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EXCLUSIVE War in Ukraine

“I Saw Animals with Cut-Off Ears. I Don’t Understand Why the Russians Did It.”

In an exclusive interview with Kyiv Post, Natalya Popova, the head of the wildlife rescue center, UAnimals, talked about the rescue of wild animals from the hostilities; the atrocities of Russians aga

Nov. 28, 2022
Natalya Popova, head of the wildlife rescue center UAnimals. Photo by Aleksandra Klitina, Kyiv Post.

In an exclusive interview with Kyiv Post, Natalya Popova, the head of the wildlife rescue center, UAnimals, talked about the rescue of wild animals from the hostilities; the atrocities of Russians against the animals; and the challenges that the rescue center is facing. 

How many wild animals have you rescued from the front line?

During the full-scale Russian invasion, we’ve rescued more than 400 animals. More than 200 of them were sent to Europe: lions, tigers, bears, wolves, hyenas, dogs, and monkeys.

Is your center a temporary stay for the animals before sending them abroad to safe natural reserves?

We work as an ambulance for wild animals. We rescue them from dangerous places, bring them to the center, feed them, provide veterinary care and then look for a place for a safe stay where good conditions are provided.

It must be dangerous to rescue animals from the front line. Do you cooperate with the military?

Yes, we cooperate with the military. The calls usually come from them. They find an abandoned lion or a bear locked in an enclosure dying of hunger, thirst, and stress and contact animal protection organizations – mainly UAnimals – and we go. The military accompanies us because they know how to approach the location of the animal safely.

You personally go to rescue animals. How does it happen?

I go because there is no veterinarian who will agree to go there due to the danger. Our team has repeatedly come under fire. But to remove a large predator such as a lion or a bear under stress without anesthesia is impossible, so I had to learn how to do that. I had not done it before the war.

What condition are the animals in and what is happening there?

It is horrible there. Of course, it is scary. We try to do everything that the military says.

Were there any cases of animal abuse by Russians?

Yes, all the time. When we got to Yampil, in the Donetsk region beyond Lyman, the military called us to rescue a Himalayan bear. When we arrived, it turned out to be a private zoo. There were many animals but only the bear was alive. Animals had been just shot, and I saw animals with cut-off ears. I don’t understand why the Russians did it.

Did you come under direct fire from the Russians? Were there really life-threatening situations?

When we went to Bakhmut with the military to rescue a bear it was silent but, apparently, someone informed the Russian military, and we were shelled. One rocket that was flying directly at us did not explode – I had already said goodbye to my life.

The region near Kyiv was under Russian occupation. Were there any cases of animal abuse?

That’s how I received a call from UA Animals with a request to help the Yasnohorod farm, which had been bombed because the Kadyrovite troops were based there. It was impossible to drive there by car because the shells fell very close – 70 meters from us. On the first day, we were able to remove the animals that we could carry in our hands. Then for the next five or six days, we came to evacuate all of them.  There were llamas and alpacas but more than half of the animals were dead. Some animals were shot, and some died of exhaustion, hunger, and thirst.

Have you ever rescued animals from nature reserves?

The only animal we took from the reserve was a Przewalski’s horse. We released it in western Ukraine, where it is safe. Our nature reserves are currently occupied by Russians, and most of them are destroyed.

How many animals are in your shelter now?

About 100 animals, including 14 lions, one tiger, a raccoon dog, foxes, and one roe deer.

Does the state help your organization?

No, the state does not help. Caring people help. The UAnimals team does a lot: They raise funds, and we have now joined forces.

What are the priority needs?

First of all, we need building materials for the enclosures. We have 15 large predators. They need to be kept somewhere. I even have lions living in my room. It’s not normal at all, but when you have no choice other to leave them under fire, at least it is safe here.

It is also impossible to take the animals out of the country quickly. At the beginning of the war, when the European Union gave permission to transport animals without documents, my car did not stop – as soon as we rescued the animal, we immediately sent it abroad. Thankfully, we saved a lot of animals. Now, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine has introduced a system of permits that need two or three months to obtain.

Now there are power shortages. Do you have generators?

I have one generator sent from the EU but it hasn’t been enough. It’s necessary to have a two-kilowatt heater in the cages because lions need heating. Now the animals are freezing because of the blackouts.