Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, upended the lives of millions of Ukrainian citizens.
Awoken by explosions and surrounded by destruction, they were forced to gather their most important belongings and spend hours, if not days, making their way to safety.
But the long lines of evacuees weren’t just made up of people. Accompanying them were countless dogs and other pets, which four out of five Ukrainians consider part of the family.
Photos of courageous refugees and their dogs have gone viral in the weeks since the war began, showcasing the unbreakable connection between human and canine.
And the world has been humbled by stories of brave vets, caretakers, rescuers, and volunteers who have stayed behind in the warzone to protect the dogs and other animals that have been left behind.
Here’s a look at some of these incredible tales of dogs in Ukraine — and information on how to help them and the people who care for them.
Anastasiia Yalanskaya: A Hero to Abandoned Dogs
A Young Woman’s Devotion to Dogs
On March 4, 26-year-old Anastasiia Yalanskaya and two of her friends set out on a mission. They had heard about an abandoned animal shelter outside the battered city of Kyiv, where the dogs had gone without food for three days.
Anastasiia and her friends loaded a car up with dog food and brought it to the starving dogs. The group then began driving to a friend’s father’s house.
They had almost made it when Russian troops opened fire on the vehicle, killing everyone inside.
Devoted to Dogs and People
Anastasiia had been committed to staying in Ukraine and helping anyone in need. She had spent the previous week delivering food and diapers to 40 kindergarten children and had been posting messages of strength on Telegram up until her death.
One of her final posts speaks to her commitment to people and dogs alike. “We are not scared. We are united like never before. We help each other. We stand for hours at roadblocks and thank those who protect us. We will win.”
And in her last Instagram story, shared just a few hours before her death, she is pictured smiling in the car next to the dog food she was about to deliver. Though the image is haunting now, it also shows her well-earned confidence and pride in knowing that she was on her way to save lives.
Shelter at the Border: A Safe Haven for Shellshocked Dogs
An International Initiative
In Medyka, a Polish town on the southern Ukraine border, millions of refugees have crossed over seeking safety since the war began.
It’s also where volunteers from Denmark, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe have set up a makeshift shelter for dogs and other animals in need.
The chaos of the war has resulted in many dogs becoming homeless. Some families have been unable to find housing that allows them to bring their dogs, while others have become separated from their dogs in the process of evacuating.
And still other dogs have never had homes, living as strays in various Ukrainian towns and cities.
Scrounging for Supplies — and Sanity
In the shelter, some of the street dogs huddle together for comfort, having never interacted so closely with humans before. Others are beloved family pets who cry for their owners, having been left behind with heartbreaking goodbye letters and prayers of reunion in the future.
Whatever the situation, says volunteer Sonja Mortensen-Dissing, the dogs at the shelter are all terrified and traumatized by what they’ve been through.
And though the volunteers are staying strong for the sake of the animals, the logistics of running the shelter have been stressful to sort out.
Volunteer Sasha Winkler says that there is little dog or cat food available for hundreds of kilometers. He also says that in addition to protecting animals at the shelter, the organization has been transporting pet food and supplies to various towns in western Ukraine.
But for him, there is no option but to stay and keep the animals safe, no matter the toll it takes. “A life of an animal is the same life as a human,” he says. “The only good thing is for the dogs and cats to have an option now, with the war, for a better life.”
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Animal Rescue Kharkiv: No Dogs Left Behind
Bravery in a Battered City
Shelters within Ukraine have been faced with even more life-threatening work: caring for animals while under active attack by Russian forces.
Animal Rescue Kharkiv operates a shelter and adoption center in Kharkiv, one of the hardest-hit cities in Ukraine. The adoption center itself was directly hit by Russian bombs, killing five dogs and causing many others to escape.
But despite the clear danger of remaining in Kharkiv, the shelter’s volunteers have decided to stay. The group’s mission has always been to help animals in need, and they’re not about to back down now — no matter how difficult it gets.
