These Volunteers Risked Their Lives to Save 2,000 Animals from War-Torn Ukraine

Amid constant danger, volunteers at a Ukraine pet shelter are making sure no animal is left behind.

Most Ukrainians—including President Volodymyr Zelensky—would not have been able to predict that Russia’s war in Ukraine would escalate the way it has since its start on February 24. The unprovoked military aggression led to an influx of Ukrainian refugees across the world, plus thousands of abandoned pets that find themselves under constant shelling and bomb attacks.

Help for Ukraine comes in many forms, and for volunteers at Animal Rescue Kharkiv, what to do after February 24 wasn’t even a question. Everyone found a role to take. “We didn’t have to talk about it,” says Yaryna Vintoniuk, head of communications and information for the organization. “Those who wanted to stay and do the work just came shoulder to shoulder, and our work became clear.”

The nongovernmental organization was officially registered to work with animals in Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine, in 2016, but the staff’s experience dates back more than a decade. And while the number of volunteers was smaller prior to February 24, it’s grown to around 25 people today.

Saving those that can’t save themselves

Animal Rescue Kharkiv Volunteers In TruckAnimal Rescue Kharkiv

When Russian troops invaded, many people fled Ukraine with what little they could carry during what promised to be a dangerous trek to safety. Some took their pets with them. Others fled in a panic, leaving animals behind. And then there are those who became casualties of war.

It’s left a lot of animals with nowhere to go and no way to save themselves.

“The nature of the calls to our center changed overnight when the war started. They were mostly about abandoned pets locked in empty homes,” Vintoniuk says. “Many owners rang our hotline, asking [us] to break the doors or windows and do everything to save their pets. There were many pets that were just let out into the streets or into the apartment blocks. These animals often ended up under Grad shelling attacks or injured by shrapnel.”

So the volunteers at Animal Rescue Kharkiv did the hard thing: They stayed.

The organization operates 24/7, its volunteers working in shifts and risking their lives but sticking to the wartime laws. It often cooperates with the Ukrainian army in its more dangerous missions. “We were under constant airstrikes in Kharkiv,” Vintoniuk says. “In the second week of the war, there was a Grad shelling that killed seven out of nearly 400 animals that we were looking after at our adoption center in Piatykhatky. Half of our kennels were destroyed too.”

And the danger didn’t stop there.

Dodging bombs

volunteer rescuing animal from building Animal Rescue KharkivAnimal Rescue Kharkiv

Since the start of the war, Animal Rescue Kharkiv has evacuated and helped more than 2,000 animals, mostly dogs and cats but sometimes pigs, wolves, donkeys, goats, and chickens. Impressive as that number may be, it didn’t come easily. Time and again, the volunteers put their lives on the line for their animal-rescue efforts.

Take, for instance, a mission in which seven rescuers working for Animal Rescue Kharkiv saved 16 dogs and cats, 10 goats, and a wolf near Feldman Ecopark. Since the Russian invasion began, the park has been under fire, and employees and volunteers have been killed while attempting to evacuate animals.

In other words, the rescue was necessary but incredibly dangerous for the volunteers. “The animals were stuck there when the war started, and it’s deep in the forest, where the Russian army was located,” Vintoniuk recalls. “The person accompanying these animals went in for one night but ended up staying for two months because she was trapped.”

It took Animal Rescue Kharkiv a long time to find a way to get to the animals in the Russia-occupied area. The destination was 700 meters (a little less than a half mile) away, but the route was uneven and hilly. And they’d be returning with a wolf, not the friendliest of traveling companions.

Once they figured out the logistics—the wolf would get an injection to put it to sleep—they headed into the unknown. They reached the animals, but it wasn’t a simple in-and-out job. An unmanned Russian combat aerial vehicle spotted the rescuers with the wolf and proceeded to shell at them. They had to hide. At that point, the injection fully kicked in and rendered the wolf asleep.

“So one of the rescuers, Volodya, had to carry the wolf on his shoulders,” Vintoniuk says. “He hid from the shelling, then picked the wolf up again and resumed. The situation was repeated six times, but thankfully they all made it intact. All the animals were evacuated: the wolf, the 16 dogs and cats, and the goats.”

