Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, triggering Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II, with more than 4.2 million Ukrainians leaving the country and a quarter of the population displaced. As I write this, 2.5 million Ukrainians have poured into Poland, many with almost no luggage but clutching their beloved family pets.
Putin’s cruel and murderous war has stolen the lives of thousands of people, injured many more and left countless numbers of animals wandering, lost and uncomprehending, their home shelled, their families gone. Viva! Poland, supported by you, our UK supporters, immediately went into action.
You probably know that I founded Viva! in 1994; you may not know that I also set up Viva! Poland in 2001. Under the excellent management of Cezary (Czarek) Wyszynski and Anna Zielinska, it has grown into the foremost animal rights organisation in Poland and has a beautiful sanctuary of 60 acres near Warsaw.
In March, I went to Poland to support our dedicated staff, help where I could and to report back to the UK. It was an historic and intense visit.
Just after reaching our Warsaw office, Lisa Buck, a long term Viva! supporter, arrived with a van chock full of animal food and equipment after a 1,000 mile journey from her home in Norfolk. I welcomed her with open arms.
Three days later, another van arrived with more donated supplies from the UK, this time driven by Ray and Gwen of Animal Couriers. Our heart-felt thanks to them, also.
I had invited our patron of 28 years, Wendy Turner Webster, and her husband Gary Webster, to accompany us as they were determined to shine a spotlight on the work Viva! is doing in this crisis. Wendy and Gary were excellent! They warmly welcomed refugees and if they couldn’t chat in English they used Google translate to make connections.
Six refugee reception centres have been set up in Warsaw and this is where we concentrate much of our work, as well as at the main train stations. Our aim is simple – to offer what help we can to refugees with animals; and to someone arriving with almost nothing, any help is precious.
Viva!’s fantastic volunteers are organised in rotas, working 12 to 14 hours every day at our stall at the Western train station. They offer refugees pet carriers, food, flea collars, leads, beds and so on. It is truly humbling meeting people who have fled with just one small suitcase and their dog in their arms and it brings home the horror of war – the horror of one man having the power to destroy people’s lives.
I talked to Dori, about 10 years old, and her grandma. They had one small suitcase and their little dog in Dori’s arms. They were making their way to Germany and at least were now out of Ukraine and safe. We gave them a dog carrier and food and they continued a journey they should not be having to make.
I then chatted with two young women who had been travelling for 15 long days with Muffin, a very cute and affectionate Yorkshire terrier cross in their backpack. They had been forced to leave almost everything behind and were heading to Georgia, but avoiding transiting through Russia, so they still had a long journey ahead of them.
I feel such a mix of emotions even thinking about the refugees I met; fury at Putin; admiration for Zelensky and all those fighting for Ukraine; upset at all the needless suffering of people and animals who are being thrown into a dark chaos not of their making; huge respect for the refugees, forced to cope, holding it together, often women with children and animals; and for all the Polish people I met who have welcomed and opened their doors to refugees (the polar opposite to the UK government’s messy, slow and incompetent handling of refugee visa applications).
My next stop was the Viva! Poland sanctuary near Warsaw – or to give it its proper name, Schronisco w Korabiewicach Viva!, run by the totally dedicated Karolina Wiewiórkowska.
It is a beautiful place, 60 acres of pretty fields with big enclosures for dogs as well as cat houses with enclosed gardens. Before the Ukraine invasion, it had nearly 200 dogs and cats and 130 other assorted animals – over 40 horses, some rescued from the meat trade, pigs, cows, goats, chickens and geese, who bite your bottom given the chance! There are also 14 beautiful Arctic and silver foxes and two racoon dogs, rescued from the fur trade. In fact, many of the animals here are rescued testaments to Viva! Poland’s undercover investigations and prosecutions – the lucky ones!
Everything possible was done to make more space for cats and dogs, and as I write, a further 110 cats and dogs (about half of each) have been given refuge, and more puppies are on their way. They all need attention – medication, vaccinations, food and space and staff and volunteers to take care of them, including regular walks for all the dogs.
One of them is Borys, a big, soft-natured, gentle boy with large brown doleful eyes, who was left in the Lviv area of Ukraine by his fleeing owner and was found wandering around, clearly lost, distressed and hungry.
Veronika, entrusted us with two dogs she saved from the conflict. She travelled with them for a whole day while our activists waited for 24 hours at the Polish border to pick them up. Shortly afterwards, we received a text message from her.
“My imperfect Polish language did not allow me to express all the words of gratitude to you! Sorry for the tears, I am very uncomfortable with such emotions, but have accumulated stress and fatigue. My soul is now calm for my two oldest dogs. You are wonderful people. May God save your country from war. Special thanks for vegan food, everything is very tasty.”
Veronika initially said she would collect her dogs when things improved but we have now received a further, heart-breaking message saying there is no longer any hope and would we please find them loving homes.
Another dog, Charlie, is blind and was found in deep despair as his ‘dad’ had died. He was being thrown scraps outside a grocery store but a Viva! volunteer knew he would not make it through the war. He is now being rehabilitated at the sanctuary and UK volunteer, Jo Dixon, cared for him during most of her stay.
In one of the cat house gardens, I found myself in the company of several Ukrainian feline refugees who were happy, energetic and playful. Anna Benchart, head of the cat section, showed me around. She clearly dotes on the cats!
In the indoor area, she pulled down a ladder that led to a fantastic play room! The cat residents run around chasing each other, investigating things, scratching the scratch posts with zeal and just having a ball. I was so happy to see that most of the 50 new cats from Ukraine are relaxed and playful. But sadly not all are – some are shy and traumatised and just beginning to trust people.
The staff have a huge job at the sanctuary and I’m impressed by their dedication and the tangible feeling of calm happiness that resides there. Many Polish volunteers from Warsaw help out at weekends, doing maintenance, building new pens and dog walking.
A huge amount of animal food is needed and while manufacturers were happy to donate it, they wanted someone else to organise the logistics. Poland’s manager, Cezary Wyszynski, came up with the excellent idea of hiring a huge warehouse for it and then employed workers to drive the food to the border.
We work closely with the Ukrainian group, Animal ID, who have created a database of 100,000 animals who need help, some in shelters but not all. Viva! has delivered some 90 tonnes of food so far (at the time of writing) but the demand is for about 400 tonnes a week! Thankfully, other groups are also helping.
Through our early appeal and publicity we obtained in People, Express, OK! and Country Living, Viva! UK supporters and the public have donated just over £100,000, which will help enormously. We have also rehomed in the UK some of the Polish dogs at the sanctuary, particularly those who had been continually overlooked and had become ‘stuck’, making space for refugee Ukrainian pups. At some time in the future, we hope to report on these gorgeous dogs who have finally found love!
On a personal level, when I was filming puppies for a video about the impact of the war on the sanctuary, one little girl kept beelining me. She was uber affectionate and exuberant and was accompanied by her almost identical brother. Then, one day, her brother was gone – to his new forever home and she was left alone. You’ve probably guessed the rest! I couldn’t leave her! She has come home to join my family and my other dog, Lily (rescued from Sarajevo) is thrilled as she’s always looking for a playmate.