Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered a flood of refugees. Many of them were pet owners who had to leave their dogs and cats behind, hoping it would only be a matter of days before they were able to return to them.
It wasn’t long before Ukrainian veterinarians Valentina and Leonid Stoyanov learned that many pets were locked in nearby homes.
“After one, two weeks … neighbors just start hear (sic) how a lot of different animals around them screaming,” Valentina told CNN.
At the time, the couple specialized in exotic animal and wildlife rescue. With the invasion came a new mission: caring for these beloved but abandoned pets.
The Stoyanovs began working with local police to access homes to rescue dogs and cats. Within a week of the invasion, Leonid said they were caring for some 400 animals in their Odesa clinic.
“Each animal for us, it’s like members of our family,” Valentina said.
For the last decade, the couple has worked together treating more unusual animals and wildlife. Before the war, their videos of the monkeys, snakes, owls, and other creatures they rescued and cared for found a growing audience on their “Vet Crew” TikTok and Instagram feeds.
Valentina said their “simple life” has changed drastically.
“All our family – mother, father – have to leave Ukraine,” Leonid said. “But we decided we stay here and help animals – a lot of animals.”
Their clinic is partially underground and surrounded by taller buildings offering some protection from Russian attacks. But the lack of electricity is one of their most serious challenges. The couple needed to find a generator to keep the lights on and their reptiles warm.
The Stoyanovs purchased tons of dog and cat food that they distribute to area shelters. They have also often driven to the front lines to help animals in need. Leonid recalls wearing body armor on his many trips vaccinating and feeding dogs there.
“Russian army a lot of times shooting our car and they bombed it. And one time they missed (by) maybe ten meters. And we have a lot of holes in our car,” he said.
During the last year, Leonid’s health also took a turn for the worse. He suffered a heart attack and said he was clinically dead for several minutes before doctors were able to revive him.
“They say, “You have a lot of animals. You need to (be) here,” he said.
He has since had two surgeries, including one to implant a pacemaker. And despite some discomfort, he says he feels “physically normal” now.
The Stoyanovs usually try to find new homes for the animals they rescue, or they release wild animals back into their natural habitat. But it was a different story for a blind husky named Casper, now a permanent member of the Stoyanov family. He belonged to a Ukrainian soldier named Sergei who had no family and asked the couple to care for his dog while he was away fighting.
“It was very touching moment when Casper and … Sergei say goodbye (to) each other. Because Sergei crying and Casper also crying,” Valentina said.
Sergei would call every week, but after about two months, Casper began acting strangely and cried. The Stoyanovs later learned that this was around the time when Sergei was killed, Leonid said.
“It’s very, very depressive situation (here),” Leonid said. “We cannot sleep because we are nervous. … We have a lot of work, a lot of animals, a lot of people dying, a lot of our friends dying.”
Despite all of the challenges, the couple say they have no plans to stop.
“We just hold on and continue to do what we do because we see how it is important for animals, for all these lives around us,” Valentina said.
The Stoyanovs are grateful for the support they receive online from their social media community, whom they call their Vet Crew Family. They said it’s their encouragement that keeps them going.
“Without these people, what we do here right now in Ukraine will not be possible. And this is why all these people (become) family for us,” Valentina said. “And I think most important message for all of them, it is … thank you.”