Meet the Canadians helping stray dogs and cats displaced by war in Ukraine

Meet the Canadians helping stray dogs and cats displaced by war in Ukraine
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Duane Taylor and Deebo visit the Bruce Pit dog park in Ottawa. Mr. Taylor is the founder of Impact Express, an animal rescue organization in Eastern Europe.Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

When Canadian Duane Taylor first reached out to Elena Nicolescu last year to offer to drive dog food into Ukraine from the shelter where she volunteers in Romania, she thought he was joking.

A couple of hours later, when the Ottawa resident messaged her that he had bought his plane ticket to Romania, Ms. Nicolescu and her co-workers at the Red Panda shelter in Bucharest let out a gasp. “We said ‘Oh, look! This Canadian is really coming,’” she said.

Three days later, on April 1, 2022, he landed in the country’s capital.

While there, Mr. Taylor regularly drove a van full of dog food and veterinary medicine over the border to various shelters in southern Ukraine, and once to Moldova.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, many people were forced to flee their homes and leave their pets behind. With an already high population of stray dogs and cats in the country, the outbreak of war left many animals vulnerable to injury or death from starvation, thirst and violence. Now, after a cold winter, the situation has only gotten worse.

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The elderly Deebo requires care at home, hence why Mr. Taylor has not returned to Ukraine in person this year.Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Taylor is on sick leave from the Canada Border Services Agency and is focused full-time on helping stray animals abroad through Impact Express, the organization he started last year during his trip to Eastern Europe. Since then, he has spent about $38,000 of his own money and $4,200 in donations to help Ukrainian strays.

For now, Mr. Taylor, a native of Gander, NL, is running Impact Express from Ottawa. Despite wanting to return to Ukraine this year, his elderly dog, Deebo, requires his care at home.

An avid bike tourer, Mr. Taylor had originally planned to travel through India in 2022 and volunteer at shelters there. When war broke out in Ukraine, his plans shifted. The sole obstacle was manual transmission.

For the few nights he had left in Ottawa after booking his flight to Bucharest, Mr. Taylor borrowed a friend’s car and drove around to learn how to use a stick shift. That was the only thing he feared, he said, despite heading into a country at war.

“You get hit by a missile, you get hit by a missile. I’m not worried about my own safety. Maybe that’s stupidity, I don’t know,” Mr. Taylor said. “The only thing I’m afraid of is I had to drive stick shift.”

The food was delivered by Gabor Petru Ioan, a Romanian ambulance driver. His passport is full of stamps from his weekly trips to Ukraine.

Olena Ishchenko, 55, feeds stray dogs with the food delivered by Mr. Ioan to Mykolaiv. Alevtina Kozlova, 63, does the same for cats in her Odessa neighborhood.

Last May, Gabor Petru Ioan took over Mr. Taylor’s role driving a van for Impact Express. Once a week, the 40-year-old ambulance driver leaves his home in Transylvania and delivers three tonnes of pet food to hungry animals in Ukraine. He often drops off supplies for humans in need as well.

“He’s clearly very brave,” said Ms. Nicolescu, the shelter volunteer who often helps co-ordinate the pet food shipments. “Without him and Duane, I don’t know how we could manage to fulfill so much food in Ukraine.”

Mr. Taylor is one of the few people who pay Mr. Ioan for his work. But even with this support, Mr. Ioan says it’s not enough. “You cannot imagine how many shelters appeared out of nowhere,” he said. “They’re not regular shelters, they’re improvised. These people give life to dogs and cats.”

The situation is dire, Mr. Ioan said. Money and donations for Red Panda are drying up, and filling his van is getting increasingly difficult. Recently, he partnered with Hope for the Nations Romania, a branch of the Canadian NGO, to deliver supplies to elderly people in Ukraine. However, even for them, donations are slowing down.

Coreen Biech, president of New Horizon Romania, a partner organization of Hope for the Nations Romania, said that throughout the winter months, they’ve had to work harder to get the attention of donors. “When the first war broke out, people were very generous. But as the news cycle goes, people are like, ‘Oh, is there still stuff going on in the Ukraine?’” Ms. Biech said.

Mr. Taylor, Mr. Ioan and Ms. Nicolescu said that until the invasion is over, they will continue to do what they can to help animals in need. “We have the possibility to help, so this is the way we exist,” Ms. Nicolescu said. “We cannot be indifferent in this situation.”

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