This is a report on a day in the life of an animal rescue volunteer mission in the city of Huliaipole, located just over a hundred kilometres from Zaporizhzhia and only seven kilometres from the frontline. Apart from rescuing animals, the townspeople eagerly share their experiences and ongoing pain. Since early March 2022, nearly 16 months at the time of publication, there has been no electricity or water supply, and the recently bombed buildings are difficult to distinguish from those that have stood empty for over a year. This is a story from a place where war is not a horrifying television image that can be switched off, but a reality that must be fought against every day.
We head to Huliaipole with volunteers from the Kyiv Animal Rescue Group — Vova and Tania. It’s a sweltering 14 May. The sweet scent of lilac mixes with the smell of the feed we carry for the local cats and dogs. In addition to three hundred kilograms of animal food, the car is filled with carriers and cages for their evacuation. Vova is at the wheel while Tania sits in the back seat, holding an open blue notebook. On the left page is written “Food”, and on the right, “Animals”. Both pages are filled with lists of addresses. Tania will mark a “tick” next to each one where we manage to provide help.
KARGThe Kyiv Animal Rescue Group (KARG) specialises in rescuing animals in emergencies that require special equipment or skills in Kyiv and its surrounding areas. They also deploy to evacuate and assist animals in frontline cities.
Trudova Street, 67
Vova stops the battered bus in the courtyard of an apartment building. We check the address — Trudova Street, 67. We see a woman sitting on a bench approaching the entrance where cats are scurrying about. She’s wearing a purple sleeveless top with a bag slung over her shoulder. The bench is covered with a brown tapestry adorned with patterns, and behind her, a twisted apple tree creates shade. On seeing us, the woman stands up and comes forward. Her name is Natalia.
“Be careful, he’s very restless,” she says, holding a skinny black cat with a bald patch on its back by the scruff of its neck. During evacuations, animal rescue volunteers primarily save sick animals because they have the least chance of survival here.
Tania, Vova’s partner, tries to take the cat to put it in the carrier, but it hisses and swipes with its sharp claws. Eventually, they get the cat into the carrier, but it jumps out. Tania grabs it and tries to push it into the carrier’s rear first, but the cat stubbornly sticks out its paw and bites the girl between her thumb and forefinger. She cries out loudly. It’s barely possible for Natalia to pry open the black cat’s jaws. Together, they finally manage to get the cat into the carrier. At last, Vova closes the door of this carrier and prepares another.
The second cat hardly resists, so Vova confidently grabs it by the scruff and places it in the carrier. The cat, stretching out, comically bulges its eyes and raises its ears. The door in front of its face is closed. Natalia thanks us and says goodbye.
Lastly, I look at the brown tapestry and the gnarled apple tree, and then at the four-story panel building where this woman lives.
“Are many people living in the building now?”
Spartakivska Street, 5
We move on. The next address is also a multi-storey building, though there aren’t many in Huliaipole. The town predominantly comprises private houses with barns, annexes, gardens, and orchards, much like a hundred years ago when the famous anarchist Nestor Makhno lived in the city. Some of these houses are peppered with enemy shrapnel; some are bombed. The rest is intact. Grocery stores and the market are operational.
Tania and Vova approach the locals with carriers. Nearby, about fifteen cats roam around. Meanwhile, a broad-shouldered, moustachioed man in a clean shirt, who has parked his Tavria next to our bus, catches my attention. His name is Oleksandr. He starts a conversation:
“I can show you where it (Russian shelling — ed.) hit yesterday.”
It turns out that the day before our arrival, Russian artillery heavily shelled the city. While Vova and Tania were putting cats and dogs into carriers, Oleksandr led me around the corner of the building. Another multi-storey building comes into view, its entrance replaced by a hole through which the darkness of the stairwell is visible – likely hit by a shell. Windows on all floors are either shattered or boarded up with plywood. Nearby, other signs of shrapnel damage: a garage with a damaged end wall, a football field’s metal fence pocked with holes, and wires lying on the asphalt like exhausted snakes. Oleksandr looks at the damaged facade and points:
“There’s my apartment. The balcony was destroyed.”
Every so often, there’s a whistling or thumping sound in the background – artillery duels continue.
