background_fid.png
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Dodging Russian bombs, these volunteers risk it all to save Ukraine's animals

Staff and volunteers load a camel into a vehicle to be evacuated from Feldman Ecopark in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on May 4. The zoo has been shelled repeatedly during the Russian invasion. At least five staff or volunteers were killed and nearly 100 animals at the zoo died as of April.
Carol Guzy for NPR
Staff and volunteers load a camel into a vehicle to be evacuated from Feldman Ecopark in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on May 4. The zoo has been shelled repeatedly during the Russian invasion. At least five staff or volunteers were killed and nearly 100 animals at the zoo died as of April.

Editor's note: This story contains graphic images.

DNIPRO, Ukraine — When Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February, Petya Petrova didn't hesitate. She and a team of other German animal rights activists rushed to the Polish-Ukrainian border to help with what would become an unprecedented influx of refugees, many of them bringing animals.

"I was the first team member to arrive at the Polish border on Feb. 25 to welcome Ukrainians arriving with their pets," says the 34-year-old.

After a few months, the animal rights group she was with, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, pulled back from the border, calling its employees back to Germany. But Petrova didn't think that was the right thing to do.

"My whole existence was linked to this war and I started feeling very emotional about this conflict," she says.

So she quit her job, moved to Kyiv and started working full time to evacuate animals from areas of Ukraine under attack.

The Russian war in Ukraine has gone on almost seven months. Thousands of people have been killed and millions have been forced to leave their homes. But the war is also taking a huge toll on animals — not just domestic pets, but also farm animals and wildlife.

A dead cow at the farm of 58-year-old Oleksandr Novikov, who says he lost 80 cows and 30 pigs during two months of Russian artillery shelling and occupation, in Vilkhivka, Ukraine, on May 14.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
A dead cow at the farm of 58-year-old Oleksandr Novikov, who says he lost 80 cows and 30 pigs during two months of Russian artillery shelling and occupation, in Vilkhivka, Ukraine, on May 14.

Petrova is just one among thousands of individuals, nonprofit organizations and even soldiers trying to help animals caught up in this conflict.

"The war is affecting animals just as it is affecting humans," Petrova tells NPR. "[Animals] are tired, they are stressed, and the prolonged distress is causing sickness and disease," she says. "Stray animals in the streets are unprotected from airstrikes and many shelters have been destroyed."

NPR caught up with Petrova just as she rescued three dogs and a 4-week-old kitten. They'd wandered into a Ukrainian military camp near the eastern city of Kramatorsk and soldiers brought the animals to her in vegetable boxes. Petrova took them to two shelters still operating in the city of Dnipro, in central Ukraine.

That day she says a missile flew right over her head — the first one she's heard. It killed six civilians in Kramatorsk. Petrova pulled off the road and stopped her car.

"It's deep and unmistakable," she says, "and it was at that moment that it all really sunk in what's going on. It was very traumatizing."

Petrova is originally from Bulgaria, which was long dominated by the Soviet Union. That's why she feels a great solidarity with the Ukrainian people — fellow members of the former Soviet bloc — in their fight against Russia, she says. Helping save animals is her way to do her part in this war.

There are similar stories across Ukraine. Irina Ponomarenko is the director of a large animal shelter in Dnipro. She says most of the dogs they house these days are no longer strays — but pets people were forced to abandon.

Glasha (left) and one of her puppies at an animal shelter in Dnipro on July 8. Glasha was at the site of an explosion after a rocket attack on Dnipro. She was found injured with a broken paw and numerous scratches. The next day, Glasha's puppies were pulled from under the rubble. They are in shock, and one has a hip fracture.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Glasha (left) and one of her puppies at an animal shelter in Dnipro on July 8. Glasha was at the site of an explosion after a rocket attack on Dnipro. She was found injured with a broken paw and numerous scratches. The next day, Glasha's puppies were pulled from under the rubble. They are in shock, and one has a hip fracture.