Since the war began, they’ve been flooded with frantic calls from fleeing pet owners, begging for someone to go to their homes and rescue the pets they had to leave behind. Rescuing these animals has involved venturing into Russian-occupied neighborhoods, entering destroyed buildings, and pulling horrifically-injured animals from the rubble.
Animal Rescue Kharkiv has taken in hundreds of animals since the invasion started, but one has become a symbol of the group’s valiance and dedication.
Bayraktar, a massive white dog, was found in the street after being hit by a car. Despite his injuries, he has stayed strong and become the rescue’s new mascot — and been given the name of one of the drones currently defending Kharkiv.
The rescue has been providing Bayraktar with medical treatment and sheltering him with a volunteer. But their ultimate goal is to find him — along with all the other dogs in their care — a safe, loving, permanent home.
Rebecca Jackson and Lucas: An Uncertain Journey
A Life-Altering Choice
British teacher Rebecca Jackson was living in Kyiv with her girlfriend, Yulia, and her dog, a German shorthair pointer cross named Lucas, when the war broke out.
Yulia, a native Ukrainian, wanted to remain in her country and defend it. But, realizing that she wouldn’t be able to carry Lucas to a bomb shelter should an attack begin, Rebecca decided to return to the UK with him.
Lucas, a rescue, had only come to Ukraine a month prior. He was in a constant state of panic due to the sirens and explosions, so Rebecca’s priority was getting him to safety.
But getting home wasn’t as simple as flying back. The UK hadn’t waived its strict animal quarantine requirements, so she was given the choice of staying with Lucas or leaving and having him put down.
The choice was obvious for Rebecca: she was never giving up Lucas. She would have to find another way home.
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Crossing Europe with Lucas
Rebecca joined a group of UK citizens and traveled to the city of Lviv, in western Ukraine near the Romanian border. But lines to cross were long and crowded, filled with desperate people who were becoming increasingly aggressive towards her and Lucas.
So Rebecca sheltered with a local family, who provided her, her colleague, and their dogs with translation assistance to cross into Romania the next day.
From there, they passed through Budapest and then Vienna, where a friend of Rebecca’s met them and drove them back to the UK. Though Rebecca was anxious about getting Lucas through border control, officials waived them through without a hassle.
Now that Lucas is safely back at home, Rebecca wants to go back to Ukraine, reunite with Yulia and help in the fight against Russia however she can.
But she’s grateful to Lucas for helping her escape the violence: “The dog saved my life as he made my decision to flee easier and I may have stayed on but for him.”
Alisa Teptiuk and Pulya: Unbreakable Spirit, Undying Love
Dogs Are Family, Too
For many Ukrainian refugees, fleeing the war hasn’t just required strength of spirit. It’s also been an intense physical journey, with many people carrying their most precious belongings tens of kilometers on foot down frozen, impassable roads.
Alisa Teptiuk is one of these people. Stranded in a days-long traffic jam 17 km from the Polish border, she and her family completed the journey on foot — while taking turns carrying their 12-year-old German Shepherd, Pulya.
Pulya had spent nearly her entire life with Alisa, but was now elderly and having trouble keeping up as the family walked to the border. She would stumble and fall frequently, and though passersby told Alisa to continue without the dog, Alisa refused to give up on her.
“We couldn’t leave her behind,” Alisa said. “She has been through the happiest and saddest moments of life with us. She understands us and loves us and we love her very much and will do everything to look after her and keep her safe.”
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The Power of Canine Companionship
A photo of their journey went viral on Twitter, and the display of devotion moved many to tears. The response, in turn, has moved Alisa, who says she took the photo without really thinking about it but now sees how special it is.
Having Pulya with her has been especially important for Alisa due to the emotional turmoil she’s been through recently. The day before the invasion, her father passed away; and though the family made it to Poland, they had to leave Alisa’s husband behind due to mandatory conscription in Ukraine.
“A lot of my friends are still in Ukraine, in Kyiv,” she said. “At first I lost my dad, and now I leave my husband there.” But for now, she is grateful to be safe in Poland with her kids and Pulya, who is their “one constant in all of this madness.”
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"If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then give him only two."
-- Phil Pastoret