All Creatures Great and Small

The country the Russians came to destroy, in fighting for its life, has become one that extends solidarity and love beyond its human citizens.

Sketches of animals
Oliver Munday / The Atlantic

It’s striking how many stories and pictures from the war in Ukraine involve animals. One of the first Ukrainian civilian victims was a woman killed by Russian shelling as she tried to bring shelter dogs to safety near Kyiv. During the evacuation of the city, railway platforms and trains were crowded with pets of all kinds. A woman carried her infirm German shepherd a dozen miles on foot to cross the Polish border. A Ukrainian soldier took time to bandage the head injuries of a stray dog wounded by shelling. Every Ukrainian platoon seems to have a pet dog, some of them actually serving in the military. A man risked his life to rescue a vanload of kangaroos from the Kharkiv zoo; then he returned for the tapirs. A girl in the back seat of a passenger car was shot by Russian troops because the pet carrier in her lap, with her wounded cat inside, kept her from bending over when her mother yelled “Get down!” (The girl, her mother, and their cat survived; the fate of the volunteer driver is unknown.) An old woman remained in a war-torn town to care for the cats left behind by neighbors who had escaped.

Some Ukrainians seem to grieve their lost pets almost as deeply as their lost parents, children, husbands, wives. “Rest in peace, my beautiful angel,” a Ukrainian journalist tweeted when she learned that the shar-pei she’d had to leave behind when she fled her home subsequently died. “They will pay for making your last few weeks hell.”

Animals die in large numbers in every war. Think of draft horses drowning in mud in the battlefields of France, or water buffalo machine-gunned from the air in Vietnamese rice paddies, or the tormented farm animals in Picasso’s Guernica. Their deaths are never counted in official casualty figures; almost all of them go unrecorded and unremembered. Animals are also targets in war, usually as a means to deprive an enemy of food and income. But in this war, animals have become Russian targets for no purpose other than sheer cruelty. Ukraine’s government has accused the Russian military of intentionally striking dog shelters and horse stables. Russian soldiers in retreat from the Kyiv region left behind the bullet-riddled corpses of not just cattle, horses, and goats, but even pet dogs. By killing animals, the invaders seem to be responding to all the pictures of Ukrainians with pets in bomb shelters and evacuation convoys. The Russians have identified yet another way to inflict pain on the Ukrainian people—not by starving them but by breaking their heart.

Something is uniquely unfair about the suffering that war inflicts on animals. They are the ultimate noncombatants. War has nothing to do with the world they inhabit. In their consciousness it has no meaning, not even the meaning of evil. A deer scorched by artillery fire has no understanding of the cause of its pain, and yet it gazes at the camera with immense stoicism. In Ukraine, this unfairness seems all the greater because, more than in most wars, animals in this war are not anonymous. Because of the intense bonds they share with human beings, and because their fate is seen widely on social media, they’ve become individuals to the outside world—unwitting protagonists in the drama.

Perhaps Ukrainians are no more animal-loving than other people. I imagine Russians back home take good care of their huskies and borzois. But the stories of animals in this war tell you something about the two sides. An invasion launched for the purpose of erasing an entire nation has dehumanized Russian soldiers so quickly and thoroughly that killing has become an end in itself; so, in retreat, they shoot kenneled dogs. And the country they came to destroy, in fighting for its life, has become one that extends solidarity and love beyond its human citizens.