other farms, even those in the distance, can upset the still traumatized animals.
Theirs is a ramshackle affair; stalls have been built using scrap metal, old doors and shipping pallets. Yet the animals are clearly well fed and cared for.
Mishan, another shelter, established in an old fire station in the recently liberated city of Kherson, takes in animals rescued around the city. Most suffer from physical or psychological trauma from the months of shelling that occurred during the battle for Kherson. Several animals have the distinctive ear tag that marks out a stray that has been spayed or neutered in a state-sponsored program. Others are household pets willingly or unwillingly abandoned by their owners.
Vova, one of the owners of the shelter, showed Yahoo News a picture of one of the dogs, named Cherneka, who had arrived at the shelter looking emaciated and on the verge of starving to death. After extensive veterinary care, she is now a healthy weight, and while she still has difficulty eating solid food, it doesn’t stop her from playing happily with other canine residents of the shelter. “We doubted whether she could be saved when she arrived,” Vova said. “But in the end, thank God, she will be fine.”
Other Ukrainians help in different ways. Newly adopted stray dogs are a common sight in Kyiv. Yahoo News spoke to Volodymyr, who had taken in a young mutt he had found in the woods around the capital, earlier in the war. “I never meant to keep her,” he said. “I’d never had a dog before, but I figured she was Ukrainian too, and we have to stick together. And I don’t have any children, so I decided to adopt her.”
The Ukrainian affection toward animals stands in stark contrast to how Russian soldiers have treated them in the territories under their occupation. In Hostomel, a suburb just outside Kyiv, Russians set fire to a stable containing 32 horses, of which only two managed to survive. Other Russian soldiers have posted pictures of themselves on social media torturing animals left behind. Phone calls made by Russian soldiers and intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence also reveal how some of them began eating dogs in March 2022.
They have branded other animals with the Z or V markings signifying Russian President Vladimir Putin’s so-called special military operation. In Kamianka, a village in Kharkiv Oblast, which was liberated by Ukraine last fall, Ukrainian investigative journalist Anna Babinets found one black mutt with the Russian V burned into his face. In a village near the city of Izium, a city Ukraine took back in the same period, Ukrainian soldiers found a dog with the Russian Z carved onto the top of his snout. Another dog with a Z carved into his snout was found by Ukrainian writer and activist Victoria Amelina in recently liberated Kherson.
Beasts the Russians didn’t maim, they stole. When retreating from Kherson in November, the Russian army stole the majority of the exotic animals from the city zoo, including raccoons, wolves, a number of peacocks, a llama and a donkey. They were transported to the Taigan Lion Park, a private zoo in Russian-occupied Crimea.
Footage of a Russian soldier picking up a raccoon by its tail as it hissed in anger prompted Ukrainians to praise the animal’s fighting spirit, vowing to rescue the creature when they liberate Crimea.
More images from the shelters in Kherson and Odesa
How you can help rescue animals in Ukraine
UAnimals. Founded in 2016, the animal welfare organization has helped to ban animal circuses and has worked to implement animal rights laws. But since the start of Russia’s war in 2022, UAnimals’ “efforts have been directed at rescuing animals from combat zones and temporarily occupied territories.” You can donate to UAnimals here.
U-Hearts. The nonprofit organization works to improve the “living conditions of abandoned pets in Eastern Europe” by providing food, medical care, shelter and adoption. You can help U-Hearts here.