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Many Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war have brought their family pets along. Alamy Stock Photo

Opinion Helping Ukrainians flee war along with their pets is the right thing to do

Suzi Walsh says pets are an integral part of family life and leaving them behind could do untold damage to all involved.


YOUR LIFE IS at risk. What would it feel like to abandon your home, your belongings, everything that you have worked so hard for?

To be separated from family and friends and not know when, or if, you might see them again.

You have to leave your country because it’s no longer safe. You pack what you can carry in a bag. You are scared. You are travelling somewhere unfamiliar. Will you make it to your destination? Will you ever have the opportunity to return to your home again? Can you imagine what that might look like and what that might feel like?

Now imagine that you have a dog, a dog you have loved and cared for their entire life. Your little companion who has brought you such comfort and happiness, a dog who depends on you for everything. Imagine you had to make the decision to leave your pet behind. Would they be safe, would they starve, would they become sick or injured with no one to care for them. Could you close your door and abandon your pet?

Compassionate moves

In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, the Irish Government allocated funds to support the relocation of numerous cherished dogs and cats from Ukraine to Ireland, enabling refugees to keep their beloved pets as integral family members – with information provided to people fleeing the war in Ukrainian as well as English.

varvara-zagumenna-9-pets-chelsea-a-specially-trained-canistherapy-animal-in-vcentri-hub-kyiv-ukraine-thursday-oct-12-2023-canisterapy-classes-were-organized-by-base-4-5-0-and-innikos-for-c A Ukrainian girl with a therapy dog. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Minimal paperwork was required and Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue noted a few months into the programme how Ireland had “taken a leadership role in allowing those arriving here to bring their pets once they follow a few simple steps to reduce the risk of any disease coming into Ireland”.

However, this initiative has sparked controversy in recent weeks due to its substantial cost, exceeding €800,000 in kennelling fees, transport and veterinary bills. Changes in policy introduced in late 2022 mean that pets coming from the country are treated the same way as animals coming from any third country and there are no longer any special rules for pets arriving from the warzone.

How do we assess the value of a pet to a family fleeing a war?

In Ukraine, there is a high rate of pet ownership, companion animals are seen as family members and many refugees go to great lengths to take their pets with them. The humanitarian rationale was that for distressed refugees, mainly women and children arriving without partners, sons or fathers, bringing companion animals would reduce trauma and improve well-being (Sandvik, 2022) as well as the desire to limit smuggling.

jan-schmidt-whitleyle-pictorium-influx-of-refugees-on-the-polish-ukrainian-border-following-the-russian-armys-invasion-03032022-poland Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Evacuations of animals in conflict situations are nothing new: Displaced civilians have historically brought along livestock and companion animals. Nonetheless, the magnitude of Ukrainian pets seeking refuge is unparalleled.

In past conflicts, there have been instances of mass euthanasia of pets (as seen in World War II) or populations have possessed fewer pets and/or held different views on their importance (The Economist, 2022).

a-volunteer-holds-donated-pet-carriers-for-ukrainian-refugees-arriving-with-their-pets-at-the-warsaw-centralna-train-station-in-poland-wednesday-march-16-2022-overall-more-than-3-million-refugee A volunteer holds donated pet carriers for Ukrainian refugees arriving with their pets at the Warsaw Centralna train station March 16, 2022. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

But in more recent years individuals prioritise protecting their pets, sometimes at the cost of their own well-being by refusing to evacuate areas of conflict or natural disaster unless they can bring their pets along (Gurtner & Parison, 2021).

The love of a pet

Humans develop deep emotional connections with their pets and caring for a pet holds importance for many people for various reasons. Pets provide companionship and emotional support, serving as loyal and non-judgmental friends who offer unconditional love and affection.

This bond with a pet can be especially significant for individuals who live alone or those who may struggle with feelings of loneliness or isolation.

Caring for a pet can provide a sense of purpose and routine, promoting mental well-being and reducing stress. Pets also offer opportunities for physical activity and outdoor engagement, which can help with integration into a community and a healthier lifestyle.

Furthermore, the presence of a pet in the home can foster a sense of security and comfort, particularly during challenging or uncertain times. Ultimately, the relationship between humans and their pets enriches lives in numerous ways, fulfilling emotional, social, and even physical needs, making them invaluable companions for many people.

Research acknowledges the importance of pet ownership, considering it as one of the essential relationships to be maintained (McNicholas, 2014). This can be difficult to understand for many people who do not have a pet in their life but for those that do it makes perfect sense.

Facilitating families

On the other hand, accommodating pets during refugee resettlement can present logistical challenges for authorities, including issues related to transportation, housing, and public health. Resources that could be allocated to other essential services for refugees may also be required to support the needs of their pets.

Ultimately, the decision may depend on various factors such as the capacity of receiving countries to accommodate pets, public health considerations, and the specific circumstances of each refugee case. It’s essential to weigh the potential benefits for the well-being of refugees against the practical challenges and resource implications involved in allowing pets to accompany them.

Whether you agree with the decision to help refugees keep their pets or not, kindness to animals demonstrates empathy and compassion, essential qualities that signify emotional intelligence and a capacity for understanding others’ needs and feelings which is a large part of what makes us human.

Many refugees have no choice but to leave their beloved pets behind because of circumstances beyond their control but those who can bring their pets with them should be given the help to do so.

Suzi Walsh is an expert dog behaviourist and dog trainer. She has an honours degree in Zoology and a Masters in Applied Animal Welfare and Behaviour from the Royal Dick School of Veterinary. She has worked as a behaviourist on both TV, radio and has also worked training dogs in the film industry.

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