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Saving the animal victims of the war in Ukraine

By Gregg Tully

Fourteen thousand Ukrainian people fled their homes because of the war, and sadly, many left their companions behind, roaming the streets without food or shelter. This has created an unprecedented crisis which Save the Dogs has been addressing for more than a year, thanks to generous support from Arukah Animal International.

A Save the Dogs team recently returned from another mission to Ukraine. The goals were to collect information for planning Save the Dogs' future work in the country, bring urgently needed supplies to many of our partners, build relationships with our partners, and assess if they're helping as many animals as they tell us. (We saw that they're actually helping far more animals than we knew about.)

Our incredible partners

In the early months of the crisis, we felt it wasn’t safe enough for Save the Dogs personnel to go to Ukraine, so we developed relationships with dozens of trusted partners there—managers of animal shelters and people who take care of abandoned companions as volunteers. We’ve delivered more than 900 tons of dog and cat food to them, as well as hundreds of dog houses and thousands of blankets, dog jackets, flea/tick collars, and other supplies. Through these partnerships, we’ve enabled more than 9,000 dogs and cats to survive the Ukrainian winter in Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Odessa, and dozens of other cities and villages. Although we hadn’t met and in most cases didn’t speak the same language, I’ve exchanged countless messages with these partners, using Google Translate between Russian and English, and we developed real relationships. The highlight of my day is often receiving photos and videos of happy cats and dogs eating food that we sent from Romania, along with messages of heartfelt thanks (and usually a lot of emojis).

An unforgettable part of the mission was finally meeting many of these amazing people face to face. We visited Valentina, who lives in a little apartment in an old Communist-style building with more than 90 cats whom she rescued, most of them sick and elderly. At Olga's shelter, dogs live in enclosures made of old pieces of scrap wood and fencing. I don't know how she single-handedly manages a shelter with 150 dogs when she hasn't earned any money since the war started and doesn't have a car.

We spent a lot of time with Zhanna, who used to work as a sales manager and now spends hours every day feeding and taking care of street dogs and cats. She focuses on the industrial area of Odessa where she climbs over broken walls to feed shivering puppies who live in scrap yards among piles of old rusting car parts and pieces of junk, as well as adult dogs who were abandoned by their people when they fled the war. During the winter, Zhanna feeds the puppies a hot porridge made with the dog food we donate, and gives them dog houses, blankets, and other supplies to help them survive the cold months. She feeds so many hundreds of dogs that she can’t count them all, but continually worries about the abandoned ones she doesn't have enough food for. Zhanna repeatedly told us how grateful she is for the dog food that Save the Dogs donates—she told us no one else helps her and she couldn’t survive without our help.

Devastation near Mykolaiv and Kherson

We went to villages between Mykolaiv and Kherson, which were absolutely devastated by the war. We brought food dispensers, dog houses, and pet food to the few remaining people living in underground bomb shelters in villages without electricity, water, or heat, where every single house is uninhabitable because the roofs and windows are shattered. The villages don’t have access to water because the wells were poisoned by the Russian military, and people can’t safely work on their farms because of landmines. Some told us they stayed behind to take care of all the dogs and cats living in the streets. I can’t imagine the strength and determination they must have to live like that for months, with no end in sight, rather than escaping to safer and more comfortable places. The pet food, dog houses, and other supplies that we regularly deliver to them make their lives a little easier.

A sustainable solution

While the food we’ve been delivering has enabled thousands of animals to survive the winter, it isn’t a sustainable solution to the countless abandoned dogs and cats who were left behind. Many of these animals haven’t been sterilized and can produce a shocking number of puppies and kittens. Save the Dogs’ newest project in Ukraine is to collaborate with some of the best veterinary clinics there to spay, neuter, and vaccinate street cats and dogs. We’ve visited several vet clinics to assess their facilities and their interest in helping homeless individuals, and, happily, they’re enthusiastic to collaborate with us. We’re already working with two clinics, and we’re about to expand the program to three more, with the goal of spaying and neutering more than 2,000 homeless cats and dogs before the end of the year.

I can’t find words to say how grateful we are that Arukah Animal International is making this work possible.

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