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The Value of Pets in Ukraine During the Russian Invasion

Many Ukrainian families remained in the war zone to take care of their pets.

Key points

  • A new study shows that rather than flee from the Russian invaders, 39% of Ukrainian families stayed in Kyiv, in part because of their pets.
  • Fewer than 10% of families that evacuated the areas being shelled and bombed by Russians left their pets behind.
  • Because of the bond between Ukrainians and their pets, Russians may have deliberately targeted animal shelters.
UNDP Ukraine/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Shelled house outside of Kyiv
Source: UNDP Ukraine/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

According to UN reports at least 12 million people have fled their homes since Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. More than 5 million have left for neighboring countries, while 7 million have fled to "safer" locations, away from the fighting, but inside Ukraine itself.

Looking at photographs of refugees from the Russian attack, it is striking how many pictures involve animals. It seems that nearly every picture of railway platforms contains dozens of people clutching dogs or cats in their arms while dragging a single suitcase behind them, or people sitting beside pet carriers with small dogs or cats inside waiting for transportation, while from the city and surrounding areas there are pictures of people standing forlornly beside bombed out or shelled buildings accompanied by their pet dog.

A Pet Loving Country

There is a large population of companion animals in the Ukraine, with one estimate claiming that some 750,000 dogs and 5.5 million cats are owned by Ukrainian families. A significant number of people who were forced to flee Russian bombs and shells took nothing from their homes except necessary documents and animal carriers or dogs on leash. Those who could not bring their pets doubtless knew that they were almost certainly dooming them to death.

The Importance of Pets in Wartime

From past wars we have reports of the role that pets can play during conflict. One such is Susan Bulanda's poignant collection of stories of dogs and cats belonging to Holocaust survivors from World War II. These are histories of family pets that provided emotional comfort, in much the same way that therapy animals do as part of stress reduction treatments today. In some instances, these dogs and cats were the only things that provided the victims of the war with a sense of purpose and hope.

A New Study Looks at Ukrainian Families with Pets

There have been very few systematic studies looking at the role of companion animals during wartime. However, recently a team of Ukrainian researchers headed by Kateryne Miliutina of the Department of Psychology at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, in Kyiv, Ukraine has tried to present a preliminary look at the impact of pets on families caught in a war zone. The current team of investigators included researchers who had previously published a paper in 2018 establishing that the vast majority of Ukrainian pet owners considered their dogs and cats to be well-loved members of their families. The present study was conducted from February through April 2022, while the war with Russia was ongoing and raging in and near Kyiv. It involved interviewing 115 families, originally residents of Kyiv and the suburbs around Kyiv that were affected by the bombing and shelling. The sample was comprised only of families with at least one pet.

Of this sample 39% remained in Kyiv, 10% moved to another region of Ukraine, and the remaining 50% evacuated to other European countries. Of those who remained in Kyiv, 84% noted that part of their motivation to stay in the city involved the fact that they had pet animals to care for.

Of those that fled the city, almost all noted that one of the factors that helped them make the decision to evacuate was that their family animals were allowed on trains and buses in Ukraine and were being allowed to cross the border with them.

Only seven families in this sample left home without their animals. Apparently none of these involved a deliberate decision to abandon their pets. For two of the families, they had left the city in the early days of the war, leaving their animals with friends and relatives and expecting to return in a short time. The remaining five were "urgently evacuated during the bombing from Bucha and Hostomel," not giving them enough time to find or take their pets.

The Emotional Effect of Pets on Families Impacted by Conflict

This study also attempted to measure the overall emotional status of these pet-owning families. Although they do not present a detailed breakdown, they summarized their results and concluded that "the influence of pets on the level of subjective well-being of migrants is noted. The migrants and refugees who took their pets with them showed an increase in the level of subjective well-being."

Using Pets as Part of Psychological Warfare

Apparently, the Russian troops invading Ukraine also noticed the fact that pets provided comfort to the people of this nation. Their leaders were aware of the many pictures of Ukrainians being consoled and calmed by their pets in bomb shelters, train stations and evacuation convoys. The evidence suggests that they decided to take action — a sort of psychological warfare to damage the morale of pet-loving Ukrainians. The Ukrainian government has specifically accused the Russian military of intentionally striking animal shelters. They have shown pictures of the aftermath of the Russian retreat from Kyiv which included bullet riddled corpses of people and livestock and evidence that the Russian troops seemed to have gone out of their way to also shoot any dogs and cats that came within their rifle range. Apparently the military hoped that the sight of all of their cherished companion animals lying dead would demoralize the population.

One BBC news commentator observed, "They cannot kill enough of the Ukrainian soldiers so in their retreat the Russians shoot kennelled dogs." While in an article in The Atlantic, George Packer looked at what was happening to the beloved pets of people in places like Kyiv and summarized the situation saying, "The Russians have identified yet another way to inflict pain on the Ukrainian people — not by starving them but by breaking their heart."

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

References

Bulanda, S. (2011). Faithful Friends: Holocaust Survivors' Stories of the Pets Who Gave Them Comfort, Suffered Alongside Them and Waited for Their Return. Cladach Publishing ISBN: ‎0981892949

Miliutina K, Trofmov A, Vsevolod Z, Tetiana A, Liudmyla K (2022). The Role of Pets in Preserving the Emotional and Spiritual Wellbeing of Ukrainian Residents During Russian Hostilities. Journal of Religion and Health. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10943-022-01669-4

Packer, G. (2022). The Animals of Ukraine Tell Their Own Story: All Creatures Great and Small. The Atlantic, April 3 (Document ATLCOM0020220404ei4300002)

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