There Once Was a Dog

22 May 2012, 16:00

The issue of stray animals has never been more acute in Ukraine. Dog hunters, mobile crematoriums and poison found in sandpits where children play, result in the many on going protests of animal rights campaigners and the international community, tainting Ukraine’s image abroad. On 31 March activists in many cities of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and other countries went on an international rally against the killing of stray animals before the Euro 2012. Unfortunately, pretending that stray dogs do not exist is much easier than solving the problem. Yet thankfully, there are still many Ukrainians who prefer to help the animals instead of mistreating them.


Four years ago, Lilia Yemelianenko moved to a private house near Kyiv with her husband and daughter. “I used to work as a PR and Key Account manager,” says Lilia. “I have a lot of experience in the industry. Now I work with dogs. That’s just what I do.” The family keeps over 30 stray dogs, which are mostly German shepherds. She has now spent the past 18 years rescuing animals. “It all started with the first dog we found,” the owner of ‘Aviary No. 1’ recollects. “We talked to other people who picked up stray animals and asked them what else we could do. In 1999, I co-founded the ‘Yasnohorodka’ shelter and decided to open my own one at a later time. Big shelters mostly operate to keep animals, while we find and treat them and then look for new owners.” They eat six kilos of porridge and meat daily, plus the sick animals need additional special food. This takes time and effort. Dogs come to the shelter due to a variety of reasons. Lada, a German shepherd, was abandoned by her owners in downtown Kyiv. The Yemelianenkos picked her up, had her surgery done and took care of her until she finally recovered after a long recuperation. They spent two years searching for new owners but she had grown attached to the family over that time, so they have decided to keep her. Newcomers to the shelter are all seen by a vet. They then go through quarantine, are cleaned of parasites and vaccinated. After that, the Yemelianenkos look for their old owners and find new ones if the old ones fail to show up.

Back in Kyiv, Lilia used to bring the dogs she picked up to so called ‘mini hotels’ for animals. They are kept there, for about UAH 10 per day, until their caretakers find new homes for them. Sometimes she would keep up to 17 dogs at a time, paying all the expenses on her own. After the family left Kyiv, they built spacious kennels for the German shepherds outside and left four rooms in the house for small and sick animals.

According to Lilia, there should be a comprehensive way to solve the stray animal problem in Ukraine which includes catching, sterilizing and vaccinating them. Also, the government should raise public awareness. “People have no idea why animals need to be sterilized, they say it’s unnatural,” Lilia comments. “Meanwhile, they think it’s okay to drown or just leave the new puppies from their own dog out to die.”

Counting all animal mini shelters in Kyiv and the suburbs is a challenge. Some old ladies keep 15 dogs and tell no one about it. Most volunteers do not tell the exact number of animals they help, even people they know, fearing troubles with neighbours or utility services. Anastasiya, another shelter owner, lives in Kyiv. Just like the others, she did not tell us how many dogs she takes care of. Working as an illustrator, she never thought she would have her own shelter someday. It all started for her when a friend once asked her to help take a sick dog to the vet. It turned out that the dog’s back was broken and no shelter would take it. The girls refused to put the dog to sleep and took it home. Thanks to social networks and special forums, they treated Liubchyk, the dog, and bought a wheelchair for it in the US. By then, Anastasiya had already picked up a few more dogs. Eventually, the mini shelter called ‘Liubchyk’s Home’ emerged where crippled dogs are now taken care of.

Some dogs stay with Anastasiya’s parents but there is still too little space for all newcomers. “People were happy to take the animals and we found new families for many dogs before the crisis,” she says. “Then they stopped all of a sudden. That’s why our shelter is now overloaded.”  Keeping sick dogs is not cheap. Food, treatment, surgery, animal hotel stays and paid announcements on the Internet for 15 dogs cost over UAH 8,000 per month. Fortunately, most funds come from volunteers who donate to the mini shelter. Yet, Anastasiya complains that many people treat animals terribly in Ukraine, in addition to the lack of funds. “Seeing how dogs are continually tortured and killed is so stressful,” she laments. “It is a sad fact that we have to save someone virtually every day.''


Pokrovske is a village on route from Donetsk to Zaporizhzhia. No one can count exactly how many animals are killed on the roads there almost every day. Viktor Bitner, a 78-year old villager, picks up dogs which have been injured on the main road. Once, he was director of the local silicate plant. Coming home from work one day, he saw a car run over a dog. “I took it home and took care of it,” Viktor recalls. “The dog lived a long, happy life with me.” With time, more and more crippled animals appeared in his backyard. He saved them from the roads, wells or trees where their owners just hung the dogs up and left them.

Mr. Bitner has saved hundreds of animals and has built homes for them. Three times a day, the dogs eat bread and ground up bones. This menu, along with the necessary medical treatment, costs UAH 3,000 monthly. Mr. Bitner’s pension is only UAH 1,100 per month so he fixes sewage and gas equipment to earn an extra penny, and all this despite suffering from cancer himself. He also has no family to support him, but he still refuses to give up.

Mr. Bitner risks his own health and life for the dogs. Natalia Krymska, a volunteer at Fidelity, a Dnipropetrovsk-based animal protection association, says that not all locals share his affection for dogs. They have tried to beat him several times to steal the money he spends on his dog kingdom. Fortunately, volunteers offer their support to Mr. Bitner. They bring food and medicines for the dogs and also for Mr. Bitner himself. The funding comes through donations from people who learn about the mini shelter and its owner through the Fidelity community. Animal rights advocates drafted a programme for the humane treatment of animals and made many attempts to submit it to the Dnipropetrovsk City Council, but did not have much success. It was only the upcoming Euro 2012 football championship that finally made the Council accept it for consideration. Hopefully, it will be passed and implemented after all.

The people in Ukraine who care about animals, then take up the initiative to save them and set up animal shelters, cannot dramatically change the situation nation-wide. “This, first and foremost, is the government’s task,” Lilia Yemelianenko says. “Volunteers are an incentive, but not the main driver in solving the problem.” These people should continue to put pressure on local authorities and demand that they find civilized solutions and provide affordable aid to stray and sick animals that need a home. Ukraine will then be a much nicer place for everyone, and especially for the animals themselves. 

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