LVIV, Ukraine – On a cold Friday evening in March, Oksana and Nastya got off a crowded train in Lviv after a nightmarish trip.
A day earlier, as Russian bombs began to fall dangerously near their apartments in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, the pair fled to the city’s train station and got into a car full of others also heading west to escape the onslaught.
“The carriages were filled to the brim, with five people on each lower bench, 2-3 people on the second upper shelves, some even sleeping on the luggage shelves. It was hard to breathe, not enough oxygen,” Oksana said.
The two customer service professionals were only able to bring what they could pack: a padded backpack each. But even in the wagon crash, Oksana managed to carry something else with her – a black and red pet carrier containing her furry companion, George.
George, a 12-year-old tomcat who mewed loudly at the slightest inconvenience, patiently spent the harrowing journey in his cage, surrounded by strange sounds and smells.
On the recommendation of an Israeli colleague, the two women and George met at a synagogue in Lviv on a Friday evening in March, where they were fed and put up at a hotel by a worshipper.
The trio eventually left Ukraine for Germany, where the women are asking to stay in the near future as refugees at Wolfenbuttel.
And your little dog too
Among the Ukrainian refugees, Oksana and Nastya are not special cases. Among the crush of humanity fleeing war – the UN now says that more than 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced, including more than 4 million who have left the country, it is impossible not to notice the dogs, cats , birds and other pets that Ukrainians bring with them as they make the difficult journey to safety.
Extremely limited in what they can take, many Ukrainians nevertheless prioritize their pets over other possessions.
On March 9, a bus organized by the Israeli embassy to transport its citizens and their families out of Ukraine contained 60 humans, four dogs, a cat and an unconscious tortoise.
There are so many pets making the journey with their Ukrainian owners that Polish animal welfare organizations have flocked to border crossings and train stations to ensure the animals have access to the right food and reasonable terms. Walking through the parking lot in front of Przemysl station, one encounters vans bearing logos with paw prints, silhouettes of cats and smiling cartoon animals.
Refugees and their pets are being welcomed in most European countries, thanks in part to a recommendation from the European Commission to cut red tape and ease the rules.
Once in these countries, pet owners must take various steps to confirm or obtain their pets’ microchips and rabies vaccinations.
In Germany, for example, authorities would require pets from Ukrainian animal shelters to spend 30 days in quarantine in an EU country bordering Ukraine, where they can be vaccinated, even if they have proof. of vaccination from a shelter in Ukraine.
And while many animals are taken to safety, others are abandoned for various reasons. Animal welfare organizations such as Human Society International work to provide supplies and care for animals left in shelters, on farms, or elsewhere.
“A significant number of dogs are now roaming the streets and seeking shelter in abandoned or bombed out buildings because the shelters have been damaged. There will also be animals on farms and in zoos for which evacuation is simply not possible. So, alongside the human tragedy of this invasion, we face the possibility of a worsening animal welfare crisis,” said Ruud Tombrock, Director of Humane Society International Europe. said last month.
Most pets, however, are brought.
In Zavod, a colony of warehouses and artists in Lviv where musicians and painters welcome refugees, Kharkivites Kira and Nick recalled the harrowing five-day trip to Lviv, crossing fields and back roads with their chihuahua Butch , 9 years old.
“She was calm on the trip,” said Kira, who works at a restaurant in more peaceful times.
The couple had packed the car with dog food from Butch, said Nick, who works for US logistics company Leinster. They planned to bring their friend’s mother and grandmother to Poland and then return to Ukraine to ride through the war in the Carpathian Mountains.
Two floors up in the Zavod warehouse, a woman named Yustyna sat with her Labrador retriever. With her husband and 18-year-old daughter, Yustyna had arrived in Lviv two days earlier after a 30-hour journey.
It was her 6-year-old dog’s first train journey.
“He was silent, totally silent,” she said. They spent the long, cramped ride in a tiny train compartment, and the dog didn’t bark or have to relieve himself.
“God forgive! No!” she exclaimed in disbelief when asked if they were considering leaving her dog behind.
While we were talking, Yustyna’s mother approached. The elderly woman was fleeing the country with her daughter’s family and their retriever. She told us that one of the volunteers had given her a coat and, as she burst into tears, assured us that she didn’t need it and that she would return it one day.
Yustyna comforted her mother as the dog curiously sniffed the two women.
Not all travels with pets have been smooth sailing.
Irena spent a whole day on her feet on her train journey from Kharkiv to Lviv. Her 5-year-old dog Unichka was stressed and barked throughout the trip. The other passengers, already tired and tense, grew impatient.
“There was a conflict,” she said sadly.
“It was really difficult for us; we haven’t slept or eaten for 24 hours,” Irena said. “The dog was really scared.”
But here, in the crowded Lviv train station, Unichka was well behaved, sniffling with satisfaction as the crowd surged all around her.
Cats and dogs and hamsters, oh my
In Chișinău, Moldova, one of the many transit camps set up by the Joint Distribution Committee was reserved only for refugees fleeing with pets.
Besides the approximately 7,500 Ukrainian refugees who have arrived at Ben Gurion airport since the start of the Russian invasion, around 40 pets have also arrived, the Absorption Ministry said on March 23.
Among them are dogs of different breeds, cats and even some hamsters.
Dozens of families with pets have been taken in at Moshav Goren in the western Galilee until their plans become clearer.
Daria Polishuk, who fled Kyiv and arrived in Israel from Moldova with her 12-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son, brought the family dog and two hamsters. Her husband had to stay because the Ukrainian authorities do not allow men between the ages of 18 and 60 to leave the country in case they need to be called.
While waiting for new arrivals at Terminal 1 at Ben Gurion Airport, which has been turned into a reception centre, there were not only refreshments for humans but also food for dogs and cats.
“My children have lost everything – their friends, their school, their extracurricular activities,” said Polishuk. “All they have left is me, the dog and the hamsters.”