The Kremlin’s brutal war has not only had a devastating effect on the country’s human population, but has been a total disaster for animals. Many pets have become innocent and helpless victims, getting killed or injured by barbaric rocket attacks and shrapnel, which have left streets littered with metal and glass. Close to an estimated half a million dogs in Ukraine have become strays as owners have abandoned them when fleeing the country.
Paws2Rescue, a leading dog charity in Britain, which rescues animals around the world and helps find homes for abandoned pets, has led a campaign to get hundreds of stray dogs in Ukraine neutered.
Alison Standbridge, its London-based trustee said: “Currently we are doing a very large neuter campaign in the city of Kropyvnytsky.
“The dog shelter there is really struggling, and has taken 400 dogs off the streets, including injured ones. Because people are letting their dogs out hundreds of puppies are being born, which is causing an even bigger problem.”
Standbridge has been urging the dog shelter to keep neutering there while it is safe to do so. “They have enough money now to neuter any dog they want for the rest of July and August,” she said. “They will neuter whatever they can to stop them breeding on the streets.”
Paws2Rescue works predominately with Romanian animal shelters close to the Ukrainian border, which also have a big problem with stray dogs. “They do take in pet dogs, that is, families who come into the country with their dogs,” said Standbridge, “but they don’t take in any stray dogs. Romania doesn’t need any more stray dogs.”
A couple of months ago Standbridge went to Suceava, a city in north-eastern Romania close to the border with Ukraine. Paws2Rescue was doing some joint work with a vet clinic there on stray dogs. She saw 30 strays from Ukraine taken in. Unlike Romanian stray dogs, she noticed that the Ukrainian dogs were mentally traumatised.
Standbridge’s charity was set up in 2013 with its mission being a simple one – “to alleviate suffering wherever and whenever we can”. With the help of 38 volunteers from Romania, UK, Holland and France, this online charity has even got the backing of internationally-known British actor and comedian Ricky Gervais, who is its patron. “He is a huge animal advocate all over the world. He really is a good voice for us,” she said.
“Early March time we went to Ukraine for two days, travelling from Baia Mare in Romania, to Kropyvnytsky, where we dropped off donations. We also got my friend and her family out. It was Olha, her mum, two children aged three, and a dog called Mickey. They are all living in Bristol, UK.”
Paws2Rescue has also been supporting two Romanian monasteries in Sighet, close to the Romanian border, which has been taking in Ukrainian refugees. Paws2Rescue volunteer Alex buys food and essentials locally for them, people in the area donate sacks of potatoes and cabbage, and the supermarket Lidl has also been helping. They are also working with an NGO, taking food and humanitarian aid directly to Ukraine. Depending on how safe it is, a truck enters Ukraine twice a day.
Returning back to animals, as a rule the charity does not bring dogs out of Ukraine but they do have people in Poland and Romania who can help with the paperwork, which can be challenging. There are quite specific requirements, like health certificates, for bringing a dog over.
Standbridge is no stranger to pets. She has a medium-sized Romanian rescue dog, which is a mixed breed called Mabel, and a small UK rescue dog called Matilda. “I am waiting for a dog from Ukraine. He was found without paws. He is five, and is of mixed breed.”
I tell her about Patron, a Jack Russell Terrier, who has found fame, and who works with his owner in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv sniffing out explosives and mines, and about a recent video I saw of a soldier who takes his dog to the trenches. A dog is certainly a man’s best friend in war, as this one can sense when the Russians are firing their artillery, so barks to warn him.
Standbridge is impressed: “It just shows how we should be treating dogs and that, actually, they can work hand in hand with humans. They are so intelligent as well as being such comforters to us.”
Standbridge doesn’t have any future plans to go to Ukraine. She feels she can do more from the UK, coordinating transport to raising funds here. “We can talk to our rescuers and people who look after the animals from here. It is more of a hindrance going because of the checkpoint system. Our Romanian team will go to Ukraine again this month,” she said.
Volunteer Alex has been to Ukraine four or five times since March and she takes tons of Paws2Rescue humanitarian aid. “The last consignment was sent three weeks ago,” said Standbridge. “It was nine tons of good dog food and hundreds of de-wormers and de-flea tablets, leads and collars.”
Alex has put her Ukrainian experiences up on the charity’s website.
“Certain people you meet or things you witness stay with you forever. And it is usually the painful memories that linger, that change the way you see life. The war in Ukraine has affected millions of people, who have been forced to leave their homes and even their pets behind. It has also caused immense damage to infrastructure and buildings, and there is no end in sight.
“Me and my boyfriend, Raimo, met six years ago, in Baia Mare, a small city in northern Romania. He’s Estonian and has been working as a factory mechanic here, and I’m a translator and run a dog shelter with my friend Viorica and her husband. Through our work rescuing dogs we came to start a wonderful collaboration many years ago with a London based charity helping dogs in Romania, namely Paws2Rescue, run by an amazing team of volunteers, led by Alison Standbridge.
