CHUBISK, Ukraine (AP) — Natalia Popova has found a new purpose in life: saving wildlife and pets from the devastation caused by the war in Ukraine.
“They are my life,” said the 50-year-old, stroking a light-haired lioness like a kitten. Inside the enclosure, the animal was ecstatic at the attention, laying on its back and extending its paws to its caretaker.
Working with animal protection group UA Animals, Popova has saved more than 300 animals from the war; 200 of them went abroad 100 people have found new homes in what is considered safer western Ukraine. Many of these are wild animals that were kept as pets in private homes before their owners fled Russian shelling and missiles.
Popova’s shelter in the village of Chubinsk in the Kyiv region now houses 133 animals. It is an expansive zoo that includes 13 lions, 1 leopard, 1 tiger, 3 deer, wolves, foxes, raccoons and roe deer, as well as domesticated animals such as horses, donkeys, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats and birds .
Animals awaiting evacuation to Poland rescued from hotspot The Kharkiv and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine, for example, are bombed and fought fiercely every day.ukrainian soldier Who let Popova know that animals near the front line need help joking that she has a lot of life, like a cat.
“No one wants to go there. Everyone is scared. I’m scared too, but I’ll go anyway,” she said.
On her way to rescue another wild animal, she often shivered in the car.
“I’m so sorry for them. I can imagine the stress the animals are going through because of the war, and no one can help them,” Popova said.
For the most part, she knew nothing about the animals she rescued, neither their names or ages nor their owners.
“Animals don’t introduce themselves when they come to us,” she jokes.
During the first 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 was the evacuation in 16 minutes when we saved a lion between Kramatorsk and Slovyansk,” Popova said. An educated economist with no formal veterinary experience, she anesthetized the lions, which had to be put to sleep before being transported.
Popova said she has always been very fond of animals. In kindergarten, she built houses for bugs and talked to birds. In 1999 she opened the first private equestrian club in Ukraine. But it wasn’t until four years ago that she rescued her first lion.
An anti-slaughterhouse group approached her, asking for help in saving a lion with a fractured vertebra. She didn’t know how to help because her specialty was horses. But when she saw pictures of big cats, Popova couldn’t help it.
She built a fence, took in the lion the next morning, and paid the owner. Later, Popova created a social media page called Help the Lioness, and people started writing letters asking to help save other wildlife.
Yana, the first lioness she rescued, has become a family member due to her disability, unable to find a new home. Popova cared for her until she died two weeks ago.
Shelters are just temporary stops for animals. Popova rehabilitated them and then found them a new home. She feels every big cat has a special bond, but says she doesn’t mind letting them go.
“I love them and I know I don’t have the resources to give them the comfort they deserve,” Popova said.
At first, she funded the shelter with her own horse funds. But the horse business has not been profitable since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Needing more than $14,000 a month to keep the animals healthy and fed, she turned to borrowing and saw her debt grow to $200,000.
She got some money from UA Animals and donations, but worries about how to put everything together keeps her up at night.
“But I still borrow money, go to hot spots, save animals. I can’t say no to them,” she said.
Popova sent all her animals to the Poznan Zoo in Poland, which helped her evacuate them and find new homes for them. Some animals have been shipped to Spain, France and South Africa. Her next project is to send 12 lions to Poland this week.
The battle has no end in sightPopova knew she would still be needed.
“My mission in this war is to save wildlife,” she said.
Follow all AP coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.