Dr. Courtney Katsur chokes up when she describes what she saw while volunteering for two weeks in Ukraine.
The veterinarian with Town & Country Animal Hospital in Fairfax tried for months to find a way to get to the war zone to help animals she was seeing in the news. They were starving, injured, and missing their people, who in many cases had to leave their pets behind when they fled from Russia’s invasion.
“In my heart and soul, to be watching these people trying to get out, and not be able to get out, and carrying their animals out, was just so heartbreaking to me,” Katsur says. “I was just like: ‘I need to help in some manner.’”
Many charities weren’t entering Ukraine, but she finally found Breaking the Chains, a U.K.-based group that helps build shelters in Romania and Ukraine. Katsur initially planned to help at the Romanian border, but she was able to enter the war-torn country in an undisclosed location in May.
“There was no rhyme or reason to what was being bombed or shelled,” Katsur says. She saw demolished playgrounds, young children huddled in lines waiting for food, and residents living in bombed-out buildings. “It’s awful to watch. And as you can imagine, animals are not No. 1, and I get it.” Many animal shelters and clinics were destroyed, so the ones remaining were packed with rescued animals.
Katsur went directly to the homes of Ukrainians who couldn’t afford care for their pets. She also found dogs and cats that were left at their homes with signs from the owners saying they would come back for them. In those cases, she treated the animals for fleas and ticks, gave them deworming medication, and fed them, then supplied the neighbors with the medications needed to care for them. She treated a cat that had been trapped in an apartment building for six weeks, and a dog that refused to leave its destroyed home.
There’s nothing glamorous about being in the war zone, Katsur says. Three or four other volunteer veterinarians were so overwhelmed by the conditions that they left. The first compound where Katsur stayed didn’t have running water, and she got only about four hours of sleep a night. Dog food would arrive at all hours, and it was her job to deliver it to shelters hours away. “Even if you’re not doing medicine 24/7, you’re making a difference,” she says.
At one point, Katsur and another vet treated 24 puppies for parvovirus, a deadly intestinal disease. “I’ve never treated 24 parvo puppies at one time,” she says. “We’re trying to put catheters in outside in the rain, because … we didn’t want to contaminate the other dogs [in the shelter].”
Katsur is back in Fairfax, but she isn’t done helping. She’s raised nearly $15,000 through a GoFundMe she started before her trip. Some of the funds were used to purchase medications to bring to Ukraine. Now she’s working with Dr. Oleg Khomutets, a Ukrainian colleague who happens to work in Fairfax, to hire a permanent Ukrainian vet who will oversee a new clinic that Breaking the Chains is setting up in Ukraine. The money will be used to fund the vet’s salary.
“In two weeks, I felt like I was there for two years, honestly,” Katsur says. “Each person that comes I think is going to make an even bigger difference. Because this is a grassroots thing, starting something in a war zone from the very beginning.”