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KYIV, Ukraine – As millions of people escaped war-torn Ukraine, one woman made it her mission to rescue the country’s abandoned pets and zoo animals.
Natalia Popova converted her equestrian ranch on the outskirts of Kyiv into a menagerie sheltering lions, tigers, bears, foxes, deer, dogs and more.
Since the invasion began in February, she’s rescued more than 300 animals.
“These animals were locked and left in cages as bombs fell all around. It’s very scary, but I can’t leave them there,” Popova said while stroking a caged tiger.
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The tiger is sick, only half the weight of a healthy 3-year–old.
As her story spreads, it’s most often the military that calls her. She drives to the country’s most dangerous cities in her veterinary ambulance.
She’ll tranquilize a creature with a blow dart and lift it into a cage in her vehicle with the help of Ukrainian troops.
“I found all these animals in very different conditions,” Popova said. “Some were starving or worn out. There were some cases where we couldn’t save them, and they died.”
The ever-changing front lines have forced Ukrainians to leave their homes with little notice. Last-minute evacuations often come at the cost of animals left behind in occupied territories.
While playing with the tiger’s tail, Popova explained she’s never had an incident with any of the animals.
“They can sense I’m there to help,” she says.
Her ranch is now home to more than 60 horses, including endangered Przewalski’s horses. The rare breed is one of the world’s last truly wild horses.
It took Natalia four tranquilizer darts to subdue one of them, compared to the single dose she’ll use on a big cat.
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One of her fields has morphed into a sanctuary for retired circus bears.
New enclosures are constantly built to house deer, goats, raccoons and various birds like peacocks or poultry. Popova laughs at the stark contrast of transporting a van of lions versus a trunk full of chickens.
Among the guests enjoying their newfound freedom was a sturdy gray donkey. The military mule was used to transport weapons at the start of the war. Popova smiled while saying troops named him HIMARS after the coveted high-power rocket systems the US has supplied the Ukrainian war effort.
He’ll now spend his days on the Kyiv farm, eating apples in retirement.
“It gives me hope and inspiration seeing them get a second chance at life,” Popova said.
The war created a crisis of forgotten animals, but the problem was prevalent before the invasion.
“Even in peaceful times, we were saving them from these situations,” Popova added.
The animal rescue group UAnimals reached out to her four years ago for help, and she quickly began her mission of rescuing and rehoming.
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“There were a lot of animals living in private places. Some people have bears, lions, tigers that are kept in small cages with concrete floors. They suffer their whole lives,” Popova added. “We nurse them back to health before sending them to wildlife sanctuaries in Europe or Africa.”
She says she’s received no governmental assistance and has relied primarily on donations.
In a matter of days, many of the animals will get transported to zoos and rehabilitation centers in safer European countries. Fifteen big cats will eventually be sent to a sanctuary in South Africa.
While her ranch will slightly empty out this week, her work shows no signs of slowing down.
During Fox News’ visit, Popova’s phone rang alerting her of another abandoned locked-up lion in the hard-hit city of Kharkiv. She began immediately preparing for her next rescue mission.