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Some Ukrainians fled with their pets. Others are stepping in to care for the rest

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Millions of people have fled Ukraine. They left in cars, trains and even on foot to escape danger from Russia's assaults. And they often make extraordinary efforts to bring their beloved pets with them. NPR's Tim Mak has seen this repeatedly in his month of reporting there and has this report.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: In northwestern Ukraine, in the city of Rivne, I ran into Natalia Shulzhenko. She had fled the violence in Kyiv, along with her tiny dog, Richard the Great. Richard had a bandage on one paw. He had gotten scared during a bombardment and cut himself on a nail.

NATALIA SHULZHENKO: (Through interpreter) He's a member of our family. We can't leave him. We have many animals. The mentality of people is that, how can we leave them?

MAK: And in Ternopil, a city in western Ukraine, I saw a small child with her pet rabbit. They had taken a grueling 15-hour train ride to escape Ukraine's capital city. In central Ukraine, Sergey Morgunov, the mayor of the town of Vinnytsia, talked about the dogs and cats he had seen displaced people bring with them and the loyalty Ukrainians have for their animals.

SERGEY MORGUNOV: (Through interpreter) If you take into consideration the whole history of Ukraine, you can see that animals actually helped us a lot because we are an agricultural nation.

MAK: Alla Losik, who works at the Ukrainian Zoo Association, stopped to talk to us as she was in the process of organizing the transport of 20 dogs across Ukraine so that a German organization could pick them up and rescue them. The Ukrainian government has, in some cases, accused Russian military forces of striking animal shelters or stables, using photos and videos as evidence. It's a claim she repeats.

ALLA LOSIK: We try to help them, but it's impossible because all the time, it's a bombarding or killing. It's impossible to give them help because Russian people killed everybody who tried to help.

MAK: There are many Ukrainians who are volunteering to improve conditions for animals even in a time of war.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

MAK: In an outdoor dog shelter in a northern region of Ukraine, we arrived as air raid sirens went off in the distance. It's March and bone-chillingly cold. The wind is blowing heavily. And many of the water bowls I see for these dogs have frozen to ice. Yulia Kuhar volunteers at the shelter just outside Rivne.

YULIA KUHAR: (Through interpreter) A hundred percent, they're afraid. They're also feeling that something's abnormal, and they hear everything. There were a couple of explosions here not too far, and you can tell that the dogs running around are worried, and they also feel it.

MAK: For many of these animal lovers, taking care of these pets is a form of therapy - a way of coping with the uncertainty and violence of the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

MAK: Elena Lina already takes care of nine cats and four dogs in her tiny apartment in central Ukraine. She told my interpreter why she does it.

ELENA LINA: (Through interpreter) Because I love God, because I love people, because I love flowers. Because I know what it's like to be hungry, because I know what it's like to feel pain, because I have nine chronical (ph) illnesses myself. That's why I realized that somebody has to do it.

MAK: And even though many refugees fled with their pets, some also left them behind. Lina takes us outside and shows us dozens of cats living in the basements of the apartment complexes in Vinnytsia. She says she's seen the population of stray dogs in her neighborhood double since the invasion just a few weeks ago.

LINA: (Speaking non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: She's saying that a lot of people acted just panicky and left, and that's why there's a lot of animals left behind.

MAK: Another woman, who only gives her name as Helen, joins us briefly as we walk through the neighborhood. She says she refuses to leave the city, even though an explosion recently happened less than a mile away. Who would take care of the cats? she asked. For these women, caring for needy animals is one of life's highest callings. And no missiles, no invasion could persuade them otherwise. Tim Mak, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "AWAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tim Mak
Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.