Ukrainian risks her life to rescue wild animals from war

Soldiers joke that 50-year-old Natalia Popova has many lives, like a cat.

CHUBYNS’KE, Kyiv Oblast — Natalia Popova has found a new purpose in life: rescuing wild and domestic animals from the ravages of war in Ukraine.

“You are my life,” says the 50-year-old, stroking a light-haired lioness like a kitten. Out of an enclosure, the animal appreciates the attention, lies on its back and stretches its paws up towards its keeper.

Popova has already saved more than 300 animals from the war in collaboration with animal protection group UA Animals; 200 of them went abroad and 100 found a new home in western Ukraine, which is considered safer. Many of them were wild animals kept as pets in private homes before their owners fled Russian shelling and missiles.

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Popova’s shelter in the village of Chubynske, Kyiv region, now houses 133 animals. It is a large 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.

The animals, awaiting evacuation to Poland, were rescued from troubled areas like the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, which face daily bombing and active fighting. The Ukrainian soldiers who let Popova know when animals near the frontline need help joke 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,” she said.

She often trembles in the car to save another wild animal.

“I’m very sorry for you. I can imagine that the animals are under stress from the war and nobody can help them,” Popova said.

In most cases, she knows nothing about the animals she rescues, neither their names and ages, nor their owners.

“Animals don’t introduce themselves when they come to us,” she joked.

During the early months of the war, Popova drove to war herds alone, but a couple from UA Animals recently offered to transport and help her.

“Our record is an evacuation in 16 minutes when we rescued a lion between Kramatorsk and Sloviansk,” Popova said. A trained economist with no formal veterinary experience, she administered anesthesia to the lion as the animal needed to be euthanized before it could be transported.

Popova says she’s always been very fond of animals. In kindergarten she built houses for worms and talked to birds. In 1999 she opened the first private horse club in Ukraine. But it was only four years ago that she saved her first lion.

An anti-slaughterhouse organization approached her with a request for help rescuing a lion with a broken spine. She didn’t know how to help because she knew horses. But when she saw a photo of the big cat, Popova couldn’t resist.

She built an enclosure and took the lion in the next morning, paid the owner. Later, Popova created a social media page called Help the Lioness and people started writing asking for help saving other wildlife.

Yana, the first lioness she rescued, has become a family member as she was unable to find a new home due to a disability. Popova took care of her until she died two weeks ago.

The shelter is only a temporary station for the animals. Popova rehabilitates her and then looks for a new home for her. She feels a special bond with each big cat, but says she doesn’t mind letting them go.

“I love them and I understand that I don’t have the resources to give them the comfortable life they deserve,” says Popova.

At first she financed the animal 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 has seen her debt grow to $200,000.

She gets some money from UA Animals and from donations, but worries about how to keep it all together have been keeping her up at night.

“But I will still borrow money, go to hot spots and save animals. I can’t say no to them,” she said.

Popova sends all her animals to Poznań Zoo in Poland, who helps her evacuate them and find them new homes. Some animals have already been transported to Spain, France and South Africa. Her next project is sending 12 lions to Poland this week.

With no end in sight to the fighting, Popova knows she’s still needed.

“My mission in this war is to save wild animals,” she says. Ukrainian risks her life to rescue wild animals from war

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