Given that she routinely looks after 700 dogs, 100 cats, a variety of injured birds and a couple of rescued turtles, Asya Serpinska wasn’t about to let a bunch of Russian soldiers intimidate her.
Ms. Serpinska runs an animal shelter in the Kyiv suburb of Hostomel, where the Russian army launched its ill-fated attempt to take the capital on Feb. 24. Her 1.2-hectare spread was in direct line of Russian advance and it was quickly surrounded.
But even though the soldiers shot one of her dogs, harassed her staff and locked her up in a building for several hours during the month-long occupation, Ms. Serpinska refused to abandon her animals. “My land was always Ukrainian territory,” she said proudly during a recent visit. “They never took the farm.”
Dressed in combat pants and a black T-shirt emblazoned with “Brave Ukraine,” Ms. Serpinska cuts an imposing figure for someone who is about to turn 78. She has short grey hair, rugged hands and a no-nonsense style honed from years of teaching math at university.
She’s been running the shelter for 23 years, ignoring locals who called her crazy for buying an assortment of derelict buildings on an abandoned Soviet collective farm just to look after dogs. “You have to be a person like me to do something crazy like this,” she said.
She and her husband, Valentyn, a former rocket engineer, transformed the buildings into a network of spacious pens. They built enclosed running areas outside and fenced in a massive yard where most of the dogs spend their days.
Ms. Serpinska has always had a soft spot for strays and in a country that doesn’t have a tradition of sterilizing pets, she’s become a crusader for spaying, neutering and vaccination. “Thirty years ago, no one knew about sterilizing, no one cared about strays,” she said. “People like me were called idiots.”
She believes her work has become more important than ever. Ukraine is facing an explosion of stray dogs because of the war. Pets have been abandoned by people fleeing the conflict and other animals have been cut loose because their owners can no longer afford to care for them.
This country already had the highest incidence of rabies in Europe before the invasion and officials worry the caseload could climb much higher.
Ms. Serpinska and her small staff have been desperately trying to sterilize and vaccinate as many dogs and cats as possible. They also insert microchips containing the animal’s medical records and strays are marked with tags that can be read on a cellphone to show that the dog has been inoculated.
But it’s an uphill battle. For every 50 animals they sterilize, just as many are dropped off and some dogs are arriving from as far away as Kherson and Donbas where fighting is fierce.
Ms. Serpinska’s steadfastness in standing up to the Russians garnered international attention last spring, and for a while, donations poured in from around the world. But the support has begun to dry up.
“We have to shout that we are not in occupation anymore but we still need help,” said Ms. Serpinska’s 24-year-old granddaughter, Maria Vronska, who handles administration and fundraising for the shelter.
It costs US$13,000 a month to run the facility, which also has a small veterinary hospital. A recent sterilization drive was sponsored by a U.S.-based charity called No Dogs Left Behind and Ms. Vronska has been frantically seeking more donors to keep the campaign going.
The shelter is still recovering from the occupation. Several broken windows have only recently been replaced and the front door of the hospital is marked with bullet holes.
Around 100 dogs died during weeks of constant shelling and some of the survivors remain so traumatized they still hide in deep tunnels they dug in the yard when the invasion began. A Russian soldier shot one dog and when Ms. Serpinska asked him why, he replied, “Because he was barking.”
She did manage to save a lion from a nearby private zoo that was abandoned when the owners fled. At first the Russian soldiers wouldn’t let her feed the lion and they put a mine in front of its cage. But after several days of negotiating, and a couple packages of cigarettes, Ms. Serpinska convinced them to defuse the mine and let her drop off some food. The lion survived and was transferred to a zoo in Poland last spring.
Her husband also took his life in his hands by making a daring trip to get a generator after the electricity was cut. He made it through 20 checkpoints – Russian and Ukrainian – and Ms. Serpinska said the only thing that saved him was the skill he’d developed from years of mountaineering.
As she walked through the rows of pens recently, she paused to pat a few of her favourites and check in on a bitch and her puppies. Ms. Serpinska has been bitten countless times and one dog snapped off most of the ring finger on her right hand. She’s more angry at the surgeons who didn’t reattach the digit properly than she is with the dog.
She became almost incredulous when asked how long she could keep going. “How can I stop?,” she replied gruffly. “I have almost 1,000 animals here. We need to keep going.”