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Tending to the injured

Hurt Dog saved by Animal Rescue KharkivAnimal Rescue Kharkiv

Not all animals are as lucky as those saved by Animal Rescue Kharkiv near Feldman Ecopark that day. Some have been injured during the war, and even more are dealing with loneliness and a lost sense of purpose. That was the case for Zolotyi (“Goldie”), a dog still on Vintoniuk’s mind.

“Goldie was injured by shrapnel. He got a hole in his nose the width of a finger,” she says. “We took him to a clinic in Kharkiv, where he was provided with the first stage of his treatment. He was very weak—skin and bones. We sent him to a small shelter in Munich. He’s on a quarantine there now.”

The injury to Goldie’s nose could result in damaged vision. And through the routine health checks that are standard for all animal arrivals abroad, he was found to have helminths, or intestinal worms, and had to undergo treatment. And yet it’s the loss of a purpose in life that Vintoniuk points to as particularly damaging.

She explains that dogs and cats live for their owners. Often, abandoned animals die not because of an illness but because they understand they’ve been left behind. Still, she finds hope in the work Animal Rescue Kharkiv does.

“Patrick Ottilinger, who’s been helping us transport our animals abroad and continues to look after them, came to see Goldie when he was very sick,” she says. “He found a family for him and told Goldie that there were people waiting for him—that there was a meaning in life. Goldie is feeling better now.”

Finding safe and happy homes

Dogs Rescued by Animal Rescue KharkivAnimal Rescue Kharkiv

Saving animals is simply the first step. Animal Rescue Kharkiv’s ultimate goal is to give these pets new homes.

From the moment it committed to an on-the-ground rescue operation, the organization started brainstorming where it could take the animals. Rescuers spoke with international organizations and looked for people prepared to adopt a pet.

“And that’s how we started evacuating. Every day, we would pick up new pets that were abandoned by owners. This is still the case today. We’re evacuating fewer animals abroad, but there are still as many abandoned animals and requests for help,” Vintoniuk said.

She notes that they’ve managed to rehome the animals they were already looking after at the adoption center as well as the ones picked up during the war. Most animals end up in Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, with a smaller number going to families in France and the Czech Republic. Romania and Hungary help as transition points within the animals’ evacuation process.

The operation has expanded to help where needed. “Small shelters asked us for help too, and not just from the Kharkiv region but also in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions,” she notes.

Giving wraparound support

Animal Rescue Kharkiv VolunteersAnimal Rescue Kharkiv

What makes Animal Rescue Kharkiv so special is its do-it-all mentality. The organization provides what Vintoniuk calls wraparound support.

“Our rescuers drive to the location where the pets are and provide the necessary help there,” she says. “If there is a need for medical aid, we help by transporting the animal to a clinic. We crowdfund for the clinic treatment, and when the treatment is complete, our staff picks the pet up and brings it here for rehabilitation and further treatment. And then we look for families to provide a new home for it.”

Vintoniuk says that she would love to bring medical help in-house to reduce the cost of treatments. “We have 25 to 30 animals, and it costs us $1,000 a day to treat them at private clinics,” she says. “These are huge costs, and we understand that it would be cheaper if we had our own clinic and our own vets. Private clinics can’t offer price concessions for us.”

That’s where all of us come in. Donations to Animal Rescue Kharkiv help forward the organization’s mission and save the lives of helpless animals. The organization accepts donations via bank transfer. To send money from a U.S. bank, use these details:

  • Name: Animal Rescue Kharkiv
  • International Bank Account Number (IBAN): UA203515330000026006052223580
  • Bank: JSC CB “PrivatBank”
  • SWIFT code: PBANUA2X
  • Company address: UA, 61166, Kharkiv, 4b Serpova St.

Even easier, though, you can donate to Animal Rescue Kharkiv by sending a PayPal donation to [email protected]. Once you’ve hit send on that donation, do more good by supporting these Black Lives Matter charities making a difference in America.


  • Yaryna Vintoniuk, head of communications and information for Animal Rescue Kharkiv

Maria Romanenko
Maria is a Ukrainian-born British-educated writer with an interest in psychology. She has previously worked for Ukraine's Kyiv Post and Hromadske International and written for the Guardian, The Daily Beast, and Business Insider. When her hometown is not bombed by Russia, she resides in Kyiv.