“Hundreds of our dogs have found homes in the UK thanks to them, and their constant neutering campaigns have prevented countless unwanted puppies from being born. Because of our mutual respect and trust we decided to partner once again, this time for a project involving delivering aid into Ukraine.
“We returned from Ukraine a few days ago, after four days in which we handed out aid in the cities of Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia donated by Paws2Rescue: one ton of dog food and 200 de-worming pills for two dog shelters, and donated from one person: 60 packages of water and food for the soldiers, which we gave to those stationed at the checkpoints around Kharkiv, and first aid items that we took to a military hospital in the same area.
“We crossed the border from Romania into Ukraine and started the 3,000 km road trip, with a van full of items that are greatly needed, and that are very hard or impossible to find in eastern Ukraine. We passed hundreds of military checkpoints where we were asked where we are going, some searched the van while others inspected our documents.
“We slept in the van for the first two nights, including the night we spent at the last checkpoint before entering the city of Kharkiv at 9:45 pm. It was already pitch black, and while Raimo was driving I was filming the flashes and flares of the artillery and explosions only a few kilometres from our location.
“Before entering the city we were stopped by four soldiers, and we had to go through a security check, including calling the ladies working at the shelter where we were supposed to arrive the next day. It is perfectly understandable to have this level of security, considering there are individuals every day, across Ukraine, who are carrying out acts of treason, sabotage and are basically informants for Russia.
“Our van had to be thoroughly checked, especially at that time of night (there is a nationwide 10pm curfew). The next morning we drove into Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, which in February was home to 2 million people. We saw empty roads and an even emptier city. Businesses boarded up everywhere, two women we met living in the subway station, with only a mattress and a few personal items (we handed them two packets with food), buildings that were shelled and were missing entire floors, or had a collapsed roof.
“Even a few government buildings in the centre were destroyed, and only the façade was left standing. We started driving towards the frontline, and we got about 12 km from the Russian border and the actual war zone, when we had to turn around because it was no longer safe. When we asked if we could drive further to deliver the remaining packets to the soldiers, the answer was: ‘Not today’. And that’s because, after two weeks of relative quiet, the Russian shelling had begun once again just two days before we got there, and they couldn’t risk having even more civilian casualties.
“We continued our trip and went to a small village outside of Kharkiv, where we delivered a third of the dog food to an elderly woman on crutches who was rescuing dogs. She had just received another 25 dogs from a village that was shelled nearby, and these dogs were all in a terrible mental state, very agitated and afraid, refusing to eat and hiding. She was looking after over 50 dogs and about 20 cats in total.
“Our next stop, the same day, was in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia, this time at a large shelter housing more than 400 dogs. Before the war started they had 300 dogs, and they were forced to take in a huge number of abandoned animals in the span of just a few months. They were happy to see us, and surprised that we had come all this way to help the dogs. Very clean and a nicely built shelter, considering that only a young couple and their eight-year-year-boy were taking care of all the dogs, and they were also living right next to the shelter.
“During our time in Ukraine (this was our third trip) we met many extraordinary people, who since the beginning of the war have been helping both people and animals (refugees and abandoned animals). In addition to the dog shelters we got to on this trip, on our third night we were welcomed at the home of two volunteers who were deeply impressed with our involvement, love of their country and everything living.
“They have one child of their own and four adopted kids, they have turned their entire garden into a sanctuary for 100 pets from war-torn areas like Mariupol (guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, chinchillas, parrots, turtles). The entire basement of their house has also been set up to accommodate refugees, and so far more than 40 people have stayed there, some for a few days and others for several weeks, until they had to continue their journey.
“In addition, they all worked to make camouflage nets that they donated to the military. They don’t ask for money from anyone, but spend all the money they saved in their lifetime to help anyone. Just like that, because it’s the right thing to do. How many people think like that these days? The sad part is that they are very close to the conflict zone, and they were also preparing to go to the west of the country, where their children are.
“They leave their house to another family who arrived from a town that was completely destroyed by shelling, a family that no longer has a house to return to, and they have no money to go elsewhere. They will now take care of these animals, and the family that owns the house hopes to be able to return soon. They told us, barely finding the words to through their tears, that they had worked their whole lives and they don’t know if they will have anything left when this war comes to an end.
“Unlike them and millions of others, displaced by conflict, we were lucky to be able to cross the border back into Romania, and back to safety. To be able to come home. This trip has left a dark stain on my soul, and at the same time has opened my eyes to the endless resource that is caring. We are all volunteers because we care. Sometimes, no matter the time spent, missed work, long days, loss of comfort and basic hygiene even, you just have to do the right thing.”
Paws2Rescue has set out its mission statement to “alleviate suffering wherever they can”. And it is certainly doing that right across the world and now in Ukraine. And it is a commitment, which they hope will make a difference and bring lasting change.
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