When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, millions of people were faced with a horrifying task: gather their families and their most important belongings, and flee.
And for many Ukrainians, “family” wasn’t just the human members of the household. Their beloved cats, dogs, and other pets were just as important — and so was getting them to safety.
Traveling with a pet is stressful enough during peacetime, but it’s even harder when you’re fleeing a warzone. Many pets have had to be left behind due to quarantine laws in other countries, and countless more have run away or been killed during the attacks.
But animal lovers in Ukraine and worldwide have come together to rescue and care for as many pets as possible. Volunteers, nonprofits, social media personalities, and average people alike have contributed to the efforts, saving countless cats and other animals in the process.
Here are a few stories of cats in Ukraine, from famous pets to helpless strays — and the people who have risked their own lives to save them.
Stepan’s Saga: From Celebrity to Refugee
Ukraine’s Most Famous Cat
If you’re a fan of cats on social media, you may be familiar with Stepan.
The tiger-striped tabby with big green eyes has over 1.2 million followers on TikTok and Instagram, winning over fans with his hilarious facial expressions — and his penchant for posing next to pizzas and glasses of wine.
Stepan’s rise from a humble rescue cat to Ukraine’s most famous feline has garnered him worldwide attention. During his tenure as a feline influencer, he’s won the attention of celebrities like Britney Spears and Hailey Bieber, who have shared his photos and videos to their tens of millions of fans.
He’s even appeared in an ad for luxury fashion brand Valentino, posing next to a $2,800 jewel-studded purse — and, of course, a glass of wine.
Stepan Seeks Shelter
But his pages went silent when Russian forces invaded Kharkiv, the city in northeastern Ukraine where Stepan lived with his owner, Anna.
When Russia bombed Kharkiv’s Freedom Square, Anna lost power on March 3. Thankfully, she was unharmed and sought refuge in a basement with Stepan and her two sons.
But without power, she had no way to update Stepan’s panicking fans. Some left frantic comments and obsessively refreshed Stepan’s profiles, while others who were more local even launched an in-person search effort in Kharkiv.
Finally, on March 16, Anna updated Stepan’s page with good news: they were safe in France after spending days on a train to the Polish border — followed by a nine-hour trek on foot over the border crossing, with Stepan in a carrier.
After making it to Poland, Anna was contacted by the World Influencers and Bloggers Association, which had named Stepan one of the top “pet-fluencers” in 2021. The organization found Anna, her sons, and Stepan an apartment in France, where they will be able to stay as long as they need to.
Though the family is traumatized and heartbroken by the ordeal, their story is a testament to people’s love for animals — even those they’ve only seen on Instagram.
Scotty and Pixie: Escaping Kyiv by Car
An Ordinary Life, Upended
Stepan’s everyday life was far more glamorous than that of most cats. But since the invasion, many non-famous cats, including Scotty and Pixie, have gone through equally extraordinary journeys to safety.
These two cats belong to Kyiv-based software engineer Dima and his wife Tetiana, who told their harrowing story to Business Insider on March 5.
On February 24, Dima and Tetiana woke to the sound of bombs nearby. The usually-empty threats of invasion weren’t empty this time, and now their lives — and their cats’ — were at risk.
Though their first instinct was to gather Scotty and Pixie and leave, they saw miles upon miles of traffic backed up on the roads out of the city — and they had only half a tank of gas. So they made the terrifying decision to stay put and wait for clearer roads.
Desperately Seeking Safety
The next day, they loaded Scotty and Pixie into the car and drove 20 miles to a friend’s house in Vasylkiv, a journey that involved two hours of driving and three military checkpoints. They thought being in a smaller town would be safer, but that night, they heard even more explosions at the nearby military base.
After several days of terror, Dima and Tetiana again packed Scotty and Pixie into their carriers and set off for safety, heading for central Ukraine. Though the plan was to continue heading west, the region has become flooded with refugees, and the couple has decided to stay put for now.
Scarcity of resources aside, Scotty and Pixie have also motivated Dima to stay put.
He says the two cats have been used to living in apartments their whole lives, so being stuck in carriers and cars for days on end has been incredibly stressful for them.
And though the constant air sirens have been difficult to deal with for humans and felines alike, the town where they’re staying has been safe so far. They hope it continues to stay that way — and that they and the cats will be able to return to their beloved apartment soon.
Big Cats, Big Responsibility: A Doctor and His Exotic Cats in the Donbas
Dr. Girikumar Patil is an orthopedic doctor living in Severodonetsk, a small town in the volatile Donbas region of Ukraine.
