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Do animals matter in a crisis

Dr Jake Veasey

Feb 24, 2023

It might seem strange to rescue animals during a time of human crisis. Find out why that might matter to both people and animals.

It's now been a year since Russia invaded Ukraine. This conflict, like all others, along with natural disasters and other catastrophic events, are, above all else, human tragedies. That goes without saying, and my heart goes out to everyone affected across the world by war and disaster. In asking the question of whether animals matter in a crisis, it's not to diminish or disregard the human impacts of such events in any way, but in contrast to what appears to be an increasingly polarised world, I believe it is possible to care about both, and it is also worth considering how they might be connected.

I was lucky enough to have spent time in Ukraine working on the development and master-planning of Four Paws’ Domazhyr Bear Sanctuary just outside Lviv in 2016-2017. I felt privileged to be there for the arrival of its first bears and its official opening.

As with many countries I’ve worked in, I found the people to be kind, friendly, and welcoming, the culture and architecture fascinating, and the food and drink great, but I also remember feeling struck by the pride the local people took in having this haven for abused bears in their community, and a little surprised by the flags, patriotic speeches, traditional songs, and national dress that were so prominent at the opening of, what was after all, an animal sanctuary.

I’m embarrassed to say that, even in light of the invasion of Crimea a few years previously, I thought this level of patriotism at such an event was a little unusual; since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia however, the desire of Ukrainians to assert their national identity at every opportunity, makes sense. I never fully appreciated the threat Ukrainians felt at the time, but in spite of that, the fact that the community still celebrated the opening of a sanctuary to house rescued (refugee) bears, many of which were likely to come from Russia, is all the more inspiring, and speaks to their character.

A year on from the start of the war, I often think of the people (and bears) I met in Ukraine, wondering how they are doing day to day, and hoping they are well. As we've seen, Ukrainians are getting on with life as best they can, and the same is true for the Domazhyr sanctuary and its dedicated staff, it’s still operating and holds as many as 32 rescued bears, but since the war, it has an even greater relevance; Four Paws’ presence in the country has enabled them and their Ukrainian team to provide support to a wide range of animals in need, as a direct result of the conflict.

I know many might argue that taking care of animals during times of war, earthquake, flood, or fire is in some way frivolous, but the humbling pictures of Ukrainians fleeing their homes with all they can carry, including their pets, says so much about their humanity and their priorities, as do those images of people rescuing cats and dogs from the rubble in Syria and Turkey, or wading through floodwater with pets in their arms following Hurricane Katrina. Some might argue that to waste effort on animals in such circumstances is irrational and even in poor taste, but those of us who have pets, might appreciate the added trauma, particularly for children, of losing a pet when they may already have lost so much more besides, not to mention the potential therapeutic benefits of having a much loved pet close to hand for individuals traumatised by crises.

In situations of human tragedy, inevitably our focus should be on the people, but the impacts of conflict and crisis can be felt even at the species and ecosystem level as well. The Père David's deer, or Milu were eliminated from their native China during the Boxer Revolution, but their successful reintroduction from managed herds outside of China, serves as a beacon of hope for our ability to repair the biodiversity impacts of conflict.

I vividly recall triaging rescue efforts when the Calgary Zoo flooded in 2013, so I can imagine the difficult decisions that are taken in places where humans, animals, and even species are in simultaneous danger. After the event, I also understood the symbolic significance of our ability to save the lives of the community's beloved zoo animals on their behalf, and the emblematic importance of the zoo's recovery in the months and years after. While I understand, of course, that not every animal can be saved in a crisis, and if there were ever a choice between an animal and a human, the answer would be clear, but if we entirely abandon animals and biodiversity in conflict or crises, I think we lose a little bit of our humanity, and that, like Ukraine itself, is worth fighting for.

If you’d like to help Four Paw’s work in Ukraine, please follow this link;, and if you’d like to help IFAW’s work in Turkey and Syria, please follow the this link;

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