How one UK army vet’s grassroots mission to save abandoned pets in war-torn Ukraine has expanded into a wider operation including bears, wolves, and chimps.
One man’s unwavering commitment to save the abandoned animals in war-torn Ukraine has expanded into one of ‘the largest and most dangerous’ animal rescue efforts in history that has so far seen 3,000 saved in just eight weeks.
Now the British army veteran and founder of the dog advocacy group, Breaking the Chains, will set out on his most gruelling undertaking yet, as he and his team travel to the most volatile areas in the besieged country.
‘It’s a race against time to get to the most desperate of places,’ Tom, 34, who prefers to keep his last name anonymous for security reasons, told DailyMail.com in an exclusive interview.
‘Of course we want to extract as many animals as possible, the sick and injured, but we can’t get them all which is why we are bringing enough food and supplies to last for months.’
The meticulously planned operation will take over three weeks and involve driving anywhere between 1,200 to 1,300 miles a day, roughly 20 to 21 hours, to those areas under immediate and direct threat. Eight vehicles will be delivering a staggering 300 tons of food and medical supplies throughout eastern and southern Ukraine.
‘We are looking at one of the largest and most dangerous animal rescue operations in history,’ explained Tom. ‘This means saving the lives of tens of thousands of animals. ‘At the start of the war, we saw, time and time again, shelters and zoos getting caught behind Russian lines with little food, water and supplies. I don’t want to see that happen again. It broke my heart,’ Tom recalled. ‘We want to stock as many shelters and homes as we possibly can to ensure what happened at the beginning doesn’t happen again.’
Tom and his team have already saved countless animals on the verge of starvation and death, with one of their most recent successful missions taking place on May 10. The team managed to bring 25 injured dogs and cats to safety after receiving word from a concerned owner that some of her pets were trapped in a home inside the Russian occupied area of Sorokivka, east of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.
A woman called Irynia had managed to rescue dogs and cats when she snuck into the Russian-occupied area. But then her house was bombed. At the time she was out, and fortunately her dogs narrowly escaped the burning building. She then reached out to Tom and his team, who helped retrieve the remaining animals. Several of the dogs suffered severe burns after the building was struck by a thermal missile which subsequently burnt the entire structure to the ground.
Fortunately, the dogs were able to narrowly escape the blazing building. Tom was able to retrieve the dogs, along with other animals stranded in the destroyed city, all of whom are now receiving life saving treatments in a clinic.
‘Me being the individual that I am, I can’t sit back and not do anything. If I have the ability and the capability to help, then I will. My area of expertise is conflict zones and I am medically trained with battlefield trauma,’ he said. ‘I can offer something fairly unique, and I have the experience to do this.’
When news of Russia’s invasion broke around the world in February, Tom, who is originally from Yorkshire, England, instinctively felt the urge to get involved and within two weeks, packed his bags to move to Ukraine for the first time.
Tom arrived in early March accompanied by just his close friend and fellow British army veteran Steve, and their one van. Together, they found a ‘safe place’ to stay in the battered country which would ultimately become their headquarters.
The team has now grown to include 18 members made up of six fellow British war veterans who work on the ground, and 12 volunteers from the UK, US, and Canada who look after the animals. Among them are two veterinarians, identified only as Courtney, from the US, and Louise, who is from the UK. Photos obtained by DailyMail.com show Louise feeding an injured ginger cat with a syringe and Courtney bathing a rescue dog.
Another volunteer, Pip from the UK, can be seen smiling while she cuddles with a group of adorable puppies.
‘The volunteers are my heroes. The work that they do with the animals is absolutely incredible,’ said Tom. ‘To watch these dogs and cats transform from being petrified and hiding in the corner to wanting to play and get cuddles, is an absolute joy, and it’s all because of the volunteers and their commitment to the animals. ‘Without the constant support of the volunteers, my ground teams would not be able to do what we do.’
Up until now, the majority of the saved animals have been relocated to various shelters and clinics in Romania. However, the growing need for immediate housing led Tom to take matters into his own hands and make the bold decision to build his own shelter in the war-ravaged country.
‘Obviously the more animals we can house, the more we can save,’ explained Tom. ‘I just signed a two year contract on a large property in Ukraine. That means Breaking the Chains will be living inside the country for the next two years. It also means we will help rebuild when the war finishes.
He continued: ‘We still have a lot of hard work to do. We have a big mission of what we want to accomplish here in Ukraine, not only with the animals but with the people. We want to contribute and improve the overall welfare of animals in the country.’
Construction on the new shelter has recently begun and in time will provide safety and care for all of the evacuated animals, until they can either cross to a neighbouring country or be adopted across Europe.
In addition to housing some 500 dogs and cats, the grounds will include a surgery room, medical equipment, antibiotics and vaccinations, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor space for the animals to live comfortably. Tom and his entire team will also reside on the property.
