Ukrainian puts her life on the line to save wild animals from war

CHUBYNSKE, Ukraine (AP) — Natalia Popova has found a new purpose in life: saving wild animals and pets from the devastation wrought by the war in Ukraine.

“They are my life,” says the 50-year-old, petting a light-haired lioness like a kitten. From an enclosure, the animal rejoices at the attention, lying on its back and its paws outstretched toward its caretaker.

Popova has already rescued more than 300 animals from the war in collaboration with animal protection organization UA ​​Animals; 200 of them went abroad and 100 found new homes in western Ukraine, which is considered safer. Many of them were wild animals kept as pets in private homes before their owners fled Russian shelling and rockets.

Popova’s rescue center in Chubynske village in the Kiev region now houses 133 animals. It is a wide menagerie, including 13 lions, a leopard, a tiger, three deer, wolves, foxes, raccoons and roe deer, as well as domesticated animals such as horses, donkeys, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats and birds.

The animals waiting to be evacuated to Poland were rescued from hotspots such as the Kharkov and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, where daily bombing raids and active fighting take place. The Ukrainian soldiers who let Popova know when animals near the front lines need help, jokes that she has many lives, like a cat.

“Nobody wants to go there. Everyone is afraid. I’m scared too, but I’m going anyway,” she said.

Often she sits trembling in the car on her way to rescue another wild animal.

“I feel very sorry for them. I can imagine that animals are under stress because of the war, and nobody can help them,” Popova said.

In most cases she knows nothing about the animals she rescues, neither their names and ages, nor their owners.

“Animals don’t imagine themselves when they come to us,” she joked.

For the first few months of the war, Popova drove alone to war hotspots, but recently a couple from UA Animals offered to transport and help her.

“Our record is an evacuation in 16 minutes, when we rescue a lion between Kramatorsk and Sloviansk,” said Popova. An economist by training with no formal veterinary experience, she administered anesthesia to the lion because the animal had to be put to sleep before it could be transported.

Popova says she has always been very attached to animals. In kindergarten, she built houses for worms and talked to birds. In 1999 she opened the first private horse club in Ukraine. But it wasn’t until four years ago that she rescued her first lion.

An anti-slaughterhouse organization approached her asking for help in rescuing a lion with a broken spine. She didn’t know how to help because her expertise was in horses. But when she saw a photo of the big cat, Popova couldn’t resist.

She built a fence and took in the lion the next morning, against payment from the owner. Later, Popova created a social media page titled “Help the Lioness”, and people started writing and asking for help in saving other wild animals.

Yana, the first lioness she rescued, has become a family member because she was unable to find a new home due to a disability. Popova took care of her until she died two weeks ago.

The shelter is only a temporary stop for the animals. Popova rehabilitates them and then finds new homes for them. She feels a special bond with each big cat, but says she doesn’t mind letting them go.

“I love them and I understand that I don’t have the resources to give them the comfortable life they deserve,” Popova says.

Initially, she financed the shelter with her own money from the horse trade. But since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the horse trade has not been profitable. Needing more than $14,000 a month to keep the animals healthy and fed, she’s switched to loans and has seen her debt grow to $200,000.

She gets some money from UA Animals and from donations, but worries about how to keep everything together keep her up at night.

“But I will still borrow money, go to hotspots and save animals. I can’t say no to them,” she said.

Popova sends all her animals to the Pozna Zoo in Poland, which helps her evacuate them and find a new home. Some animals have already been transported to Spain, France and South Africa. Her next project is to send 12 lions to Poland this week.

With no end to the fighting in sight“Popova knows she will still be needed.

“My mission in this war is to save wild animals,” she says.


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