Olena Shevchenko, from the city of Chernihiv, Ukraine, spent four months living in a bomb shelter, rescuing "little tails"
“She points out that animals are especially at risk during times of war,” Shevchenko notes. “Unable to fend for themselves or seek assistance, they remain silent, but their eyes convey a profound message.”
“For four months, a bomb shelter became my “home”,” Shevchenko remembers, with tears in her eyes. “All I had left when I evacuated my house was a jacket and boots. A Russian missile demolished my home, but my real sorrow was not for the apartment I lost, but for my beloved pets: 13 cats and my 15-year-old dog, Maluyk, a name that affectionately means “little one” in Ukrainian.”
Animals during the war: living warmth amidst the cold ruins
The story of Ms. Olena is a tale of love. A love that endures even when all else is gone.
“My mother was lost to COVID. And our home, to the war… Nothing remained. No personal belongings, no photographs for remembrance. Not even a single plate or spoon… Absolutely nothing. Everything, without exception – there, in the pile of rubble.”
On March 15, Russian troops bombed the street where she lived – and the single-story building housing her apartment, along with the neighboring houses, simply “collapsed”.
“Several of the little cats didn’t make it, and my little dog, Maluyk, was nowhere to be found – I was afraid he had also died… But three days later, he miraculously appeared at the nearby bomb shelter, finding me… I wept all my tears for him, yet he survived! He was somewhat shell-shocked, his hearing and sight impaired after the explosion, but he still managed to find me! I couldn’t keep him with me in the bomb shelter – it was too cold and damp, and he was frail after the concussion, unwell… I asked friends to take him in, while I stayed in the bomb shelter, visiting him daily – walking, feeding, and weeping together over our shared fate, which brought me some solace.”
“The cats refused to stay in the shelter, returning to the ruins of our house – it was heart-wrenching to see… I went there daily to feed them – they waited for me, and despite the shelling, I ran to them. I fed them, while danger loomed overhead.”
Ms. Olena Mykhailivna spent most of her time in the shelter in Bobrovytsia, Ukraine. In March, it was crowded with people like her – those who had lost their homes and had nowhere else to go, even during the rare moments of calm…
“The relentless cold is what I remember most – with no spare clothes, and it wasn’t until May’s warmth arrived that conditions slightly improved,” she remembers. “I slept sitting up – lying down meant freezing. Volunteers brought us hot meals, and I would share my portion with eight – myself and all the little cats. My pension was too small to cover food costs, and work was nonexistent, making life incredibly tough.”
“By April-May, there were hardly any permanent “residents” like me left in the bomb shelter… The same people who had taken in my little dog, Maluyk, at my request, also rescued the surviving cats from the street – only seven remained. When staying in the shelter became untenable, friends who had evacuated abroad offered their apartment to me and the furry ones. Now, we, along with the little cats and Maluyk, have at least a temporary shelter and a roof over our heads – I’m immensely grateful for that! Last March, I was offered evacuation – to Western Ukraine or even abroad – but I couldn’t abandon the “little tails” to fend for themselves. They only have me… So, I stayed here with them. Now, we are finally together again. Even in these harsh conditions, my animals remain loyal companions, reminding me that hope and love still exist. When it feels like my strength is waning, their gentle touch or purring is enough to restore everything to its place. Together, we have survived the hellish conditions of war, and all we can do now is express our gratitude to those who showed concern and provided us with some warmth and vitality.”
Caring for animals fills the soul
“You’re wondering about my deep concern for these smaller creatures? Is there any other way to be?”, she asks, smiling.
During the harsh winters, she would find them on the streets, small and sick, and take them in. She saved them, cared for them, nursed them back to health: she ensured all her animals were treated and sterilized.
There was a time when three of her cats fell ill simultaneously; two of them had serious kidney issues. Olena Mykhailivna (a combination of her first name and patronymic, following Ukrainian naming conventions) had to use two months’ worth of her salary to get them treated. Her income as a security guard was modest, yet her resolve to rescue these little ones was strong.
For the past 12 years, Mrs. Olena has been feeding street animals in Slavutych, Ukraine, as well as in Chernihiv, Ukraine.
She always had a house full of animals, unable to ignore a homeless animal in need. She and her mother took great care of them.
“Our life was humble – just me, my mother, and our family of “tailed ones.” My mother worked until she was 79 because my modest salary wasn’t enough to make ends meet, let alone feed and care for all our animals, and there were quite a few. Then my mother broke her hip and became bedridden. It took her more than a year and a half to get back on her feet. I would go to Slavutych for a day and a half for work, while she sat in her chair asking: “Daughter, open the window a bit, leave some dry food out, the street cats will come, and I’ll feed them.” She had trained them well: our apartment was on the ground floor, and all her street wards knew exactly where to come. She fed them all.”
“Then, just before the full-scale invasion, my mother caught COVID and passed away. After losing my mother, and then our home, I was left by myself. Yet, I’m not completely alone – there are those who eagerly await my daily visits for food and affection… Despite all the hardships, I continue to care for homeless animals. It’s my solace, my outlet. My soul is filled by it… Animals are so vulnerable during the war – and who else but us should help them?”
Earlier, Olena Mykhailivna used to feed cats near her house on Shevchenko Street. Now, she does so near Levka Lukianenko Avenue, Chernihiv in Ukraine, and on Defenders of Ukraine Street, Chernihiv in Ukraine.
“I wouldn’t say I’m doing anything extraordinary – just small acts here and there, as much as I can handle…
This support and help are what keep me going!”