Many people abandoned animals while fleeing Ukraine, but some heroes stayed behind to support the pets in need. Asya Serpinska, 77, walked toward the Russian conflict instead of running away. She was willing to put herself in danger because her animal shelter in Hostomel, a town above Kyiv, needed her.
Serpinska had about 600 dogs and 100 cats at the shelter when the invasion began. She also ended up taking in a variety of abandoned zoo animals. As if caring for the animals wasn’t hard enough, she also had her life threatened by Russian troops several times. But she always stood her ground for the sake of the animals.
Protecting the Pets of Ukraine
It wasn’t long before Russian forces were on all sides of Hostomel, but Serpinska didn’t let fear get the best of her. As soon as Serpinska knew that the Russians were trying to seize the town, she ran to the shelter and opened the cages so the dogs and cats wouldn’t be trapped inside. She and a few staff members stayed at the shelter amid the shelling.
“The first thought that crossed my mind was that I had to run to the shelter,” Serpinska said. “I was consciously going to war. My people were here, my dogs were here.”
Despite the danger surrounding the shelter, the volunteers kept up with the animals’ routines. They continued to feed them at regular times and clean the space. Serpinska’s friends begged her to leave Ukraine, but she refused to abandon the pets.
Zoo Needs Help Too
While protecting her shelter, Serpinska also witnessed a private zoo nearby go up in flames. The zoo’s owners had abandoned the facility, leaving the animals to fend for themselves. Serpinska and her team faced the smoke to rescue as many animals as possible, including peacocks and turtles. The lion was the only survivor that Serpinska’s team was unable to take with them.
“Only the lion got left behind,” Serpinska said. “For five weeks, we would go there under shelling and bullets to feed that lion, because it had been locked in a cage and we didn’t have the keys.”
The Russian soldiers later placed a mine near the lion’s cage, so Serpinska had to negotiate to prevent them from killing the innocent creature. The soldiers detonated the mine, but the lion survived. The shelter volunteers kept bringing food to the feline until Ukrainian forces reclaimed the area.
Facing Death Several Times
Ukrainians have now taken over Hostomel again, but the shelter staff faced many risky situations when Russian troops were there. Sadly, Serpinska’s dog named Gina was killed by Russian soldiers. A soldier was mad that Gina was barking at him through the fence, so he shot her. Serpinska was heartbroken, but she didn’t let her pain stop her from helping the other animals.
Russian soldiers came to the shelter several times after that, and Serpinska is lucky to be alive after each incident. At one point, the Russians locked everyone at the shelter in a room and told them they were putting a land mine on the door. They told them that if anyone opened the door, the mine would kill them.
After someone rescued them, they realized that there probably hadn’t been a mine on the door at all. The soldier had just said that to scare them. Each time Serpinska came face-to-face with Russian troops, she was likely terrified. But she never ran away because of the animals that needed her.
Recovering and Rebuilding
Now that Russia is no longer in control of Hostomel, the town is quiet. Most of the town is deserted, and buildings have been burned and destroyed. The shelter is also in rough shape and doesn’t have electricity back, but Serpinska is working to rebuild it. She’s already working hard to gather donations and find homes for the animals now that the town is more accessible than before.
“It doesn’t matter who you protect: children, people, animals, nature. The most important thing is responsibility,” said Serpinska. “Rescue animals to remain human.”
Despite everything, the shelter animals seem happy. Serpinska and her team have gone above and beyond to make sure they all stay safe during the horrors of the invasion. This world could use more selfless people like them.