KHERSON – The rescue volunteer holds out his hand, but the dog, stranded on a floating island of debris in a southern Ukrainian city inundated by flooding, is too traumatized to approach. Volodymyr Holubnichii offers the scared animal some food; the dog sniffs and relaxes.
“Don’t be scared,” Holubnichii soothingly tells the animal, which eventually accepts a leash and being carried to safety.
Holubnichii, a volunteer with Animal Rescue Kharkiv, spent days cruising the flooded streets of Kherson city after the Kakhovka dam collapsed on Tuesday and submerged entire towns. He is one among the organization's 70 volunteers determined to rescue as many animals as possible, plucking them from the rooftops and garages of flooded homes before they die of dehydration and hunger.
The flooding has killed civilians, ruined crops, displaced landmines, and caused widespread environmental damage. Kyiv accused Moscow of blowing up the Dnieper River dam and its hydropower plant, which the Kremlin’s forces controlled. Russia in turn blamed Ukraine for the catastrophe.
Bisected by the river, southern Ukraine's Kherson province is an important fault line in the war that started with Russia's invasion of the neighboring country more than 15 months ago. Russian forces withdrew from the western bank, including the regional capital also named Kherson, but part of the eastern side remain under Russian occupation..
Ukrainian authorities scrambled to evacuate stranded residents officials on both sides said at least 14 people died in the flooding and thousands others were homeless, while tens of thousands were without drinking water.
Upon hearing news of the flooding, Holubnichii immediately thought of the animals. “All life should be valued,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an animal or a person or something else.”
Animal Rescue Kharkiv's volunteers, based in northern Ukraine's Kharkiv province, began packing their gear. By Wednesday morning, they were in the Kherson region looking for animals
So far, they have saved 107 animals since the dam’s collapse: 45 dogs, 36 cats, five kittens, 18 chickens and three goats that will go to shelters across Ukraine. Many were pets of evacuated civilians, according to Yaryna Vintoniuk, a spokesperson for the non-governmental organization.
From rescue boats, the team reached remote areas of Kherson and extract animals from rooftops, apartments and garages of submerged homes. On Thursday, the volunteers came under Russian shelling as they worked.
The animals, unwillingly abandoned by their panicked owners, were terrified. Some barely had the strength to get up.
Holubnichii picked up a small dog that was trapped under the floating rubble and nearly unconscious. He heard the barking of another dog and made his way to the animal, stuck on a rooftop of a flooded home.
“Don’t be afraid, giant,” Holubnichii said in a soft voice.
The NGO founded eight years ago is 90-year-old Valentyna Timofeevna’s best hope for being reunited with her dog and cat. Timofeevna had to leave her pets behind when she was evacuated from her home. Weeping, she wonders if they will be found alive.
“Maybe they are already dead,” the woman wailed. A volunteer tried to comfort her, telling her not to rush to conclusions.