Comment: Who cares for dogs, cats left behind in Ukraine?

For pets that lost owners who fled or died, survivors and soldiers do what they can for the animals.

By Yehor Firsov / Special To The Washington Post

When we think of the casualties of the Ukraine war, we obviously think of the human cost; the lives lost, the wounded and injured, the families displaced. But there are other, smaller casualties of this war. They’re not announced on the television news, but I see them in the war zone every day.

They are the many homeless, abandoned animals that roam the streets of front-line towns and villages leveled by the Russian assault.

Most of these animals, and there are hundreds, even thousands, of them, are former pets; dogs and cats left behind by owners who’ve fled or died. In many places, they outnumber any remaining human residents. In fact, it seems that the less human life there is in a place, the more animal life there is.

While serving in the Kyiv Territorial Defense Forces, I participated in the mop-up operation in Bucha after the Russians left. I remember that strange feeling of walking along an empty street; it’s broad daylight and not a single soul in sight. But suddenly there’s a movement: The gate shakes. It’s the wind, you think, but then you open it; and there stands a dog or a cat. You reach down to stroke it and ask, “Hey, how’re you doing?”

Sometimes, these animals amaze us with their humanity. In one yard, we find the corpses of four people and a pit bull. Nearby lies a haggard German shepherd, still alive. It has stayed with its owners, guarding their decomposing bodies and refusing to leave, even though we can tell they have been dead for some time. It won’t abandon those who once gave it their love.

Elsewhere, we come upon a bombed-out high-rise apartment building. There’s not a single window left in the facade; the surrounding ground is completely covered in broken glass. Suddenly, we hear someone quietly stepping on the glass behind us. We turn around; a gray tabby cat. I pick it up, and even though its wounded paws leave traces of blood on my clothes, it immediately starts to purr. I can’t leave it there. It’s well groomed and clearly someone’s pet. I don’t know whether its owners are dead or alive, but when I post a picture on social media, they come forward to claim it. I’m sad to give it up, but it’s a happy ending for the kitty.

Happy endings, though, are the exception. Walk through the ruined, half-empty cities of Bakhmut or Avdiivka, and you’ll come upon scores of wandering cats and dogs. Even Pokrovsk, 25 miles from the front lines, is overflowing with homeless cats. When our unit was at drill there, I saw a dozen or more hanging around the local store. I bought some sausages for them and got to talking with an elderly woman named Lyudmyla. She was also trying to feed the strays huddling near her home. “I made a house for them,” she told me, pointing to a large cardboard box, “but as soon as the snow falls, it will certainly be hard for the animals. I feel so sorry for them. But I can’t take all of them into the house; I could only take three kittens.”

There will be more and more kittens and puppies, because many of the animals are not fixed and continue to breed. “Calculate for yourself. A cat is able to breed up to five times a year and can bring several kittens in a litter,” one animal rights activist from the Donetsk region wrote to me on social media. With thousands of homeless cats, there could be tens of thousands of kittens in a few months.

Now our unit is stationed in Bakhmut, on the front line. In one yard, I meet a woman cooking over an open fire, surrounded by at least a dozen cats. “Are they all yours?” I ask her. “No, just one is mine,” she says. “These are all the cats of my neighbors. They left, and we feed their pets.”

On the very front line, in the trenches, military units often give shelter to one or more dogs. My unit took in one that wandered into our position. We’ve named him Yur. He’s just an ordinary mutt, but when I look into his eyes, it’s like looking at a wise old man who deeply understands everything going on around him.

I asked the soldiers whether having him around helped them. “At night it feels safer with the dog,” one said. “He helps the duty officer see if the enemy is approaching.” But really, Yur is more like a therapist. Whenever the soldiers have a minute, they come over and pet him; it seems to relieve their stress and makes them feel better.

The stories of these homeless creatures touch the hearts of people everywhere. The photo of a dog that survived a rocket attack in Dnipro that killed its owners — and destroyed the dog’s hearing — went viral on Ukrainian social media when it was posted in memory of the family.

There’s obviously no official solution to these animals’ plight, but I’ve come up with a modest solution of my own. I suggested that each member of my brigade adopt one small furry life to take home, and most have agreed.

As for me, I’ve adopted a cat. You might not be surprised to hear that it looks a lot like the one I had to give up. And that it’s just as kind and loving; and reminds me that even in the midst of war, it’s possible to experience fleeting moments of grace.

Yehor Firsov is a soldier in the Ukrainian army.

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