"Often people fleeing the war are given just minutes to evacuate and they take the most valuable thing — their animals," she says. "When they arrive their houses have often been destroyed, their cars have been shot at. They are confused and crying, their animals are often injured or sick because there are no animal clinics in the east any longer."

Ponomarenko says many people can't take their pets any further, especially the big dogs. But thanks to donations, her shelter is committed to keeping these animals safe until their owners can return for them.

The Feldman Ecopark in Kharkiv has had a heavy toll, with news reports of as many at least five people and nearly 100 animals dying in attacks or as a result of the conflict as of April.

Svitlana Vyshnevetska, 62, the ecopark's deputy director, says when it came under fire, she got down on her knees and told the animals she was sorry.

Svitlana Vyshnevetska, vice director at Feldman Ecopark, embraces a caracal in Kharkiv on May 2.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Svitlana Vyshnevetska, vice director at Feldman Ecopark, embraces a caracal in Kharkiv on May 2.
Left: A monkey rescued from at Feldman Ecopark at a temporary shelter in Kharkiv on April 30. Right: Animal enclosures damaged by Russian shelling at the ecopark on May 4.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Left: A monkey rescued from at Feldman Ecopark at a temporary shelter in Kharkiv on April 30. Right: Animal enclosures damaged by Russian shelling at the ecopark on May 4.

Vishnevetska says staff and volunteers made heroic efforts to rescue animals from the zoo during frequent shelling.

Yevhen Zubchyk assists in the rescue of an ostrich at Feldman Ecopark on the outskirts of Kharkiv on May 5. Zubchyk was injured by shrapnel during Russian shelling later that day. Staff and volunteers made frequent trips to evacuate animals from the park as it was shelled by Russian forces. The rescued animals have been moved to other zoos around Ukraine.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Yevhen Zubchyk assists in the rescue of an ostrich at Feldman Ecopark on the outskirts of Kharkiv on May 5. Zubchyk was injured by shrapnel during Russian shelling later that day. Staff and volunteers made frequent trips to evacuate animals from the park as it was shelled by Russian forces. The rescued animals have been moved to other zoos around Ukraine.
Volunteer veterinarian Tymofii Kharchenko assists in the rescue of llamas, in a field where a type of projectile is sticking in the ground, at Feldman Ecopark on May 4.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Volunteer veterinarian Tymofii Kharchenko assists in the rescue of llamas, in a field where a type of projectile is sticking in the ground, at Feldman Ecopark on May 4.

"After every trip to the park, I said I would not go again. But I went anyway. The animals were waiting for us," she says.

"Ten years of work I put into that park. They were all groomed and fed. They were our family. And when you see the broken cages, the destruction — the monkeys were hiding in the toilet — it's devastating."

Tortoises and swans are loaded into a van for evacuation from Feldman Ecopark on May 2.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Tortoises and swans are loaded into a van for evacuation from Feldman Ecopark on May 2.

Vyshnevetska says they were often forced to work without sedatives for the animals. The orangutans seemed to understand and took her hand. But more than a hundred animals perished, including orangutans, chimpanzees and kangaroos that died of heart failure.

Dead animals on the ground at Feldman Ecopark on May 4.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Dead animals on the ground at Feldman Ecopark on May 4.
Rescue efforts to save surviving animals continues, among the bodies of dead animals, at Feldman Ecopark on May 4.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Rescue efforts to save surviving animals continues, among the bodies of dead animals, at Feldman Ecopark on May 4.

At least five employees were killed, including two found shot to death at close range in March. Vyshnevetska witnessed the shooting of a driver who worked at the park. She was also there when 15-year-old Denis Selevin, the son of two Ecopark employees, was fatally wounded.