Tom’s passion for helping animals goes above and beyond saving dogs and cats.
In April, he and his crew rescued Bolik the bear and Elza the wolf who had lived most of their lives in captivity only to be left behind in cement cages when the war broke out.
Bolik, a 15-year-old male Eurasian brown bear and Elza, a 7-yearold female wolf, both lived in small, filthy enclosures at a tourist resort in Chernivtsi, a city in southwestern Ukraine, which had been bombed.
‘It was an incredibly complex procedure,’ Tom explained. ‘We had 18 hours to move Bolik from his cage into a larger crate that would fit into the van.
‘We actually custom built the crate when we arrived. We then had to cut through five layers of steel bars and somehow connect the two enclosures, so the bear could easily move from his original cage into the crate we built.
‘We were able to lure him in with food. We didn’t sedate either of the animals because of health concerns.’
In one video, the 1,323lb. bear can be seen drinking water from a bottle that Tom is holding and pouring into his mouth.
After a 750 mile journey, Bolik and Elza were safely transported to the Liberty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti, Romania, where they will live with the other 116 bears and five wolves on 170 acres of land managed by the Million Friends Association.
Additional organizations that helped make the rescue possible include Ervin Nagy with the Hungarian based Awakening Planet Foundation, Olga Chevganiuk with UAnimals and Natalia Popova with Ukraine’s Wild Animal Rescue International Charity Foundation, and World Animal Protection with its headquarters in London.
Tom and his Breaking the Chains team also spent two weeks at a zoo with 500 animals on the verge of collapse after being invaded twice by Russian troops.
‘They tied everyone up and left them in a room while they pillaged everything,’ Tom explained. ‘They took everything, phones, personal belongings, food. ‘These six brave zookeepers did an incredible job of keeping the animals alive, despite the atrocious hardship they had to endure. They rationed what little they had, and sourced whatever they could locally from around the zoo.’
Tom explained how most of the animals ranging from tigers and lions to giraffes and a hippopotamus were rescues from circuses and shows, including a 13-year-old chimpanzee named John who grew a liking to Tom.
‘There was this one day, when I sat with John and talked to him. I stroked his back and ears all at his request, along with a couple of kisses through the cage, and what happened next will stay with me for the rest of my life. ‘John’s keeper brought him a banana, he placed it in his bowl and stepped away, while I was still sat on the floor next to John scratching his back through the cage door. John noticed this, stood up, grabbed the banana and sat back down next to me. ‘John looked at the banana, looked at me and without a single thought he broke the banana in half, pushed half through the cage for me to eat and then ate the other half himself. ‘Despite everything this little guy had been through, the fear of bombs and bullets, the lack of food for weeks and the change in his living conditions, he still wanted to give half of the little he had to me.
‘This is a lesson for all of humanity, when the world is so content in death and destruction, the magnificent animals on our earth continue to teach us lessons of love and compassion. ‘That’s the very lesson that if heard and acted upon would prevent the atrocities we are seeing in the Ukraine and around the world daily.’
Other success stories include the rescue of an injured and malnourished horse which was at death’s door when Tom arrived after a 30-hour journey. The injured horse was transferred to a new location where he is now undergoing treatment by a team of caregivers.
While retrieving the horse, Tom managed to save three dogs, including a petrified English Pointer who sat on his lap for six straight hours during the long drive to safety. Another pup rested his head on Tom’s left shoulder while looking out the car window.
‘These dogs wouldn’t leave my side. They were all so traumatized by the constant sound of bombs and explosions.
Tom shared the heart-warming experience via video with nearly 40,000 Facebook followers on his Breaking the Chains-Documentaries page which provides regular updates and photographs.
The owner of five dogs himself, Tom credits his supporters for making his mission in Ukraine possible.
‘What we have is an incredible community of people from all over the world bonded by the single goal of saving and protecting the innocent animals from a war that was never theirs to begin with.
Lucky the cat was one of Tom’s first rescues in Ukraine. After being hit by a car and left in the bushes to die, Tom who happened to be in the car directly behind, immediately stopped, jumped out of the vehicle and swooped up the injured kitty.
After making a full recovery and receiving plenty of TLC, Lucky, who was named by one of Tom’s Facebook followers, is now living in a loving clinic in Romania.
Prior to relocating to Ukraine for the time being, Tom travelled the world advocating for dogs.
After serving in the British army for 16 years, he founded Breaking the Chains-Documentaries aimed at promoting animal welfare.
He credits his own dog with helping him overcome PTSD. As a result, Tom decided to dedicate his life helping animals around the globe.
When asked if he feared for his own life while rescuing animals in Ukraine, Tom replied: ‘We don’t think about that as we are focused on what we are doing in the here and now. This type of lifestyle comes naturally to war veterans, like myself,’
Visit www.facebook.com/FacesOfHopeDocumentaries/ to support Tom and Breaking the Chains.
(Article source: Daily Mail)