It was hearing on the news about desperate people in Ukraine running back to their animals and getting shot that made me get up from the sofa one night, turn to my husband Bill and say, “I have to do something.”
Even though we were utterly horrified by the news that a 26-year-old Ukrainian volunteer, Anastasiia Yalanskaya, had been killed after dropping off food to a dog shelter near Kyiv, I refused to let it put me off the mission I knew I needed to undertake.
I’m a doer, not a talker, and I knew animals would be suffering, just as civilians are right now, in Ukraine. The thought of them being hungry and homeless wrenched at my heart.
At home, in Norfolk, I’ve got three dogs, two horses and a rescued pig. I’ve loved and worked with animals all my life. I have no idea how I’d cope if I was having to run for my life, leaving my animals behind. I don’t think I could do it.
I’m not judging people who do, because I’ve never been in that situation, thankfully. But I knew I needed to do something.
Bill, 56, who’s a caretaker, loves animals as much as I do, so he was fully behind me travelling to the Ukraine border with pet supplies, helping ferry around animals in need.
I contacted Juliet Gellatley, the founder of UK-based vegan charity Viva!, as there’s a branch in Poland. “Can I help do this?” I asked. She immediately agreed.
Terrified pet owners
My intention was to take my van and help people who’d come across the border but couldn’t find anywhere to stay because they had their pets with them. They’re stuck with nowhere to go.
I didn’t want to take an empty van – it made sense to take supplies there. In my head I envisaged myself like Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids , shoving all the puppies into the van and driving off. I knew I wouldn’t cross into Ukraine itself, there are assembly points before the border I was headed for. I felt the risks involved were worth it to make sure the pet supplies were going directly to the animals – and their terrified owners – in need.
So almost four weeks ago, I posted on Facebook requesting donations of pet food and asking local shops to set up donation boxes for customers willing to help. The campaign snowballed and soon we were flooded with so many kind donations we had to keep repacking the van. Every time an Amazon delivery arrived, I felt a lump in my throat from people’s generosity.
There was dog food, cat food, blankets, pet carriers, water bottles for animals travelling in cages… I tried to think of the sort of stuff you wouldn’t be able to take with you in the desperate situation these people are in. “What would they most need?” was my focus.
People gave me things that belonged to their own beloved pets. One lady said it was hard to part with a special blanket that her much-adored dog had slept with, as he had only recently passed away. But as she passed me the treasured, freshly washed item to take with me, she said, “I can’t think of a more worthwhile use for this.” It meant so much.
I even had to turn down offers of pet food from manufacturers because I just didn’t have the space. I’m already planning a return trip soon.
I left Norfolk on Sunday, and driving via France and Germany – with uplifting Earth, Wind & Fire songs playing in the van – arrived in Poland on Tuesday.
Arriving in Warsaw felt utterly surreal. I’d seen TV footage, but nothing prepares you for the reality. Some people have travelled for days. They’re hungry, thirsty, exhausted. They arrive with nothing and have no idea what lies ahead. They just knew they needed to flee.
Using Google Translate on my phone, I asked people how they were, what could I do to help?
I think I expected refugees to be hysterical, panicked, but actually most come off the trains having been through that stage. Now they are dazed and overwhelmed – in a kind of shell shock is how I would best describe it.
I’ve felt so emotional meeting them, and then feel horribly guilty. I have no right to be tearful when it’s not me suffering as they are. But the volunteers here are amazing, it’s very well organised and people are given water, food and phone chips so they can contact loved ones.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
The Viva! workers are busy from dawn to dusk helping others – many of them were friends with Anastasiia.
I met a little girl, Dori, who had been carrying her dog in her arms. She was so grateful when we produced the carrier. Her smile melted all our hearts.
Of course, I feel vulnerable about being out of my comfort zone. I’m a menopausal 51-year-old woman travelling alone towards a war zone. And I’m not sure where I will sleep, or wash – but I’m not a princess. How could I care, compared to these people?
Because the vehicle was so jam-packed with pet supplies, I only took one change of clothes and a kettle for the van with some vegan pot noodles. I didn’t obsess with all the details, I figured I’d work it out once there.
Last October, I nearly died, and that has given me a different perspective on life.
NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A local farmer asked me to keep an eye on a calf giving birth. I’d had to pull out the calf and hold her upside down to drain the mucus from the lungs, as she wasn’t breathing.
But the protective mummy cow became aggressive and turned on me, head-butting me into a corner. I broke my shoulder, my sternum, my ribs and sustained head injuries to one side.
Somehow, with blood spurting over my eyes, I managed to call for an ambulance and was helicoptered straight to hospital where I was in intensive care for days. I was lucky I survived.
Thankfully, I made a full recovery, but four weeks ago I was finding it hard to leave the house.
NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Horrors of war
This mission has given me a new lease of life. After all, I’m not dead, I’m able to drive the van, and I have some really kind people supporting me who cannot do enough to help.
I’m not suffering war myself, I’m just driving a van. It’s nothing compared to what the Ukrainians are suffering. There is much help needed, and I’m happy to be playing a tiny part.
Despite the horrors of the war, planning this mission has restored my faith in humanity. It’s been beautiful to see everyone pull together.
Lisa is donating the fee for this article to Viva!’s rescue campaign. If you’d like to support, visit viva.org.uk/appeals/viva-poland-ukraine-animal-rescue