The humanitarian crisis created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine has entered its second month and has resulted in more than 4 million refugees and 6.5 million internally displaced people. Social media is full of images of a population on the move, and fleeing residents taking their pets – rabbits, cats, dogs, parrots and snakes – with them.
These are the people who realize that they won’t be going home anytime soon. I saw Ukrainians making desperate appeals on social media to residents of places like Mariupol, imploring those left behind to check on animals entrusted to family and friends, who themselves had to flee or did not. been heard for days.
As a kyiv-trained veterinarian, I believe Ukrainians have an unusually strong bond with their pets and animals in general, which is reflected in their distress in this catastrophic war.
In the United States and Canada, disaster relief systems have gradually over the years provided for the rescue of animals as part of event responses, recognizing that people are reluctant to evacuate without their animals. of company. Fortunately, some European countries have eased travel restrictions on animals accompanying Ukrainian refugees crossing their borders.
For decades, public transportation systems in Ukrainian cities have allowed people to travel with their well-behaved pets, including large-breed dogs. Babushkas carried their small dogs safely in shoulder bags on walks and runs. Cats and rabbits also accompanied their humans on family visits to the countryside.
Hanna Hopko, a former Ukrainian MP, was reluctant to offer her daughter a guinea pig in January because evacuation was imminent. Finally, understanding that it is possible to evacuate with a guinea pig, she gave in and got one. But just as Hopko feared, in February an exodus began. Reports and photos of my friends leaving Kyiv were harbingers of what was to come – that animals too would be moved in large numbers.
Posts filled with photographs found by searching social media for “Ukrainian pets” show countless evacuees carrying their pets, alongside children, as they departed to relative safety elsewhere. An elderly woman in a wheelchair holds her chihuahua; a mother of young children strapped her German Shepherd to her back; a man who has lost family members finds his cat in the rubble that was once his home and his village. As a photo report in the Atlantic showed, animals can also be refugees.
Many Polish veterinarians provide round-the-clock care for refugee pets and rescued animals; some Ukrainian veterinarians stayed to care for the animals left behind. American and Canadian vets are traveling to Ukraine and Poland at their own pace and expense for relief.
The American Veterinary Medical Foundation and Merck have pledged to donate $200,000 for Ukraine relief. Vétérinaires sans frontières, in Canada, was recruiting a program manager for the response in Ukraine.
A video of a young man driving a van with the seats removed, carry a pack of kangaroos from a zoo to safety, has gone viral and garnered media attention in several countries, even in those where media coverage of the war is muted, attesting to the unique potential animals have to bring people together. This modern-day Noah, who has been evacuating animals from the zoo since the start of the war, is no longer alone. Volunteers from European countries traveled to Ukraine to rescue bears, lions and other unusual animals that got stranded or were at risk of being killed. .
But these stories of human-animal bonding from Ukraine are conspicuously missing news on a large part of the animal population: livestock. Farm animals – dairy cows and calves, horses, poultry, pigs, sheep, goats – need to be fed, watered and perhaps milked on time. Some families have already done the unimaginable: take their horses out, free them in desperation. There were 2 million head of cattle and 6 million pigs in Ukraine in 2020, but very little is known about what is happening in the countryside. How do supply chains affect animal feed? How has the displacement affected agricultural work, which affects the welfare of millions of these animals?
I learned for the first time that Vorzel, a village not far from kyiv where I did my internship in agricultural medicine as a veterinary student, was occupied by Russian troops when friends passed on the transcript of a speech by a former mayor of Irpin, the neighboring town. I imagine animal carcasses littering the bombed-out rural landscape – another gruesome aspect of the Russian invasion.
Veterinarians understand that the human-animal bond manifests itself in many ways. Whatever the long-term results of this devastating war, one thing is obviously circular: human suffering begets animal suffering begets human suffering.
Malathi Raghavan is an Associate Clinical Professor at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine. She received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from the Ukrainian State Agricultural University in Kyiv.