For over a year, Oleksandr and his wife Ira have been living at their country house in another part of the city, slightly further from the front. There, they care for eleven cats and a large black dog, similar to a Labrador.
We return, and Oleksandr wants to show me something else. He takes a plastic tray from his Tavria, filled with bunches of keys. These are from the homes of his neighbours and friends who have left the city. Oleksandr checks their houses to ensure everything is in place, waters the plants, and feeds the fish. He hands me the tray to photograph.
“What am I to do with all this?”
Meanwhile, Tania and Vova have fewer and fewer empty carriers left. The calmer cats are placed two in each carrier. One of them starts to meow wistfully.
“Goodbye, Ryzhychok, kitty,” says a local resident to him. Finally, Vova manages to put Ryzhychok into the carrier.
Tania still hasn’t bandaged her hand — there’s a dried patch of blood on it. The volunteer continues seating the animals and explaining to people that she can’t take all their cats.
I ask the locals how the animals react to the shelling.
“When it’s heavy shelling, both dogs and cats run with us up the stairs. But if it’s not too intense, they don’t react much. Just like us,” they say.
Oleksandr introduces me to his wife, Ira. She takes me to their flat to show the aftermath of yesterday’s shelling. Besides the balcony, the shrapnel hit the living room: it tore through the turquoise suspended ceiling and chipped the glass on a gilded icon of the Virgin Mary. However, the icon itself, according to Ira, miraculously remained intact.
Luhova Street, 116
Luhova Street lies in the northern part of the city, as far away as possible from the front line. We stop at the yard of Petro and Olena to deliver some feed. Nearby grows a lilac bush. In Huliaipole, white or purple lilacs are found near every third house.
We enter their yard, bypassing the black dog Tyson on a leash, and through the porch, we reach the backyard. The couple has fifteen cats and three kittens. Olena immediately scatters the food we brought, and the cats quickly gather around it.
Petro and Olena also feed dogs left behind by their neighbours. When they run out of food, they cook porridge and broth for the animals. Occasionally, they add stewed meat brought by volunteers to the porridge. Petro shares:
“I never thought that, at sixty years old, I would have so many cats. But I love animals. And I can’t imagine life without cats. I’ve been used to them since childhood.”
We return and meet Tyson the dog again. Petro praises him for being obedient and never barking at the cats. He squats before the dog, starts petting him, and notices tears in the animal’s eyes. Indeed, Tyson lifts his head and looks at his owner with a silent gaze, wet patches under his eyes.
Ovchynnikova Street, 15
Adjacent to Luhova is Ovchynnikova Street, a neighbourhood comprising only private houses. We stop by green corrugated iron gates and call for the owner. Oleksii, a burly man in a blue jumper, greets us.
He greets us and brings out two female dogs, holding them by the scruff of the neck, one after the other. Vova takes over and places the animals into carriers. These are the offspring of the restless shepherd dog Herda. There were six of them in total: Oleksii had given away the males, but nobody wanted the females.
While Herda’s owner is in Finland, Oleksii has agreed to care for the shepherd.
“She’s fierce, knocked a person off a moped and threw to the ground. The soldiers wanted to shoot her. But I negotiated with her for half an hour — I took a knife and said, ‘I’ll cut you!’”
During one shelling, Herda was injured: her hind leg was shattered, and shrapnel grazed her neck. But Oleksii and a neighbour washed her wounds and bandaged her up — her leg healed. Now, during shellings, they hide together.
“When a rocket hit from the plane that time — I dived under the car, and she, with her puppies, went under the car too. And all seven of us were lying there.”
Makhna Street, 76
This street is located in the city centre. It was formerly known as the 3rd Internatsional Street (dedicated to the communist era — ed.), and it was only renamed Nestor Makhno Street in 2016. A monument to Makhno appeared in the city in 2009. Six days after our volunteer trip, on 20 May 2023, this monument, surrounded by sandbags, was dressed in an embroidered shirt by local rescuers.
We drive into the courtyard of another multi-storey building. An elderly woman sits by the first entrance; near the second, a man is boarding up windows with plywood. Around twenty cats and kittens are gathered, and a shepherd dog is wandering about. Liudmyla, an older woman with well-kept blonde hair, comes out to meet us.
