One thousand dogs and cats, Russian rockets, no power and bitter cold. Those are some of the challenges that face Edmonds resident Dan Fine and his volunteer team working feverishly to vaccinate animals against a feared rabies outbreak in war-torn Ukraine.
The Russian border is just 30 miles from Kharkiv, where Fine and his team have based their supplies. Front line Russian troops in Ukraine are less than 50 miles from some of the villages that the volunteers are helping. It is well within range of Russian rockets and bombers ,as Fine explained in a recent post:
“He was walking to the market and saw the Russian bombers fly over and bomb the Gazprom gas facility a couple of miles from his house. He showed me the rocket hits on the road. We rocked out the whole way in his Russian-built LADA to AC/DC’s War Machine” on the tape player. – Dan Fine
Fine is on his third trip to help the people of Ukraine; it’s the focus of his Ukraine War Animal Relief Fund (UWARF) efforts. We have reported on the project since Fine and Edmonds resident and dog lover Tana Axtelle launched the effort last March. They wanted to help thousands of Ukrainian pet owners — and even farmers — who were forced to leave animals behind when they fled the fighting. They focused first on getting food to overwhelmed shelters and medical supplies to vet clinics, initially on the Polish border, and finding ways to get supplies inside Ukraine.
A second month-long trip in July took Fine and a volunteer team into devastated towns across Ukraine. That’s when their focus changed — to get dogs and cats vaccinated against rabies, which even before the war still ravaged countries in Eastern Europe.
The group feared that with so many animals running loose and breeding, it could spark a rabies epidemic that might spread countrywide – even across borders into Western Europe. Many of the larger non-profit animal rescues would not send their personnel; their insurance wouldn’t cover them in a war zone. As volunteers, UWARF pushed ahead.
Devastated Ukrainian town
Dan Fine tells the story best – this is from his log on Dec. 4:
“It’s surreal being in a town with the lights out and when you walk into an establishment, instead of a sign encouraging you to wear a mask, there are signs telling you where the shelter is located. It’s heartbreaking being at the train station and a Ukrainian soldier is saying goodbye to his family as he ships off, but his daughter won’t let go of his leg. However, the energy and the positive feelings you get from the Ukrainians is infectious. It’s not a ‘can do’ attitude, it’s a ‘must do’ drive. And you see it everywhere.”
Dan Fine and a volunteer Ukrainian shelter leader, Kristina, videoed a moment in the ruins of Izium.
By the end of their first day back in Ukraine, a couple weeks ago in a village south of Kharkiv, they had captured, neutered and vaccinated just 47 animals against rabies.
It was never going to be easy. Next stop, Izium. Just a couple of months ago, Russian troops held the town. Fine writes:
“This once was a thriving city of around 45,000 people. Now, there are about 15,000 left … just barely getting by. Their town is in rubble. Destroyed. Occupied by the Russians from March through September. People lived in basements and shelters. No power, no gas, no water. I stayed with a woman that lived through this. She said the first wave of Russians came through saying they were safe, and they have saved them and will provide food. The locals were OK, ‘not sure what they are saving us from, but we’ll eat.’ Then the bombings happened to frighten them. Mass graves. Torture. No communication. They had no idea if all of Ukraine had fallen. No idea of what happened to their loved ones. Helicopters flew low overhead. If you ran, they shot you.”
The team stayed with a woman who survived months in her basement, huddled with a neighbor – no water, electricity, or gas. More from Fine:
“The town is wasted. Bridges are blown up and most of the homes, schools, businesses are all gone. People that had little to start with now have nothing or perished. Our host for the night told us after the many bomb strikes, quite a few went mad and took their own lives.”
The veterinary teams worked out of makeshift clinics – long hours – in cramped spaces. They ran out of flea medication; temperatures dropped into the low teens, a village UWARF had intended to visit was retaken by the Russians.
And then, one night, with a van full of dogs, Mother Nature hit hard. From Fine:
“And she was cruel… we pulled out in Opel van and started to head back to the clinic. Just up and over that hill… The temp had dropped so much, and the roads were now skating rinks. I had on my fantastic winter hiking boots, and I couldn’t walk across the ice. It was incredibly slippery, and we had a hill to climb about three football fields long. No dice. The van spun out.”
Even a farmer’s tractor couldn’t move the van. So the team abandoned it, rescuers tied rope to the cages and dragged them up the hill on black ice.
“Now we were panicking. We had all these dogs in the back of the van. The team kept texting us and asking when we were returning… So, all we had to do is drag the cages with these dogs in this horrible freezing rain up this hill. Pasha headed off. Kristina headed off. I stepped on to the street and fell down. I got up and fell down again. And then a village woman marched over like she was walking on water, helped me up and started to pull the dog cage with one hand and holding me up with the other. Kristina described her as a Tank. I finally got the idea to take my boots off and get more traction with my socks. That worked, but it was still brutal.”
All the animals made it into the clinic. At that point – a week in – UWARF had 695 dogs and cats sterilized, vaccinated and microchipped.
“So, it turns out trying to catch dogs and cats in 15 degrees F is much harder than we thought. First, our blow dart serum froze. Then the glass tubes broke. The worse is that once you blow a dart into a dog to tranquilize it, they take off running. Not a great idea when there are land mines all over the place.”
Fine and the UWARF team have been deep into Ukraine now for more than two weeks. They went, intending to vaccinate and microchip 1,000 animals, to slow the potential spread of rabies. They hope, also by neutering dogs and cats, they can help stave off a population boom from strays. International estimates are that 7 million Ukrainians have been forced from their homes and that nearly a million pets were left behind; tens of thousands of them now running wild. UWARF wants to prove to other animal rescue non-profits that mobile clinics, working town to town, can help slow the potential spread of disease and save animals lives.
That goal is a vision and a promise for Dan Fine and the volunteers. They went hoping to take care of 1,000 animals – as of Dec. 12, their total is 1,199 neutered, vaccinated against rabies and microchipped so that many of them can be reunited with their owners. And they are still hard at it.
— By Bob Throndsen