Fragments from a War Diary, Part #95
One of the tragedies arising in any conflict environment is the abandonment of domestic animals and the consequent increase in strays that come to roam the streets of urban settlements. In prosperous times, many Europeans like to keep pets, in particular cats and dogs, as company. This is particularly common amongst people who live alone, and amongst the wealthier classes of society as owning a pet is a luxury. When war comes, the wealthier classes often leave or they suffer dramatic changes in their lives or prosperity which entails that they can no longer look after their pets. On the way out of the country, they may leave their pets with friends, saying they will be back soon and then they never come back at all. Their friends may not have the inclination or funds to support the pets, and sooner or later these animals either end up on the streets or in overcrowded shelters. I have seen this take place recurrently in a number of conflict zones or post-conflict environments. The problem tends to grow exponentially, because once animals are left on the streets they tend to breed with one-another and then there are increasing numbers of stray animals everywhere. Public and other funding to address these problems is often not available, because there is a limited supply of revenue to address public goods and animal welfare is often overlooked in pursuit of what are imagined to be more fundamental goals.
Nevertheless there are two aspects of this crisis in the abandonment of domesticated pets and the consequent increase in stray animals that give rise for concern. One is the welfare of the animals themselves. If you believe that this is morally important - and many or even most of us in Europe do - then there is a tragedy of suffering. Stray animals cannot find food to eat or shelter at night. In winter they may freeze to death. Animals held in shelters are often confined in cramped conditions and cannot get enough physical exercise. Shelters are typically overcrowded. One I visited in Kyiv - and the conditions there were far better than many - was overflowing with animals and it was obvious that the well-intentioned staff could not cope with the influx of abandoned pets that had been released into their care. Nor did they have enough food to feed all these animals. The shelter was looking for voluntary donations of pet food and for volunteers to take the dogs in particular out walking each day so that they did not spend the entirety of their lives cramped in tight cages.
Pet owners who have left Ukraine have often left their pets behind because the paperwork involved in moving domestic animals across borders is too complicated or onerous. In Ukraine an industry of take paperwork has emerged for people wishing to export animals: pet passports, showing vaccinations that have not taken place and health certificates not based upon an adequate examination of the animal, are common and veterinary surgeons are apparently willing to issue such papers for a few hundred US dollars. Because this practice has become notorious, some other European countries are sceptical of animal paperwork apparently issued within Ukraine. Even if the Ukrainian authorities will let you out of the country with a domestic pet on the basis of Ukrainian paperwork, it is an open question whether the authorities of the destination country, and all the other countries on the way, will be as lenient. A semi-formal industry of smuggling domestic animals out of Ukraine has emerged, and this may produce international public health consequences so it is not just a problem for Ukraine but for the rest of Europe as well.
This leads into the second major disadvantage of having all these stray animals on the streets of Ukrainian cities: hungry and disorientated, they may become a danger to humans, particularly large dogs. I have heard a number of stories of dogs attacking humans or other dogs. Animals are capable of suffering from psychiatric disorders in consequence of experiences such as trauma, just as are humans. Dogs that have suffered trauma and that are now roaming the streets in packs, starving and without material support, may become violent and may attack other dogs or people. They may acquire and spread serious and even fatal diseases, the most concerning of which is rabies. They may hunt in packs and pose a serious public danger. As they multiply through procreation, the packs become ever larger and the problem can become overwhelming. I have seen this all over the world. It is a real issue and we cannot afford to overlook it.
Animal shelters, particularly but not only for dogs and cats, have been hastily constructed across Ukraine in recent months. There is a realisation and understanding that this is a real problem, both in the interests of the animals themselves (and Ukrainians as a rule are animal lovers) and for human health and wellbeing. In post-war Bosnia, mass campaigns of extermination of abandoned pets and animals used to take place; towns or cities would have teams of dog shooters; animals held in shelters would routinely be euthanised. Most of us consider such practices cruel and uncivilised, unworthy of our moral values as humans.
It is not straightforward to make an open plea for funding to support animal shelters and to address the problem of stray animals in wartime Ukraine when there are so many other demanding and deserving causes to which funds ought to be addressed; but this is a serious issue for which financial provision must be made and logistical support needs to be organised because it is so large in scale - a substantial proportion of the Ukrainian population had or has pets that can now no longer be cared for - and by reason of the public health consequences of not addressing the issue of stray animals. A number of NGO’s are focusing their energies specifically upon animal welfare issues and the problems of abandoned pets and animal shelters, and they deserve consideration from the limited international pool of international civilian funds available for Ukraine.
If we overlook this issue then not only will animal suffering increase as the shelters become ever more overcrowded and animals starve, but disease will spread amongst animals and humans alike and the streets will become dangerous as packs of feral dogs roam around and present physical danger to humans. We are not at a crisis point yet but there may be one on the way. If people are being attacked by starving dogs on a daily basis in Ukraine’s towns and cities than that is a compelling priority for funding, just as it is important to minimise the number of casualties on the front line and reduce the death rates on Ukraine’s roads.