Michael Hallam tells the incredible story of a woman who entered a warzone to help people and their pets.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been devastating. Lives have been lost, families forced to flee, and landscapes turned to rubble. As war continues to rage on the long-term impact it has on Ukraine and the wider world, with food shortages and poverty predicted, remains in the balance. Anything but a victory for those defending their homeland feels unthinkable, but even that will have come at a dreadful cost.
Amidst the horror, it has been heartening to see great humanity. People have welcomed refugees into their homes and communities and sent aid to those who desperately need it. Rasma Kreica is one of those compassionate people but her dedication to helping took her to into Ukraine and the warzone itself.
A huge cat lover from Latvia, Rasma felt compelled to help pets who have been caught up in the conflict. With a team of volunteers behind her, she has been on trips into Ukraine to rescue cats and dogs, and to take vital veterinary supplies into the country. As well as that, she has been helping Ukrainians get into Europe with their pets.
Going through blockades became normal practice.
Entering a warzone
“The first trip we went on was to Lviv and the second trip was to Ivano-Frankivsk, that’s a town around 160km from Lviv,” explained Rasma. “The aim of the trips was to help relieve pressure on the shelters and take the cats and dogs into Europe.”
Not knowing what life would hold or where they would end up, many Ukrainians were forced to give their pets up and hope their beloved pets would end up safe and happy.
“When we went to the shelter in Lviv, in the time we were there a lot of people were bringing in their cats and dogs and asking the shelter to take them in because they didn’t know where they would be going,” says Rasma. “That trip was in March, when everything was unknown, and there was no information about whether Europe was letting in Ukrainian refugees with pets. People left pets at the shelter because they didn’t know where they were going to go.
“One lady who brought in a cat said she went to the train station and in one hand she had a cat and in the other hand was a few month old baby, and the people who work on the trains said ‘you have to choose, we can’t let you in with an animal.’ She could either get on the train without the animal or stay there. So she brought the cat in to the shelter, deciding to save her baby.”
Rasma used her family’s company vans to rescue the cats.
Entering a warzone was a brave thing to do but Rasma and her team were determined to do it to help pets.
“It was a very emotional three-day trip and it was scary,” says Rasma. “It was emotional in Lviv as you saw so many people trying to get to the border, some carrying pets in carriers or even in their arms. It was heartbreaking. When we went to Ivano-Frankivsk it was scary as it was getting dark. Everywhere, there was what they call block posts where there were local army forces and police posts stopping people on the roads. They have guns and stop you and ask you many questions. Everybody was fine and we got checked so many times. At that time Ivano-Frankivsk was safe but two days after we went home, there was a bombing there.”
Rasma with the cat carriers for their journey back to Latvia.
When Rasma and her team went to the Ukraine their lorry was full of medical supplies and dog and cat food, six tonnes of it. On the way home, it was full of pets that were taken back to Latvia to find better lives. The team offered to keep in touch with any owners so that once they were settled elsewhere in Europe or the war was over, they could be reunited with their pets. Once relocated, some owners decided that they couldn’t take their cats back, but Rasma says she would never judge them as she could never walk in their shoes and experience what Ukrainians have been through. For the cats taken back to Latvia, people came forward to give them new homes.
“We started to look into adoptions two weeks before their quarantine ended,” explains Rasma. “Quite a few went to a new home on the day their quarantine ended and quite a few are still at their foster homes. These are the ones that are timid or need special attention.”
One of the cats Rasma and her husband took home was Charly, whose story found international fame as news agency Reuters was there to capture the moment the cat was brought into the shelter. His owners had travelled for 40 hours by train as they fled Kramatorsk where Russian troops had invaded. Charly is now safely in Latvia and looking for a new home.
“We brought back 34 cats and 40 dogs from the Ukraine,” says Rasma. “Once these have all found new homes and their bills are paid, we think we are going to try to rescue some more.”
While another trip is in the planning stages, Rasma has continued to help Ukrainian pet owners.
“We have connected with a lot of people and have arranged for them to come to Latvia with their pets through other organisations,” says Rasma. “It’s strange, in Latvia, if you are a refugee and you enter with your pet, the animal doesn’t have to quarantine. It has to go through all the rabies vaccinations and everything, and be monitored for 21 days. But if, for example, I bring an animal to Latvia, the animal has to go for a longer quarantine. So, for this reason, we’re trying to help more people come to Latvia with their own pets.”
They delivered vital pet supplies.
For the cats
Rasma is a huge cat lover, with four felines of her own and she has worked in rescue centres here in the UK. When asked what made her want to go and help she said: “Probably my big heart! When war broke out, it was a shock and I think a lot of us were sat watching thinking ‘how can I help?’ Our family owns a transport company with commercial vans so had access to them and I have knowledge of transporting animals. Of course, I have a huge love of animals and wanted to do something for animals because they are so vulnerable.
“I’m a cat person. Once I saw all the cats at the shelter, I filmed a little video and I was crying, as I looked in those eyes and they didn’t understand what was going on. Then the feeling came that it was the right thing that we’d done.”
Rasma and her husband with local forces.
Throughout our conversation, Rasma plays down the amazing things her team have done — it is completely about helping pets and their people. Instead, she holds those staying in their homeland to work in animal shelters in real awe.
“They are amazing,” said Rasma. “We are still in touch with both shelters. The staff said ‘we are not going anywhere.’ A few months ago, there was a bombing in Lviv and we realised it was next to the shelter. I immediately text the girls at the shelter to see if they were safe. They said ‘we’re safe but the bombing is just there, right outside.’ They are amazing, they don’t go home, they stay there with the animals.”
One of the Ukrainian cats.
How you can help
Rasma’s mission to find homes for the rest of the cats she brought back from Ukraine and pay their vet bills continues, as does her work to help refugees with pets settle into Latvia. You can help to support Rasma’s work by donating to the organisation with which she volunteers. You can visit their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/Dzivniekupalidzibasdienests/ (The page will have English translations on.)
However, Rasma didn’t want to share her story with Your Cat readers to help fundraise. She is a huge lover of the magazine from the time when she worked in the UK. She wanted to tell the cats’ stories with people who love cats as much as her. So, when asked about fundraising, she says that if readers do want to help, they can send help directly to Ukraine too.