War in Ukraine | Of cats and men

In the flow of refugees fleeing Ukraine at the beginning of the Russian invasion, this was the first thing that struck: the crowd stretching to the Polish border crossing consisted almost entirely of women and ‘children’. The men themselves had not been able to do anything but stay behind to defend the country.


The other thing that was striking was the number of … dogs and cats in the crowd.

  • A boy holds a cat aboard a ferry during the evacuation of residents of Kherson on October 31, 2022.

    PHOTO ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO, REUTERS ARCHIVE

    A boy holds a cat aboard a ferry during the evacuation of residents of Kherson on October 31, 2022.

  • A woman with her dogs during the evacuation of Irpin, March 31, 2022

    PHOTO DANIEL BERHULAK, NEW YORK TIMES ARCHIVES

    A woman with her dogs during the evacuation of Irpin, March 31, 2022

  • A woman carries her cat past buildings destroyed by Russian shelling in Borodyanka, Kyiv region, April 5, 2022.

    PHOTO ZOHRA BENSEMRA, REUTERS ARCHIVES

    A woman carries her cat past buildings destroyed by Russian shelling in Borodyanka, Kyiv region, April 5, 2022.

  • A young girl holds her dog as she greets her grandparents from an evacuation train leaving Pokrovsk, Donetsk region, on August 2, 2022.

    PHOTO DAVID GOLDMAN, ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVES

    A young girl holds her dog as she greets her grandparents from an evacuation train leaving Pokrovsk, Donetsk region, on August 2, 2022.

  • A woman pets her cat inside a subway car at an underground station that was used as a shelter in Kiev, March 8, 2022.

    PHOTO DIMITAR DILKOFF, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE ARCHIVE

    A woman pets her cat inside a subway car at an underground station that was used as a shelter in Kiev, March 8, 2022.

  • Yuliia Zaika, a 9-year-old Ukrainian girl, holds her cat Marsyk in front of her half-sister's destroyed house in the village of Moshchun near Kiev on November 8, 2022.

    PHOTO MURAD SEZER, REUTERS ARCHIVE

    Yuliia Zaika, a 9-year-old Ukrainian girl, holds her cat Marsyk in front of her half-sister’s destroyed house in the village of Moshchun near Kiev on November 8, 2022.

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The exhausted refugees had very little luggage. Their turned lives fit in a suitcase. They had fled in disaster and took only the essentials with them. But there was no question of giving up the cat, whose pointed ears stuck out of a backpack. There is no question of leaving the little dog behind. Not even the big one for that matter. To avoid waiting four or five days in the line of cars, a woman walked 17 kilometers to the border post in dragging his old German shepherd on his shoulders.

The weeks passed. And little by little, pets have become an integral part of the image of the conflict in Ukraine. From the front, war reporters sent pictures of bloodied civilians leaping from the rubble clutching their mangled cats. Around Kiev, commuters flatly refused to be evacuated without their precious dog.

It may seem futile, like that, but these animals represented a huge source of comfort for men and women who had lost everything else.

There have been heartbreaking stories, such as that of Anastasiia Yalanskaya, 26, killed while delivering food to a kennel in Boutcha that had been without it for days. Natacha Derkach lost her life trying to save the animals in Dnipro.

Ukrainians love their animals, sometimes to death.

Even so, many animals had to be abandoned in a hurry. Often, when the Russian occupier retreats, the Ukrainian soldiers have the impression of entering ghost towns and villages. Only animals walk the streets. And they are many. “In fact, it seems that the less human life there is in one place, the more wildlife there is,” soldier Yehor Firsov said at a podium at Washington Post.

Stray animals are regularly adopted by Ukrainian troops. Because a dog can smell the enemy and alert the soldiers to its approach. But above all because it acts as an anti-stress ball (of hair) for all members of the squad, Private Firsov explains.

On social networks there are countless pictures of cats sitting on the shoulders of soldiers, or curled up between their arms and purring with pleasure. Like any good cat video, these have a high potential for virality. To be honest, the internet is now obsessed with felines from Ukraine.

  • On social networks there are countless pictures of cats sitting on the shoulders of soldiers or wrapped between their arms.

    PHOTO FROM INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT @UAARMY_ANIMALS

    On social networks there are countless pictures of cats sitting on the shoulders of soldiers or wrapped between their arms.

  • On social networks there are countless pictures of cats sitting on the shoulders of soldiers, or curled up between their arms and purring with pleasure.

    PHOTO FROM INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT @UAARMY_ANIMALS

    On social networks there are countless pictures of cats sitting on the shoulders of soldiers, or curled up between their arms and purring with pleasure.

  • On social networks there are countless pictures of cats sitting on the shoulders of soldiers, or curled up between their arms and purring with pleasure.

    PHOTO FROM INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT @UAARMY_ANIMALS

    On social networks there are countless pictures of cats sitting on the shoulders of soldiers, or curled up between their arms and purring with pleasure.

  • On social networks there are countless pictures of cats sitting on the shoulders of soldiers, or curled up between their arms and purring with pleasure.

    PHOTO FROM INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT @UAARMY_ANIMALS

    On social networks there are countless pictures of cats sitting on the shoulders of soldiers, or curled up between their arms and purring with pleasure.

  • On social networks there are countless pictures of cats sitting on the shoulders of soldiers, or curled up between their arms and purring with pleasure.

    PHOTO FROM INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT @UAARMY_ANIMALS

    On social networks there are countless pictures of cats sitting on the shoulders of soldiers, or curled up between their arms and purring with pleasure.

  • On social networks there are countless pictures of cats sitting on the shoulders of soldiers, or curled up between their arms and purring with pleasure.

    PHOTO FROM INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT @UAARMY_ANIMALS

    On social networks there are countless pictures of cats sitting on the shoulders of soldiers, or curled up between their arms and purring with pleasure.

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There is undoubtedly an element of calculation, not to say propaganda, in the dissemination of these images. From the start of the conflict, Ukraine has been adept at humanizing its soldiers. And what better than a cute twink to win the information war? The viral videos send a message: soldiers are ordinary people who care about animal welfare. Like everyone.

Perhaps it is the contrast that is so fascinating. In the midst of the horror, houses destroyed, cities evacuated, lives turned upside down forever, the cats live their lives as cats, passive and nonchalant. And the Ukrainians are doing everything to make it last. As if to prove that nothing will make them lose their humanity, not even war. Especially not the war.

Of course, animals are not immune to conflict. Thousands have died since February 24. Several thousand will die over the winter. Many people may not survive either.

It is obviously for them that we must think first and foremost. In the middle of the war, the animal rescue operations carried out by Western organizations seem more or less out of place. An animal shelter on the Polish border, really? Aren’t there other priorities?

Note if we help Also their owners, it can be fine. But that is not always the case. After the Taliban captured Kabul in August 2021, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson caused a scandal by allowing the evacuation of dogs from Afghanistan, while the people who had been working on behalf of the British remained stuck there.

It was absurd and obscene. In Ukraine, on the contrary, there is something comforting in seeing people continue to look after their animals despite the bombs. Anyway. Something deeply… human.

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