As Russian bombs rain down on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, volunteers dart through the city, dodging artillery on a mission to save lives. Panicked family members who have fled the city call the operators at Animal Rescue Kharkiv with desperate messages: Our dog is still home, our cat is trapped inside our apartment.
Many residents of Kharkiv have already left, risking the journey in hopes of finding a break from the constant bombardment. But even before Russian forces attacked the city, Animal Rescue Kharkiv decided to stay. Russian bombs have struck the group’s adoption center, killing five dogs and leaving another five to escape into the woods.
“Our team decided before the war started that we will stay here and we will do the work and we won’t leave our city. We’ll continue working and helping the animals,” Olga Ilyunina, one of the group’s founders, told The Daily Beast.
As the war smashes cities and uproots lives, taking care of the legions of cats, dogs, gerbils, parrots, and other furry remnants of normal life is a challenge. But just as relief efforts are taking care of Ukraine’s besieged civilians, a parallel network of volunteers, activists, and rescue staff have pulled together to try and shield the country’s pets from the effects of the Russian war machine.
The risk for volunteers is extreme. Kharkiv is under constant shelling by artillery and bombardment by the Russian air force. One bomb fell minutes before Ilyunina managed to get on the phone, she said last week during a patchy call on Telegram. And the group’s facilities have already come under attack.
“One bomb fell in our adoption center and it destroyed five enclosures and five dogs were killed. Some of them ran away and we are trying to find them,” says Ilyunin. “The girl who was there [at the time]—she didn’t know what was happening and she was afraid to go out when it hit.”
Since the war started, Facebook groups in Ukraine have overflowed with posts about left-behind and lost pets in need. Users post pictures of their beloved pups and cats with desperate pleas to anyone who can check on them, take them in, or at least leave some food. Other posts show images of frightened and confused pets, with collars and coats that speak to a more comfortable pre-war life, found in bombed-out apartment buildings or wandering the streets.
Bayraktar, a big white bear of a dog, has become Animal Rescue Kharkiv’s new mascot. Staff found him roaming the streets as a wounded stray after he apparently was hit by a car. They got him to a veterinarian and named him after the Turkish-made drones now used by the Ukrainian military.
“He’s our hero,” Ilyunina says.
The group tries to improvise solutions for the animals however they can. Two drivers dart through the streets of Kharkiv to the homes of abandoned animals and try to place them with friends, neighbors, or anyone feeling merciful.
“If no one responds, if no one can help the animal, we take it to our center or our volunteers and workers take them to their homes. Most of our workers have about 20 animals now,” Ilyunina jokes.
Disaster relief and animal rescue experts say it’s important to factor in the care of pets when developing any evacuation plan.
“I saw it for the 10 years I was working with Red Paw Relief. People won’t leave their houses without their pets or they’ll risk our lives. And some people will die trying to save their pets.” says Jen Leary, a firefighter and animal rescue expert. Leary’s group traveled to the scene of house fires to find lost pets and provided temporary housing for animals until their owners could get on their feet.
It’s not just pet owners who are putting themselves at risk; so is the network of volunteers trying to keep supply lines open to them. Family members say Russian troops shot and killed Anastasiia Yalanskaya, a Ukrainian animal rescue volunteer, as she tried to deliver food to a dog shelter near Kyiv.
Staff at shelters in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine say the troops show little regard for the needs of people or animals.
Before the war, Sirius was the largest animal shelter in Ukraine and home to more than 3,000 dogs and over 200 cats at its main facility north of Kyiv. Now, the shelter is in territory seized by Russian troops laying siege to Ukraine’s capital. Sirius’ founder, Alexandra Mezinov, is still at the facility with only scattered access to the internet, but one of the group’s executives, Iryna Lozova, spoke to The Daily Beast with help from a translator.
“The situation in the shelter is, to be clear, very bad. The shelter and settlements around the shelter are occupied by Russian troops,” Mezinov says. Russian troops have not allowed for a humanitarian corridor in the area to allow supplies and people to move in or out of the area, much less one for the animals under Sirius’ care.
Sirius staff make do with what they can scrounge, but the situation is dire. “They have very few stocks of food left,” Mezinov says. Water is also in short supply. “They’re trying to take water from a pond nearby.”
The conflict has forced shelters and rescue groups across Ukraine to rethink how they can continue working.
“We’ve cut all of our programs except for feeding dogs,” says Olga Spektor of Happy Paw. Spektor founded the animal charity 12 years ago and has used the fund to provide care for stray animals and educate Ukrainian school children about the importance of humane treatment of animals.
Spektor says the biggest problem her group faces—aside from the constant Russian attacks—is transportation.
“Some big shelters are on territory occupied by Russian soldiers. They don’t won’t make it possible to transport food, water, and people,” she says. “I can’t understand why Russian soldiers, who are also human, can’t make it possible to feed civilians and animals. They’ve done nothing wrong.”