Paw-some effort: Dogs rescuers save animals at the Ukraine border

Medyka, Poland - It's already dark when Sascha Winkler steers his white minibus into the yard of an abandoned farm in Medyka, in eastern Poland. Loud barking, anxious yelps, and pleading whimpers emanate from the cargo hold. "I have 23 dogs, quite a few puppies," Winkler calls out.

A girl holds a dog and cat as part of a convoy of 15 busses that traveled from Mariupol to evacuate Ukrainians.
A girl holds a dog and cat as part of a convoy of 15 busses that traveled from Mariupol to evacuate Ukrainians.  © IMAGO/Ukrinform

Before dawn, the animal rights activist sets off to rescue abandoned dogs from war-torn Ukraine. Now he is finally back in Poland - and the animals are safe.

For the time being, rescues are being held in an improvised animal shelter set up by the Polish foundation Centaurus on the unused farm in Medyka.

Human tragedies are unfolding barely one mile from the stables of the abandoned farm. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees arrive daily at the Medyka-Schehyni crossing on the Polish-Ukrainian border, fleeing ongoing Russian missiles and bombs that are destroying their homes.

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"When people have to flee, many leave their pets behind," Winkler said. This is already the twelfth animal rescue trip to Ukraine for the 35-year-old businessman from Germany. He says there is often no room for dogs and cats on the crowded trains bringing refugees, and many families must make heartbreaking decisions. "Taking mother dogs with puppies is practically impossible."

Local animal shelters in Ukraine have taken in abandoned four-legged friends, Winkler says, but they have become overwhelmed.

The journey to a new home

A refugee from Mariupol traveling with her dogs to the Lviv train station, where they will hopefully soon leave Ukraine.
A refugee from Mariupol traveling with her dogs to the Lviv train station, where they will hopefully soon leave Ukraine.  © IMAGO/ZUMA Wire

In an effort to help, Winkler and two other drivers set out on their dozenth trip to deliver donated pet food to Ukraine and pick up dogs from the towns of Brody and Radechiv, near Lviv - often risking their own lives in the process.

Winkler isn't afraid of war himself. As he says, "I was in Afghanistan ... I've seen worse."

Another volunteer, Dominik Nawa, has brought five dogs in his blue van from the western Ukrainian town of Stryj. "Four puppies and their mother. A woman found them tied up in front of the church in Stryj," says the 46-year-old, who runs a sanctuary for horses, donkeys and goats in Silesia.

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A dozen volunteers from the US, Poland, Ukraine, and Germany help unload the cages of rescued animals, covered in wool blankets, from the vans. Animal welfare workers carry them into heated containers.

The improvised shelter in Medyka is only a temporary station for the many dogs and the cats taken in. Volunteers then try to take as many as can fit in their cars and distribute them to shelters around Europe.

Hopefully soon, the pets will be back in homes, with new owners who will give them love and a warm welcome from being caught in the throes of war.

Cover photo: Collage: IMAGO/Ukrinform & ZUMA Wire

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