Ukraine reminds us that animals suffer during wartime, too

Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges
A polar bear at a zoo in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on March 14. Rockets landed on the grounds of the zoo on Feb. 27.

As I write this, sipping coffee and listening to Miles Davis at home in Virginia, a toothless tabby named Scar is curled up next to me and a frail ginger cat named Pancake is napping upstairs. Ten years ago, Scar was starving in a garbage dump in Kabul. Five years ago, Pancake survived a suicide bombing there that blew out the window in my office where she always sat in the sun.

Scar and Pancake are the lucky ones, plucked by chance from harsh and dangerous conditions in a foreign war zone, long ago. I think about that every morning when I read the latest horrific news from Ukraine, where thousands of desperate people are making extraordinary efforts to save their pets – cats, dogs, rabbits, goats, even turtles – as they flee from Russian guns and missiles.

The military assault on Ukraine, in addition to destroying bridges and roads, theaters and schools and hospitals, is also destroying something less tangible. It has shattered the small pleasures and habits of a peaceful, democratic, upwardly mobile society, one characterized in part by its compassion for animals.

The images are poignant, heartbreaking and ubiquitous. Every day we see new tableaux of war and flight, captured by news photographers, with an animal somewhere in the frame. A young woman, stricken and dazed, clutching a cat in a quilt as she walks away from the rubble of a former life. A shoulder bag lying upside down on the pavement, with two eyes peering through the mesh. A soldier helping a woman carry her cat across a destroyed bridge. Another woman weeping and hugging her dog as she waits to enter Romania.

These scenes hint at stories of awful choices, agonized partings and fading hopes. People tearfully describe having to leave their animals behind, thrusting them into a neighbor’s arms, losing them in the chaos of a crowded train station or the arbitrary procedures of a border crossing. Journalists wandering in deserted urban ruins describe cats licking at empty food cans and dogs waiting forlornly outside apartment house entrances. Soon, they will lose hope and wander off, relearning to fight for food as they descend into a feral state.

Regional and international animal welfare groups have launched efforts to help displaced Ukrainians reach safety with their animals, providing food supplies, travel crates and emergency veterinary facilities. A veterinarian from Colorado, working with volunteers from his nonprofit group, the Street Dog Coalition, vaccinated and microchipped dogs and cats at the Ukraine-Romania border so they would be accepted into foreign countries.

Despite the danger, some Ukrainians have decided to remain at home to care for animals – and have found a redeeming sense of purpose and fulfillment in doing so. Staff members at the city zoo in Kyiv moved into the facility last month to help reassure captive creatures terrified by air raid sirens, shelling and gunfire. For weeks, a keeper slept near a nervous, 17-year-old Asian elephant named Horace. In Kharkiv, a woman whose neighbors fled the besieged city said her life now revolves around feeding the dogs and cats they had to leave behind. In the city’s subway, now being used as an underground shelter, some families have set up camp with their pets. They say it helps distract their children during the day, comforts them at night, and keeps a sense of humanity alive in a dark and frightening time.

The war is far from over. Many more people will die before it ends; many homes will be destroyed; many families uprooted. Some will lose the humans they loved most; some will never know the fates of cherished animals they were forced to abandon. But someday, if they eventually return home and begin to rebuild a stable, caring society, perhaps they can adopt some of the homeless animals that were lost in the conflict or survived in rescue shelters. They will never regret it.

As I look out at my back porch right now, I can see my dogs, Simba and Rani, dozing happily after a hearty breakfast. Once, they were strays in troubled foreign lands, living lonely, precarious lives at the margins of human settlements. Simba, a honey-colored hound, was run over on a highway in Pakistan in 2017 and left to die; he still has deep scars along his back. Rani, a small, delicate shepherd, barely survived on scraps in the Kabul streets and is still afraid of brooms. After nursing them back to health, I brought them both to the United States several years ago.

Now, every time I turn the key in the front door, Simba and Rani leap to their feet on the porch, then drop their ears flat as soon as they see me through the glass. A dog’s ears never lie, and they transmit so much in that brief, instinctive reflex. Memories of pain and months of healing, deep-seated fear and mistrust turned to joyful devotion. Every time they greet me, I find myself thinking: We are safe. We are home. We are the lucky ones.