CHUBYNSKE, Ukraine (AP) — Natalia Popova has found a new purpose in life: to save wild animals and pets from the devastation caused by the war in Ukraine.
“It’s my life,” says the 50-year-old, stroking a light-furred lioness like a kitten. Inside an enclosure, the animal revels in the attention, lying on its back and stretching its legs up toward its caretaker.
Popova, in collaboration with the animal protection group UA Animals, has already saved more than 300 animals from war. 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 bombing and rockets.
Popova’s shelter in the village of Chubynske, Kiev region, now houses 133 animals. It is an extensive menagerie, including 13 lions, a leopard, a tiger, three deer, wolves, foxes, raccoons and deer, as well as domesticated animals such as horses, donkeys, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats and birds.
Animals waiting to be transported to Poland were rescued from hot spots such as the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, where there is daily shelling and active fighting. Ukrainian soldiers that let Popova know when animals near the front lines need help she jokes that she has many lives, like a cat.
“No one wants to go there. Everyone is afraid. I’m scared too, but I’m going anyway,” he said.
She often shivers in the car on her way to save another wild animal.
“I feel very sorry for them. I can imagine that the animals are under pressure because of the war and no one can help them,” Popova said.
In most cases, he knows nothing about the animals he rescues, neither their names and ages nor their owners.
“Animals don’t introduce themselves when they come to us,” he joked.
In the first months of the war, Popova drove alone to the hot spots of the war, but a couple from UA Animals recently offered to transport her and help her.
“Our record is an evacuation in 16 minutes, when we saved a lion between Kramatorsk and Sloviansk,” Popova said. A trained economist with no formal veterinary experience administered anesthesia to the lion because the animal needed to be put to sleep before it could be transported.
Popova says she has always been very attached to animals. In kindergarten he built houses for worms and talked to birds. In 1999, he opened the first private horse club in Ukraine. But it was only four years ago that she rescued her first lion.
An anti-slaughterhouse organization approached her asking for help to save a lion with a broken spine. She didn’t know how she could help because her expertise was in horses. But when she saw a photo of the big cat, Popova couldn’t resist.
He built an enclosure and took the lion the next morning, paying the owner. Later, Popova created a page on social media called “Help the Lioness” and people started writing asking for help to save other wild animals.
Yana, the first lioness she rescued, became part of the family after she was unable to find a new home due to a disability. Popova cared for her until she died two weeks ago.
The shelter is just a temporary stop for the animals. Popova rehabilitates them and then looks for new homes for them. She feels a special connection with each big cat, but says she doesn’t mind letting them go.
“I love them and understand that I don’t have the resources to give them the comfortable life they deserve,” says Popova.
At first, she financed the shelter with her own funds from the horse business. But since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the horse business has not been profitable. With more than $14,000 a month needed to keep the animals healthy and fed, she has turned to borrowing and seen her debt grow to $200,000.
She gets some money from UA Animals and donations, but worries about how to keep it all together keep her up at night.
“But I will borrow money, go to hot spots and rescue animals. I can’t say no to them,” he said.
Popova sends all her animals to the Poznań Zoo in Poland, which helps her evacuate them and find them new homes. Some animals have already been taken to Spain, France and South Africa. Her next task is to send 12 lions to Poland this week.
With no end in sight to the fightingPopova knows she will still need her.
“My mission in this war is to save wild animals,” he says.
Follow all AP stories on the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.