Russian shelling at Feldman Ecopark on May 5. Zoo volunteer Denis Selevin, 15, was killed as rescuers were working to evacuate animals when the shelling began.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Russian shelling at Feldman Ecopark on May 5. Zoo volunteer Denis Selevin, 15, was killed as rescuers were working to evacuate animals when the shelling began.
From left: Vitalii Ilchenko, Serhii Kolesnikov, Andrii Kharchenko and Oleksandr Kolomiiets rush away from Russian shelling that began while they were trying to rescue an ostrich from Feldman Ecopark on May 4.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
From left: Vitalii Ilchenko, Serhii Kolesnikov, Andrii Kharchenko and Oleksandr Kolomiiets rush away from Russian shelling that began while they were trying to rescue an ostrich from Feldman Ecopark on May 4.

They were crouched down hiding after coming under shelling and heard a child cry out.

"We went outside and saw Denis lying near the threshold of the door," she says. "When I saw him, I became hysterical."

Vyshnevetska says because of her training as a veterinarian, she knew his wounds were fatal. It took them a while to get him to the hospital because of the shelling. They injected him with morphine to ease his pain. He died on the way.

Denis Selevin, a 15-year-old volunteer at Feldman Ecopark, is rushed to hospital after being wounded by Russian shelling on May 5. He later died from his wounds at the hospital.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Denis Selevin, a 15-year-old volunteer at Feldman Ecopark, is rushed to hospital after being wounded by Russian shelling on May 5. He later died from his wounds at the hospital.
Svetlana Selevina hits her husband, Vitalii Selevin, as the two react to the news of the death of their son, Denis Selevin, at a hospital in Kharkiv on May 5. Selevina was upset that her husband took Denis to volunteer with the animal rescue that day. Both they and their son were volunteers who frequently helped feed and care for the animals.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Svetlana Selevina hits her husband, Vitalii Selevin, as the two react to the news of the death of their son, Denis Selevin, at a hospital in Kharkiv on May 5. Selevina was upset that her husband took Denis to volunteer with the animal rescue that day. Both they and their son were volunteers who frequently helped feed and care for the animals.
Svetlana Selevina and Vitalii Selevin embrace after hearing the news of the death of their son, Denis Selevin, at a hospital in Kharkiv on May 5.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Svetlana Selevina and Vitalii Selevin embrace after hearing the news of the death of their son, Denis Selevin, at a hospital in Kharkiv on May 5.
Zoo worker Serhii Kolesnikov cries after learning of the death of Denis Selevin, a 15-year-old volunteer at Feldman Ecopark who was killed by Russian shelling as rescuers were evacuating animals from the park, at a hospital in Kharkiv on May 5.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Zoo worker Serhii Kolesnikov cries after learning of the death of Denis Selevin, a 15-year-old volunteer at Feldman Ecopark who was killed by Russian shelling as rescuers were evacuating animals from the park, at a hospital in Kharkiv on May 5.

Two soldiers fighting for Russia were captured and taken to the hospital. One of them was a Kremlin-backed Ukrainian separatist.

Zoo worker Andrii Shalimov is restrained while trying to hit a captured Ukrainian separatist soldier, who was fighting for Russia, at a hospital in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on May 5. Two captured soldiers were brought to the same hospital where zoo volunteer Denis Selevin died, and the zoo workers took out their grief on the captives when they learned of Selevin's death.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Zoo worker Andrii Shalimov is restrained while trying to hit a captured Ukrainian separatist soldier, who was fighting for Russia, at a hospital in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on May 5. Two captured soldiers were brought to the same hospital where zoo volunteer Denis Selevin died, and the zoo workers took out their grief on the captives when they learned of Selevin's death.

The boy's father, Vitalii Selevin, took off the soldier's blindfold to show his son's blood still on his own hands in a painfully poignant confrontation of war and innocence.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vitalii Selevin shows his hands with his son's blood on them to a captured pro-Russia Ukrainian fighter, at a hospital in Kharkiv on May 5. Selevin's son Denis was killed by shelling.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Vitalii Selevin shows his hands with his son's blood on them to a captured pro-Russia Ukrainian fighter, at a hospital in Kharkiv on May 5. Selevin's son Denis was killed by shelling.

Tags
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
Carol Guzy