Since the war started in Ukraine, many people have gone to great lengths to protect and care for the animals caught in the crossfire. Whether risking their lives to literally carry their pets along with them as they flee for safety or staying behind to care for the animals who weren’t so lucky to make it out, unsung heroes all across Ukraine have stepped up in moments of dire need. It has been no different for 77-year-old Asya Serpinska, who made the difficult decision to risk the potential danger to her own life for the sake of her animal shelter in Hostomel—a town about 22 miles northwest of Kyiv.
When the invasion first began, Serpinska housed around 600 dogs and nearly 100 cats at her shelter. And as people started to flee, she also took in several abandoned zoo animals. When Russian forces continued to advance, soon surrounding the municipality on all sides as they tried to seize the town, Serpinska still held her ground. Then, as she witnessed the enemy closing in, the courageous woman ran to the shelter as quickly as she could to open the enclosures so the vulnerable animals wouldn’t be trapped inside. And even amidst the shelling, she and a few loyal staff stayed there to care for them.
“The first thought that crossed my mind was that I had to run to the shelter,” Serpinska shares, recounting her brave response. “I was consciously going to war. My people were here, my dogs were here.”
If all that weren’t enough, Serpinska also took on the responsibility of a local private zoo after witnessing the establishment go up in flames. Its owners had previously fled, fearing for their own lives and surely at a loss as to how they could protect themselves and the animals they housed. But their departure left the poor creatures abandoned and unable to fend for themselves. When Serpinska and her team stepped in, they had to fight through the smoke to rescue as many animals as they could. Among the wildlife, there were also many exotic creatures, including turtles and peacocks. However, there was one lion who survived the fire that the rescuers were unable to take with them.
“For five weeks, we would go there under shelling and bullets to feed that lion, because it had been locked in a cage and we didn’t have the keys,” Serpinska relates. At one point, Russian soldiers placed a land mine near the lion’s cage as a threat against Serpinska and her team, but she endeavored to negotiate with them to keep them from killing the innocent animal. Yet even when—against her best efforts—the soldiers still detonated the mine, the lion somehow managed to survive.
On another occasion, Russian soldiers even came directly to the shelter and proceeded to lock Serpinska and her team in a room, telling them that they were placing a land mine on the door that would kill everyone if they opened it. After they were rescued, they soon realized that it had likely been an empty threat to frighten them into submission. However, that didn’t take away the fear and distress they experienced.
Those were only a few of many dangerous—and potentially life-threatening—encounters that Serpinska and her team had with Russian troops while they occupied the town, including one tragic interaction where her own beloved dog Gina was killed. But even amid the heartbreak and fear, they kept going. And now that Hostomel is back under Ukrainian control, Serpinska is working to rebuild her shelter as it recovers from the damages of the war.
Much of the town is still deserted, with many of its buildings burned and destroyed. However, the brave 77-year-old woman is still looking toward the future with hope. Serspinska has already begun to gather donations to keep the shelter going, and she continues to find homes for the animals that she worked so hard to protect as the town comes to life again. Against all odds, she made it through to the other side while doing her best to provide a safe and caring environment for vulnerable creatures in need.
Remarkably, in spite of the very distressing moments they endured, the shelter animals seem to be happy and healthy. And for Serpinska, that is what matters most. “It doesn’t matter who you protect: children, people, animals, nature. The most important thing is responsibility,” the heroic woman insists. “Rescue animals to remain human.”