Dogs in backpacks and rats in pockets as Ukrainian families rescue pets from war

Thousands of refugees who have fled war-torn country refused to leave their pets behind to starve

A volunteer with a pet dog at Viva, which offers shelter for animals in need. Photo: Viva

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For thousands of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion, their dog or cat is the only source of comfort and hope as their world falls apart.

More than 4.2 million people have left Ukraine in the six weeks of war to date, many of them refusing to leave behind their pets despite the huge effort involved in carrying them on the long journey out of the war zone.

Viva animal charity, which operates in the UK and Poland, is one of the many groups offering assistance to Ukrainians with pets at borders, handing out food, carriers, leads and flea collars.

The group’s founder and director Juliet Gellatley said the stories relayed to her by weary refugees as they crossed into Poland were inspiring and emphasised the important role pets play in the mental health of their owners. She said this was particularly evident in cases where children are traumatised from war.

“Some of the children have had the responsibility of looking after the animals and have a special bond with them. [Bringing them across the border] gives them a sense of home,” Ms Gellatley told The National.

“To leave them behind would destroy them, they would be heart-broken. This is their friend who shows then affection. Young children can talk to animals in a way they cannot with adults. It offers them home after all they have survived together.

“Material possessions can be replaced but your dogs or cats cannot.

Viva animal charity is one of the many groups offering assistance to Ukrainians with pets at borders. Photo: Viva

“One woman, who had her bird and two dogs with her on the border, said 'all I want to say to other refugees is don’t leave your dogs behind, they need your love.'

“One lady had carried her dog in a backpack for 15 days by the time she reached Warsaw. And a little boy had carried his pet rat in his pocket.

“They’re essential and part and parcel of the family.”

Before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Viva cared for 450 animals at its 24-hectare sanctuary in Korabiewicach, near Warsaw. Since then it has taken in 130 dogs and cats from Ukraine, some of which had been left homeless when their owners fled the violence. The sanctuary is now full and the charity is urging people in the UK to offer a loving home to one of the abandoned pets.

Some animals handed in have complex needs, including blindness, and require special assistance.

“There’s a story behind every dog and the ones coming from Ukraine have their own stories,” Ms Gellatley said. “There was one dog called Charlie whose owner died in Ukraine and someone brought him across the border saying he was not going to survive the war. He ended up at our sanctuary in Poland and is doing well. The vets believe they may be able to treat his eyes and he may be able to see again.”

As well as housing and caring for animals at its sanctuary, Viva also distributes food for animals in Ukraine and donates pet carriers to refugees at border crossings.

Since the start of the war the charity has raised £30,000 ($38,980) to help Ukrainian animals as people across the world have been moved by the plight of suffering dogs and cats.

Volunteers listened to harrowing stories from desperate refugees including one who carried a shopping bag full of puppies out of the war zone and another whose elderly shepherd dog was unable to walk and had to be carried on its owner’s shoulders.

“The scale of the problem for both people and their animals is vast,” Ms Gellatley said.

“To ensure we can accept more animals into our Polish sanctuary, we have launched a rehoming scheme in the UK, where we have appealed to British people to home some of our existing Polish dogs, whose characters we know and who don’t require quarantine. They have responded magnificently, creating more space for us to receive new refugee dogs.”

Viva Poland Manager Cezary Wyzinsky, who has run the branch for 18 years, described the situation created by the war as “chaotic”.

“Our volunteers and resident vet, along with a refugee vet from Ukraine, have been able to settle, reassure and treat the often traumatised new arrivals,” he said. “It is a desperate situation, with two million refugees and their companion animals now in Poland, and the flow continues.

To donate to Viva, volunteer or offer a home to an animal visit

Updated: April 12, 2022, 6:26 AM