When Russia invaded Ukraine, the animal welfare charity I work for already had contacts in Ukraine so we could immediately help in the country and get help there. We have a Ukrainian employee who lives in Kharkiv. She spent the first weeks of the invasion in a basement with her young baby. When she was able to leave and find refuge in another part of Ukraine, we started working with a transport network to get animal help – like food, weights, bedding and carriers. – for people who evacuate.
Recently we sent over 100 pet cages to Kharkiv. If you have ten cats, trying to put them in your purse is not an option, although I saw a woman who had a cat in her bra on the border between Ukraine and Poland.
I run wildlife crime campaigns for Naturewatch Foundation in the UK, but my colleagues had identified a need for basic veterinary care on the border between Ukraine and Poland. I offered to organize trips to the Polish border town of Medyka to help get the items to where they are needed.
My first trip to Medyka was in early March and we managed to get there with around half a ton of aid to deliver across the border and help in a temporary shelter supported by our Polish partners on the ground, a small charity organization called Psierociniec. The queues of Ukrainians waiting to cross the Medyka border on foot lasted about 14 hours and I would say maybe one in four came with an animal; be it a dog or a cat or some other creation. We even saw someone with a rat. In terms of supporting pets that come with refugees, we have helped hundreds of animals.
One woman we helped had traveled from Kharkiv with her teenage daughter, two cats and a turtle. Her daughter had been injured on the trip, her ankle was huge and she was sent to hospital with a suspected broken leg. So these people not only fled a war zone, their teenage daughter has a broken leg, their two cats have no food or water, and they have a turtle in a jar. We took care of their bags and pets while they went to the hospital and went to the nearest pet store and bought them some extra help. What else do you do for people who have been through all of this? We felt that these people had the decency and compassion to bring their animals with them, so they needed to be shown the same.
When we briefly crossed the Ukrainian border with our Polish partners, we went to the nearest animal shelter and also visited other borders that only allow cars. Naturally, veterinary resources are currently very limited in Ukraine, both for items and for pets. People are displaced or have fled.
Then, on my second trip to Ukraine in early April, we were working at the border and saw a large number of dogs being turned away. We asked why and were told that current regulations state that in order to enter Poland animals must have a pet passport, rabies vaccinations and proof of these, but of course, having been rescued from a war zone, these shelter dogs are not those.
For example, our Polish partners have set up a very, very temporary detention center in Lviv, Ukraine, and Polish volunteers go there to ensure that the animals temporarily detained there receive the care they need. Many of Lviv’s dogs come from an animal shelter in Borodyanka, Ukraine, where 450 dogs were left without food or water for five weeks. The majority are dead, but three organizations, Breaking the Chains, Tailed Banda and Tailed Thursday were able to save around 150 dogs in early April. Unfortunately, some of the remaining 150 died in transit due to the stress of the move.
Some of Borodyanka’s rescue dogs managed to cross the border, thanks to the Ukrainians who helped us. But of the Borodyanka dogs that arrived at the Polish border and are now in Lviv, there are probably 16 that have arrived in Poland so far, and about 60-70 dogs that are still in Ukraine.
When one of these rescue dogs travels to Poland, we immediately help treat them with a Polish vet, so the dogs can pass a vet check, then passport, vaccine and pet microchipping procedures begin. A dog crossed the border on April 10 and had been in a crate for 26 hours. When the crate was opened, the dog could not stand up because he was so weak. Fortunately, this dog is now in Poland for veterinary treatment, but there are some who are not so lucky.
We are not calling for a mass evacuation of all animals from Ukraine, but the welfare of shelter dogs is compromised by remaining there. Being held in a temporary shelter is OK temporarily, but it’s not good for the animals’ long-term welfare.
I am currently back in the UK but every hour I get updates from people on the ground in Poland and at the shelter. We’ve had really good partnerships and they give me information on what they need and we make sure they get there. I think field work will be essential in the future, but it will depend on what is needed.
In the long run, the idea of holding border facilities would be interesting and valuable. And I wish there was some consideration at the borders for animal welfare.
When there is a clear need for immediate veterinary care or a better housing solution, animals should be allowed to cross the Polish border if there are shelters that can accommodate them. I would like the Borodyanka dogs to be allowed to come so they can get the care they desperately need.
In my previous job I was an inspector for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSCPA) in England, so I’m used to seeing animals not being cared for properly and witnessing the effects animal cruelty. But in these situations, you can give cruelty a reason, even if it’s an unhealthy treat or if someone can’t afford food and their dogs are starving. And, it could end in a lawsuit or an education session, so there is a solution to that. Seeing animals in a war zone was really hard to process. There is so much suffering for people and animals, but there are no consequences for it. So we can only do our best.
Kate Parker is Head of Wildlife Crime Campaigns at the Naturewatch Foundation. You can follow Kate on Twitter @KateNWF.
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
As said to Jenny Harvard.