Natalia Popova has found a new purpose in life: saving wild animals and pets from the ravages of war in Ukraine.
“They are my life,” said the 50-year-old, stroking a lioness with light fur like a kitten. From inside a pen, the animal rejoices in the attention, lying on its back and stretching its paws towards its keeper.
Popova, in cooperation with the animal protection group UA Animals, has already saved more than 300 animals from war; 200 of them have gone abroad and 100 have found a new home in western Ukraine, which is considered safer. Many of them were wild animals that were kept as pets in private homes before their owners fled Russian bombings and missiles.
Popova’s shelter in the village of Chubynske, Kyiv region, now houses 133 animals. It’s a vast menagerie, including 13 lions, a leopard, a tiger, three stags, wolves, foxes, raccoons and deer, as well as domestic animals like horses, donkeys, goats, rabbits , dogs, cats and birds.
Animals awaiting evacuation to Poland have been rescued from hotspots such as Kharkiv and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine, which see daily shelling and active fighting. Ukrainian soldiers who let Popova know when animals near the front lines need help joke that she has many lives, like a cat.
“Nobody wants to go there. Everyone is afraid. I’m scared too, but I’m going anyway,” she said.
Often she is shaking in the car while going to save another wild animal.
“I feel very sorry for them. I can imagine the stress animals are under because of war, and no one can help them,” Popova said.
In most cases, she knows nothing of the animals she rescues, their names and ages, or their owners.
“Animals don’t show up when they come to our house,” she joked.
During the first months of the war, Popova traveled alone to the hot spots of the war, but a couple from UA Animals recently offered to transport and help her.
“Our record is an evacuation in 16 minutes, when we rescued a lion between Kramatorsk and Sloviansk,” Popova said. A trained economist with no formal veterinary experience, she administered anesthesia to the lion because the animal needed to be put to sleep before it could be transported.
Popova says she has always been very attached to animals. In kindergarten, she built houses for worms and talked to birds. In 1999 she opened the first private horse club in Ukraine. But it wasn’t until four years ago that she saved her first lion.
An organization against slaughterhouses approached her with a request for help in rescuing a lion with a broken spine. She didn’t know how she could help as her expertise was in horses. But when she saw a photo of the big cat, Popova couldn’t resist.
She built an enclosure and took the lion in the next morning, paying the owner. Later, Popova created a social media page called “Help the Lioness”, and people started writing asking for help saving other wild animals.
Yana, the first lioness she rescued, became part of the family because she couldn’t find a new home due to a disability. Popova took care of her until her death two weeks ago.
The refuge is only a temporary stopover for the animals. Popova rehabilitates them and then finds new homes for them. She feels a special bond with each big cat, but says she doesn’t mind letting them go.
“I love them and understand that I don’t have the resources to give them the comfortable life they deserve,” Popova says.
At first, she funded the shelter with her own funds from the equestrian business. But since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the horse trade has not been profitable. With more than $14,000 a month needed to keep the animals healthy and fed, she turned to borrowing and saw her debt soar to $200,000.
She receives money from UA Animals and donations, but worries about how to keep it all together have kept her awake at night.
“But I’m still going to borrow money, go to trouble spots and save the animals. I can’t say no to them,” she said.
Popova sends all her animals to Poznań Zoo in Poland, which helps her evacuate them and find new homes for them. Some animals have already been transported to Spain, France and South Africa. His next project is to send 12 lions to Poland this week.
With no end of fights in sight, Popova knows she will always be needed.
“My mission in this war is to save wild animals,” she said.