Dodging Russian bombs, these volunteers risk it all to save Ukraine's animals
Editor's note: This story contains graphic images.
DNIPRO, Ukraine — When Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February, Petya Petrova didn't hesitate. She and a team of other German animal rights activists rushed to the Polish-Ukrainian border to help with what would become an unprecedented influx of refugees, many of them bringing animals.
"I was the first team member to arrive at the Polish border on Feb. 25 to welcome Ukrainians arriving with their pets," says the 34-year-old.
After a few months, the animal rights group she was with, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, pulled back from the border, calling its employees back to Germany. But Petrova didn't think that was the right thing to do.
"My whole existence was linked to this war and I started feeling very emotional about this conflict," she says.
So she quit her job, moved to Kyiv and started working full time to evacuate animals from areas of Ukraine under attack.
The Russian war in Ukraine has gone on almost seven months. Thousands of people have been killed and millions have been forced to leave their homes. But the war is also taking a huge toll on animals — not just domestic pets, but also farm animals and wildlife.
Petrova is just one among thousands of individuals, nonprofit organizations and even soldiers trying to help animals caught up in this conflict.
"The war is affecting animals just as it is affecting humans," Petrova tells NPR. "[Animals] are tired, they are stressed, and the prolonged distress is causing sickness and disease," she says. "Stray animals in the streets are unprotected from airstrikes and many shelters have been destroyed."
NPR caught up with Petrova just as she rescued three dogs and a 4-week-old kitten. They'd wandered into a Ukrainian military camp near the eastern city of Kramatorsk and soldiers brought the animals to her in vegetable boxes. Petrova took them to two shelters still operating in the city of Dnipro, in central Ukraine.
That day she says a missile flew right over her head — the first one she's heard. It killed six civilians in Kramatorsk. Petrova pulled off the road and stopped her car.
"It's deep and unmistakable," she says, "and it was at that moment that it all really sunk in what's going on. It was very traumatizing."
Petrova is originally from Bulgaria, which was long dominated by the Soviet Union. That's why she feels a great solidarity with the Ukrainian people — fellow members of the former Soviet bloc — in their fight against Russia, she says. Helping save animals is her way to do her part in this war.
There are similar stories across Ukraine. Irina Ponomarenko is the director of a large animal shelter in Dnipro. She says most of the dogs they house these days are no longer strays — but pets people were forced to abandon.
"Often people fleeing the war are given just minutes to evacuate and they take the most valuable thing — their animals," she says. "When they arrive their houses have often been destroyed, their cars have been shot at. They are confused and crying, their animals are often injured or sick because there are no animal clinics in the east any longer."
Ponomarenko says many people can't take their pets any further, especially the big dogs. But thanks to donations, her shelter is committed to keeping these animals safe until their owners can return for them.
The Feldman Ecopark in Kharkiv has had a heavy toll, with news reports of as many at least five people and nearly 100 animals dying in attacks or as a result of the conflict as of April.
Svitlana Vyshnevetska, 62, the ecopark's deputy director, says when it came under fire, she got down on her knees and told the animals she was sorry.
Vishnevetska says staff and volunteers made heroic efforts to rescue animals from the zoo during frequent shelling.
"After every trip to the park, I said I would not go again. But I went anyway. The animals were waiting for us," she says.
"Ten years of work I put into that park. They were all groomed and fed. They were our family. And when you see the broken cages, the destruction — the monkeys were hiding in the toilet — it's devastating."
Vyshnevetska says they were often forced to work without sedatives for the animals. The orangutans seemed to understand and took her hand. But more than a hundred animals perished, including orangutans, chimpanzees and kangaroos that died of heart failure.
At least five employees were killed, including two found shot to death at close range in March. Vyshnevetska witnessed the shooting of a driver who worked at the park. She was also there when 15-year-old Denis Selevin, the son of two Ecopark employees, was fatally wounded.
They were crouched down hiding after coming under shelling and heard a child cry out.
"We went outside and saw Denis lying near the threshold of the door," she says. "When I saw him, I became hysterical."
Vyshnevetska says because of her training as a veterinarian, she knew his wounds were fatal. It took them a while to get him to the hospital because of the shelling. They injected him with morphine to ease his pain. He died on the way.
Two soldiers fighting for Russia were captured and taken to the hospital. One of them was a Kremlin-backed Ukrainian separatist.
The boy's father, Vitalii Selevin, took off the soldier's blindfold to show his son's blood still on his own hands in a painfully poignant confrontation of war and innocence.
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