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Heartwarming stories of Ukraine’s pet rescuers and a hero dog amid the horror of war


Liubov Abravitova is the Ambassador of Ukraine to South Africa.

The nine-year-old son of my closest friend clung to a tiny cage with his hamster while crossing the Polish border. Pets are part of the family for most Ukrainians, part of their safe, loved homes, so they were saving that very important part of their peaceful life with them.

We are now nearing the end of the third month of this horrific unprovoked attack on Ukraine and, I’m saddened to say, it feels like there’s no end in sight. Overnight missile attacks across the country and massive strikes on one of the oldest cities in Ukraine – Lviv – are heartbreaking. So much so, because Lviv, the city that shares a border with Poland, has been considered one of our safe places where hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians found shelter from Russian shelling.

Though the illusion of safety from missiles disappeared with the first air attacks more than a month ago, most of the people stayed put and Lviv over time grew into a huge volunteer hub with a large emphasis on animal rescue. This brings me to the topic of this week’s column: the Ukrainian animal rescue heroes. 

In the first two weeks of the war, when millions of Ukrainians were fleeing their homes, we’ve come to see what really matters to our nation. Whether taking shelter in the metro station, looking for safety in the secure parts of the country, or crossing the border in hopes of saving families we saw a common trait – pets! Most of the reports coming to light at that time were of Ukrainians with their most prized possessions – they were carrying their dogs and cats, at times many dogs and cats, people were travelling with birdcages, terrariums, and even pet raccoons and foxes.

Many Ukrainians said they would stay at home until the very end because travelling with a large number of their pets wasn’t a possibility. The nine-year-old son of my closest friend clung to a tiny cage with his hamster while crossing the Polish border. Pets are part of the family for most Ukrainians, part of their safe loved homes so they were saving that very important part of their peaceful life with them.

At the beginning of the war, it looked like the Russians understood the strong connections that Ukrainians have with their pets as well as their farm animals, and they did everything possible to destroy what they could. They’ve bombed many of our gorgeous farms, killing thousands of cows and calves.

One of many horrifying stories happened right outside of Kyiv: Russian troops set fire to a closed stable with 32 gorgeous beloved horses inside, only two of them made it out alive. We’ve heard countless stories of Russians killing pets in front of their owner and even killing our pet dogs for food. But, as the saying goes – it’s always darkest before the dawn, and we are now seeing how war magnified Ukrainian love for animals. And I’m more than happy to share these stories with you today.

The Irpin Angel

Nastya Tikhaya lived in Irpin with her parents and had a shelter for homeless and handicapped dogs. (Photo: Supplied)

The touching photo of a young woman trying to get her handicapped dogs to safety went viral in a blink of an eye. To give you a clearer understanding of why – Irpin was occupied by Russian troops, they were mass-murdering Ukrainians, looting and destroying houses with artillery and tanks, and shooting at cars trying to flee the city.

The Ukrainian government managed to get safety corridors scheduled for people who were trapped there to try to get out. So when the photo surfaced Ukrainians collectively gasped and began to pray just for her to make it out alive. Later we all got to know her, our hero is Nastya Tikhaya. She lived in Irpin with her parents and had a shelter for homeless and handicapped dogs. Nastya started moving the dogs out of the shelled city with her husband when a green corridor was announced, and with the help of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence, they managed to cross half-destroyed bridge bombed  by the Russian troops, and make it to safety. Nastya is a true Ukrainian hero and her bravery will surely stay with us forever.

The hero actor

Ukrainian actor Alexey Surovtsev. (Photo: Instagram / @surovtsev.alexei)

When Alexei Surovtsev, a Ukrainian actor, saw the destruction of Bucha, Irpin, and Borodyanka, cities outside of Kyiv, he got behind the wheel of his car and began his rescue mission. “The Bearded CatMom”, as Alexey jokingly calls himself, has so much compassion for wounded and hungry animals: pets that were separated from their owners, or were left to fend for themselves because their owners were killed by occupiers. His daily mission is to save those in need, treat the wounded and feed all the hungry animals he can find.

Before the war, Alexey lived in Irpin, thus intimate knowledge of the city helped him to get the pets to safety even with shelling going on in the nearby towns and villages. As of now, Alexey has rescued more than 200 pets from bombed and ruined houses and apartments. He saved thousands from starvation. And, he managed to reunite quite a lot of families with their precious cats and dogs. This war turned Alexey into an animal rescuer and beloved national hero. He’s now opened a shelter for rescued pets that aren’t yet adopted or being treated.  

The Ukrainian national treasure – Patron, the Jack Russell  

A picture taken during a trip organised by the Ukrainian interior ministry shows dog Patron, trained to search for explosives, during demining works at the Gostomel airfield near Kyiv, Ukraine, on 5 May 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / OLEG PETRASYUK)

Photos and stories of this little hero pup have surfaced around our globe. This little hero’s whole world changed on 24 February. Instead of sleeping on his owner’s lap, he’s helping to clear our heavily mined cities. We are now used to seeing him in his little State Emergency Service vest sniffing out weapons meant to kill countless Ukrainians.

Patron is two years old and as of last week is a proud holder of the medal for his service to the nation, meaning his extraordinary mine-sniffing abilities. We’ve lost count by now but, just two weeks ago the number of explosives he’s discovered was well over 200. This four-legged tiny creature is a true war hero and we appreciate him very much. Furthermore, when Patron and his owner aren’t dismantling bombs they hold seminars for kids and adults on safety precautions when faced with deadly explosives.  

“I want to award those Ukrainian heroes who are already clearing our land of mines. And together with our heroes – a wonderful little sapper Patron who helps not only to neutralise explosives but also to teach our children the necessary safety rules in areas where there is a mine threat,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said while presenting the medal.  

Honestly, while I was sharing these astonishing stories with you, I remembered the heartbreaking story of the Borodyanka’s dog shelter, our beloved volunteer group ZooPatrol and the cat they’ve saved from a missile-struck building which immediately became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.

Furthermore, I have to mention all of the foreign pet rescue organisations and just regular people that helped to transport thousands of our pets from the war torn regions and settle them in new homes across Europe. DM

A few photo galleries of Ukrainians and their pets during war:


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