Natalia Popova has found a new purpose in life: rescuing wild animals and pets from the devastation caused by the war in Ukraine.
“They are my life,” says the 50-year-old, as she pets a light-furred lioness like a kitten. From inside an enclosure, the animal rejoices at the attention, lying on its back and stretching its paws toward its keeper.
Popova, in cooperation with the animal protection group UA Animals, has already saved more than 300 animals from the war; 200 of them went abroad and 100 found new homes in western Ukraine, which is considered safer. Many of them were wild animals kept as pets in private homes before their owners fled Russian bombing and missiles.
The Popova shelter in the village of Chubynske in the Kyiv region now houses 133 animals. It is an extensive collection of wild animals, including 13 lions, a leopard, a tiger, three deer, wolves, foxes, raccoons, and roe deer, as well as domestic animals such as horses, donkeys, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and birds.
The animals waiting to be evacuated to Poland were rescued from hotspots such as the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, which are the scene of daily shelling and active fighting. The Ukrainian soldiers who warned Popova 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.
She is often shivering in the car on her way to rescue another wild animal.
“I feel very sorry for them. I can imagine the stress animals are under due to war, and no one can help them,” Popova said.
In most cases, he knows nothing about the animals he rescues, including their names and ages and their owners.
“Animals don’t show up when they come to us,” he joked.
During the first months of the war, Popova was driving alone to the hot spots of the war, but recently a couple from UA Animals offered to transport her and help her.
“Our record is an evacuation in 16 minutes, when we saved a lion between Kramatorsk and Sloviansk,” Popova said. An economist by training with no formal veterinary experience, she administered anesthesia to the lion because the animal had to be put to sleep before it could be transported.
Popova says that 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 anti-slaughterhouse organization approached her with a request to help save a lion with a broken spine. She didn’t know how she could help because her background was in horses. But when she saw a photo of the big cat, she Popova couldn’t resist.
She built an enclosure and took the lion in the next morning, paying the owner. Popova later created a social media page titled “Help the Lioness,” and people started writing asking for help to save other wild animals.
Yana, the first lioness he rescued, has become a member of the family as she was unable to find a new home due to a disability. Popova took care of her until she died two weeks ago.
The shelter is just a temporary stopover for the animals. Popova rehabilitates them and then finds them new homes. She feels a special connection with each big cat, but she says that she doesn’t mind letting them go.
“I love them and understand that I don’t have the resources to provide them with the comfortable life they deserve,” says Popova.
At first, he financed the shelter with his own funds from the horse business. But since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the horse business has not been profitable. With more than $14,000 a month needed to keep the animals healthy and fed, he took out loans and watched his debt grow to $200,000.
She gets some money from UA Animals and donations, but worries about keeping everything in order have kept her up at night.
“But I will still borrow money, go to critical places and save animals. I can’t tell them no,” she said.
Popova sends all her animals to the Poznań Zoo in Poland, which helps her evacuate them and find them new homes. Some animals have already been transported to Spain, France and South Africa. Her next project is to send 12 lions to Poland this week.
With the end of the fight in sight, Popova knows she will still be needed.
“My mission in this war is to save wild animals,” she says.
Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska spoke in front of members of Congress on Wednesday.