LATE on Saturday night, John Hülskemper sat in his Kharkiv apartment looking through his emails. A desperate plea from a woman named Inga comes through his inbox: “I have contacted you to inform you about my lost dog. We last saw it on 16 [of March].”
“Please help us find it because it is my life. The best friend of my family.”
Attached to the email are photographs of a perfectly groomed 2-year-old Jack Russell terrier.
Every morning, as bombs rain down on Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, Hülskemper and his team of 35 volunteers at Animal Rescue Ukraine scour the streets in search of lost or abandoned pets. Panicked residents fleeing their homes are often forced to leave their animals behind, while other pets simply run away amid the chaos of a war-torn city.
A 29-year-old who until just weeks ago made his living as a mechanic, Hülskemper now risks his life to save the animals caught in the crossfire of Russia’s devastating campaign on his city. “I had never worked with animals before. I’ve loved animals since childhood and used to have a dog by my side all the time. Seeing innocent animals being killed, injured, and abandoned broke my heart I decided to choose this as my mission.”
Hülskemper used social media to find like-minded people who were willing and capable of helping. “When we reached here, we separated according to our skills. Some are veterinary doctors, some take care of the animals, and some of us go into the field to rescue animals.”
Animal Rescue Ukraine’s shelter now counts 237 animals, most of them found wandering the streets of Kharkiv. “In most cases we just move around the streets searching for animal sounds,” Hülskemper explains. “We sometimes rescue heavily wounded animals which in the end don’t survive. Some of our team members are injured when we fall into live (fighting).”
Kharkiv has been under assault by the Russian Army since late February 2022, with civilian buildings having been targeted from the outset. The battle for the city has resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths and more than 700,000 people evacuating. For those that stayed behind, giving in is not an option. Despite their steely defiance, residents like Hülskemper openly admit that going about their lives with a semblance of normality is terrifying.
“Things are tough here. Sometimes we wake up hearing bomb blasts which scare us a lot. They not only scare us but also the animals who you find screaming and running away.”
Ukraine Animal Rescue’s social media is littered with devastating videos and images of injured animals that were rescued and need urgent medical attention. In one post, a young Labrador with blood dripping from its hind leg lays motionless on a table as a young woman applies a bandage. Another video shows a volunteer picking up an immobilised puppy from the middle of road as cars zoom past. The group is raising money through donations, aiming with an immediate goal of $17,000 for urgent treatments, and aims to continue its fight until well after the war is over.
“I do not think (about things) like leaving Kharkiv until the war is finished. I can’t leave innocent animals to suffer. Everyone here is brave. The innocent animals suffering in Ukraine have not committed any crime, they should be saved and helped.”
Though the plight of animals during wartime remains front of mind for shelters on the ground, politicians elsewhere have received criticism for allegedly prioritising pets over people. During last August’s takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, animal charity Nowzad successfully oversaw the evacuation of 94 dogs and 68 cats from Kabul at a time when Afghan people were in desperate need of evacuation themselves. Leaked Foreign Office emails suggest that Boris Johnson authorised the rescue mission, though he described the allegation as “total rhubarb”.
Searching for the lost animals is only half of the rescuing job for Hülskemper and his team. Once found, most pets are either heavily injured or psychologically scarred. Caring for the pets and eventually finding them new permanent homes are proving near impossible tasks in a city where everyone’s day-to-day reality is so unpredictable.
“Sometimes we run out of food and medicine for the animals and some die of hunger. We are all just praying for peace.”
Ordinary Ukrainians have taken up arms to repel Russian forces over the past few weeks, with the government distributing firearms to anyone willing to fight. Hülskemper and his team of volunteers made the decision early to stay behind and fight for those unable to help themselves. As of this week, Inga’s Jack Russell terrier remains missing.
Taymour Khashoggi is a freelance journalist and postgraduate student at The London School of Journalism.
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