Vova brings her two fourteen-kilogram packs of cat food and immediately starts scattering it in the courtyard.
Liudmyla cares for about forty cats. Roughly half of them live here on Makhna where her daughter and son-in-law’s flat is located. Liudmyla moved here for the time of war. The rest of the cats stayed in Liudmyla’s old house, where she goes daily to feed them. Before the full-scale war, she had two cats, but then she started taking in strays, and now twelve are there. Liudmyla cooks large pots of porridge for them every day. She says the hardest time was in winter when the porridge would freeze. She points to a stovepipe sticking out of a first-floor window, which her son-in-law installed to provide warmth during winter, as no one expected the heating to be restored.
Kuska, Vaska, Tima, Zhora, — Liudmyla calls the cats to eat. It seems she knows all their names.
Several cats were killed by shrapnel during Russian shellings. Occasionally, they also die from concussions caused by loud explosions. After yesterday’s shelling, all are alive, but on previous occasions, Liudmyla had to collect the dead animals and bury them. She leads me around the corner of the building, where the impact of a shell is clearly visible. This also happened yesterday. Liudmyla is fortunate that her daughter’s flat is on the other side of the building.
Trudova Street, 135
Now we’re heading south, towards the front. We pass by an old three-story brick building with decorative cornices and a pediment (the upper part of the facade of a building). It turns out to be the Schroeder Steam Mill, built in 1894. Between the second and third floors, there’s a crater about a metre in diameter. I wonder if it could have been caused by yesterday’s shelling, but it turns out that the hit occurred back in June 2022.
Schroeder Steam MillAnother name for the mill is “Nadiia” (Hope). It was built by the merchant Samson Saksahansky in 1894 and was purchased in 1908 by the Huliaipole industrialist and landowner David Schroeder. This mill is a hallmark of Huliaipole and an example of industrial architecture.
Tania opens her notebook and looks at the “Animals” page. The last address reads: “Trudova, 135. Two dogs (spaniels)”.
“Vova, we’ve passed 139. Let’s go back!” Tania says. Vova immediately responds.
We stop by the acid-green gates. Next to it, a bush of white lilacs is in bloom.
Vova takes a long yellow leash from the car and hops over the fence, opens the gates from the inside, and searches the yard. I notice the washed clothes hanging on the lines – the first sign that someone lives here. But then I wonder if these clothes have been hanging here for who knows how long.
I follow Vova between the barns to the backyard. First, we pass cages with chickens and geese. Then we see a large rusty enclosure and a wooden doghouse. The smell is terrible.
A brown and white spaniel looks at us questioningly, barking through the barred window of the enclosure. Inside, there are heaps of dry faeces – it seems it hasn’t been cleaned for a long time.
The other spaniel, a chestnut-coloured one, is chained near the wooden doghouse. There are also several piles of faeces nearby. Vova unchains the dog and leads it to the bus. The dog is uncooperative, pulling in all directions and barking loudly.
By the bus, Tania is already talking with Yurii, who lives across the street. He has been feeding the neighbour’s chickens, geese, and spaniels at the neighbour’s request. He lives there with his wife and used to have a large farm. Or rather, he did – the man sadly recalls last June when the attack by Grad missile hit his yard, killing twenty chickens and forty nutrias. Now only seven chickens and five nutrias remain.
Finally, they manage to put the dog into the last free carrier. The second spaniel, brown and white, is taken into the cabin. It settles next to Tania, who holds the blue notebook in her injured left hand, and with her right, she takes out a pen to mark a “tick” next to the last address on the list. Vova starts driving, and the spaniel places its paws on Tania’s lap and tries to lick her.
The trip to Huliaipole is the sixth for the Animal Rescue Group. Before this, they rescued animals in Bakhmut, Chasiv Yar, and subsequently in areas flooded due to the Russians blowing up the dam of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station. The volunteers constantly need financial support for vehicle repairs, purchasing animal food, and paying for veterinary services. Furthermore, they are looking for kind owners ready to take in homeless animals.
Involved in the preparation of the material 10 volunteersSupport the project