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It’s a dog’s life: the impact of explosive violence on dogs in Eastern Ukraine

You can hear the centre long before you see it.  This is not surprising. After all, the Bakhmut Community for Animal Protection – or LADA – has over 100 dogs under its care. The barking carries over the line of trees that separates it from the main road, and as you get out of your car you are greeted by a shy, black and white mongrel with a weak eye and a plaintiff look.  Within seconds, a muzzle appears around the blue gate and then another, and another and the sound of the barking increases in the distance.

Hearing the greeting, Marina Shazhko comes out to meet visitors.  An English and French teacher in the nearby city, this 45-year-old first established this dog shelter back in 2012, before the war engulfed the region in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Back then, it was a charity that cared for just five dogs and two cats.  Now they house 105 dogs here, and also manage many cats who are looked after in private homes across the city.

The barking reaches fever pitch and excited puppies and older dogs strain at chain leashes as you pass their wooden kennels.  Those that have bitten are tied secure, the more docile dogs wander free.

Marina with some of the dogs at the shelter.

“Many of the dogs here were left by refugees fleeing the violence,” explains Marina.  Everything is make-shift and basic.  The group receives no funds from the government, and rely mainly on the generosity of the five volunteers who run the place.  Two women are paid to look after the animals from the morning to night; things are run on a shoestring.

“At first, when the dogs arrive, they are treated by a vet. They are dewormed and given any necessary medicine.  Then we try to socialise them, and – we hope – get them placed with a family.  But it is so hard to find someone willing to take them as many people don’t want mongrels.  They are looking for pure breeds.”

If the dogs are not found a family, this centre becomes their home.  One of them – Squirrel – has been here for six years.  But the rest are mostly strays left behind by those fleeing the recent conflict.

“It’s easy to see those dogs traumatised by the war,” Marina says. “In 2014, the road to the frontline was lined with terrified dogs.  They would hide if you approached them and cover their eyes with their paws.”

Today, the dogs are far less fearful.  One comes up to be patted – it hops on three legs.  They do not know how, but suspect that its paw was severed in the fighting. They call it ‘Russia’ and seem to have a special place in their heart for it.

Marina pets a dog who lost a leg during the conflict.

Some dogs do not settle into new homes. One was returned after three months because she was not barking.  Others are fearful of men, and may even bite if approached. These issues mean that the dog’s home here looks only set to grow. But with the costs of dry food, sliced sausages, vet bills and maintenance always rising, it is no easy task.

Marina feels that there is a gap in post-conflict care. “Animals are the forgotten victims of war,” she says. “And even though the nearby city was not impacted directly by the conflict, the number of strays here is still a problem.  Not many people think about the care of animals when civilians are being killed.”

The presence of so many strays certainly seems to feed popular fears.  People talk of wolves mating with dogs, producing feral and wild animals.  There are stories of children being bitten, and the fact that hunting is now illegal within a corridor running alongside the frontline, suggests to many that wild animals are out of control in the local woods.

105 dogs are cared for here on a shoestring budget.

Such fears may well multiply among people already traumatised by the violence of man. And the fact that there are no statistics relating to how domestic pets and other animals were impacted by the explosive violence here probably adds to the fears.

Whatever the reality, it is clear that animal welfare is all too often overlooked in areas impacted by violence.  And charities like LADA are by far the exception to the norm.