He had been obsessed with big cats since seeing them in a movie as a child. Two years ago, he purchased a black panther and a jaguar from the Kyiv zoo, and has been keeping them as pets in his home ever since.
When war broke out, Dr. Patil said his parents begged him to return home to India, but he refuses to leave without his big cats. Bringing them across a border would be incredibly difficult, so he is staying put, even as his neighbors evacuate, bombs explode and power cuts in and out.
Years earlier, Dr. Patil’s home and business were destroyed by Russian forces, but he says that war is scarier this time around, largely due to the effect it has on the cats. He says they spend many nights in the basement with him and have lost their appetites due to constant fear.
But with nowhere to go, Dr. Patil is staying with the cats, leaving his house only to buy food for them. “I can’t leave the animals,” he says. “I am going to hold out.”
Refugees Say: No Pets Left Behind
Fleeing your home for another country is complicated enough on its own, but it’s even harder when you add a cat — and the extra rules and regulations that come with it — to the mix.
But that hasn’t stopped Ukrainians from getting their pets to safety using any means necessary.
Cats at the Border
In this photo, taken at the Vysne Nemecke border crossing between Ukraine and Slovakia, a young girl bundles her hairless cat into her jacket to keep it warm while she waits to cross to safety.
At the train station in Przemyśl, Poland, refugee Julia Lazarets was photographed giving her cat, Gabriel, a kiss after successfully fleeing Ukraine.
And at the border crossing in Palanca, Moldova, refugee Nina lovingly cradled her cat in a bubble carrier as snow fell around them.
You Can Make a Difference:
Help Ukraine and Ukrainian Cats
Donate to Come Back Alive, an official Ukrainian charity, to provide desperately needed assistance to Ukraine, its people, and their innocent pets.
After Ludmilla Nadzemovska and her daughter fled Kyiv with their four cats, they ended up sheltering in a hallway at the Hungarian border. But in this video by the Associated Press, you can see the happiness it brings her to be with her cats — and how they motivate her to stay strong no matter the circumstances.
Help from Good Samaritans
Vets and animal caretakers have been pitching in to help cats and their owners when, for any reason, they can’t stay together.
In this photo from Przemyśl, Poland, a veterinary assistant at the ADA Foundation cares for cats brought in from shelters in Ukraine. Many have been wounded or fallen ill, but no animal is refused treatment, and the ADA Foundation promises to find homes for them as soon as possible.
And in this heart-rending photo from Latvia, Volodymyr Horobets, a refugee from Mariupol, prepares to hand his cat, Charly, over to Rama Kreika. Rama is an animal caretaker whose army of volunteers promises to provide shelter and care for evacuated animals for as long as needed.
The International Cat Federation, which hosts cat shows worldwide, has vowed to assist Ukrainian cat breeders and owners in need. Its branches in Poland, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania are offering shelter, supplies, funds, and care to Ukrainians and their cats fleeing the devastation.
Ukrainian soldiers, many of whom have pets themselves, are also dedicated to helping pets and their owners reach safety. In this photo, a soldier helps a woman and her cat cross the Irpin River using a makeshift path after Russian forces destroyed the bridge.
And in a video shared by the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, workers quickly and carefully remove a crying cat from the debris left behind by an explosion in Kharkiv. The cat was given to an onlooker who promised to take care of it, demonstrating how the love people have for cats persists even through unthinkable destruction.
The Dogs and Cats of War! Thousands of Families Flee Ukraine with Their Pets (Video)
1. What challenges do pet owners face while fleeing a warzone with their pets?
Pet owners fleeing a warzone face numerous challenges, including the stress of travel, navigating through dangerous areas, and complying with quarantine laws in other countries. Additionally, pets may become stressed, run away, or be killed during the attacks, making the journey even more harrowing for their owners.
2. How have animal lovers contributed to the rescue and care of pets during the conflict in Ukraine?
Animal lovers in Ukraine and around the world have come together to rescue and care for pets affected by the conflict. Volunteers, nonprofits, social media personalities, and everyday people have joined the efforts, saving countless animals and providing support to pet owners in need.
3. How can people help support Ukraine and its pets during this crisis?
People can help support Ukraine and its pets by donating to charities like Come Back Alive, which provides assistance to the country, its people, and their pets. Additionally, raising awareness about the situation and supporting organizations that are working to help displaced pets and their owners can make a significant difference.
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"In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this."
-- Terry Pratchett