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'One of the single best days of my life'

April 8, 2022
A Ukranian family of six arrives at the Romanian border (l-r); elder daughter Veronica, carrying the family cat, Busja, Mom Alexandra with Homa and young daughter Vasilisa, carrying her hamster best friend, Greicy. Once through, they expect to meet other members of their5 family who fled Putin's war earlier.
By Dr. Marty Becker, DVM

I was once at a veterinary practice that had a sign by the time clock that said, “You want to see the living rise from the dead ... be here at quitting time on Friday.” I felt that on Thursday morning 5594 miles from my home in North Idaho (according to Google).

Despite jet lag, I bolted upright out of my Galati, Romania hotel, just 25-miles from the Ukraine border. The hotel wasn’t camping, but let’s just say I’d gone from sleeping at home on a two-foot thick, pillow top queen mattress with my lil’ dog QT Pi by my side, to thrashing around on a college dorm sized twin bed with a mattress the equivalent of a sanitary pad for slow flow days.

I was eager to get started on what to me was the most important part of this 10-day mercy-mission to Romania, Moldova and Ukraine: representing my veterinary colleagues from around the globe in general, and the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, Fear Free, World Small Animal Veterinary Medical Association and World Vets, specifically. The goal was to meet, connect with and help both pets and people displaced by the Russian War in Ukraine, or help those helping these pets and people long after I’m gone back to the comforts of home in the land of peace and plenty.

God has a sense of humor and can really brand a special day onto your soul. This was such a day.

It started with a shower where I exhausted myself running from drop-to-drop. Then crowding into a tiny elevator the size of a telephone booth with my stereotypical American gut. I went to lobby and asked if there was a table where I could use my laptop. The woman behind the desk, who had to be one of the most popular Eastern European peasant women from Central Casting replied, “No table, chair,” pointing to a set of chairs in the lobby. Looking to my left and pointing to where to the restaurant where breakfast was to be served I asked, “Would it be possible for me to go into the restaurant (whose doors were already open at 6:30 ... 30 minutes before opening) and just sit and work?” With the emphasis of a dog-tired mother with an annoying toddler she again pointed and replied with her voice rising for emphasis, “No! Chair!”

Alexandra Sava, from family run, non-governmental, non-profit Sava Pet Rescue near Galati was our transportation and host for the day. In another article I’ll describe Alex, as most people call her, an angel-on-earth who is just one part of the most extraordinary family of pet rescuers, caretakers and lovers I’ve ever met in a lifetime of loving pets and over four-decades of veterinary practice and animal welfare work.

We left the gritty industrial town of Galati heading east to the border crossing between Romania and Ukraine where most of the people and pets fleeing war were arriving. To get there we had to take a dilapidated ferry across the Danube River. Forget the Viking Cruise images of the placid Blue Danube flowing past ancient castles and quaint villages with sheep mowing the grass. The river we crossed was brown and really choppy from high winds; the buildings on both sides of the ferry needed more than a coat of paint, if you know what I mean.

For hundreds of years, the Danube was the combination railroad and super-highway of the day. It was how people and cargo moved. The 1,770 mile long Danube is the second longest river in Europe, after the Volga in Russia. The Danube, which originates in the Black Forest and empties into the Black Sea, flows west to east through much of Central and Eastern Europe. The river forms much of the border between Romania and Bulgaria to the south and at the far east, near its terminus at the Danube Delta, it forms the border with Ukraine. This was our destination, as it is for millions of Ukrainians fleeing the devastation and dangers brought to their doorsteps by the Russians.

After crossing the river, we proceeded the last of the 25-mile journey on a curvy two lane road to our final destination, the ferry crossing between Ismail, Ukraine, and Isaccea, Romania.

Upon arrival we saw the real life example of the axiom, “It takes a village.” Many NGOs were present ranging from the mega organizations such as the Red Cross and UNICEF to dozens of names I didn’t recognize. Food booths were serving warm meals, snacks and drinks. There was food, clothing, bedding and baby and pet supplies, free for the taking from people wearing the smiles of service to those less fortunate. There were swarms of police and border personnel moving around permanent buildings and makeshift portable buildings and tents. It was organized chaos between those serving a country and those serving fellow man in need.

There were medical facilities for both people and animals. Of course, I was drawn to the small hotel room sized blue tent housing the veterinary services. Opening the flap I was met with a dozen smiles. There were veterinarians from England, Canada, United States and Romania. Lots of hugs and high fives all around.

The small tent, which was barely warmed by a small space heater, had a small exam table with a light above that was throwing out about the same light as an aging firefly. There was an adequate quantity of parasite control products, vaccines, microchips, basic medicines, carriers, leashes, collars and harnesses, as well as basic and therapeutic foods.

A hard-working veterinarian, Nikolai.
Perhaps selfishly, I was disappointed to not see any pets and pet parents in the hive of pet professionals. In talking my colleagues, some of whom had been on the front lines for five weeks, and others who’d just arrived yesterday, today had been a slow day, as they’d only seen six cats.

Over the last month they’ve served as many as 75-pets per day, and averaged about 30. Mihai Barbu, the head of Romanian border control, predicted, “This is the calm before the storm.”

Checking the news from the Associated Press on my phone, I read reports of Russian cruise missile attacks on an Odessa oil refinery and fuel storage facilities. As the war in Ukraine moves from attacks around Kiev to the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, local authorities are expecting massive waves of displaced pets and people fleeing Mariupol and Odessa to cross the Danube by ferry to safety in Romania.

From the Ukrainian port city of Odessa on the Black Sea to the Romanian border where we were to visit is about 325 miles, less than the distance between where our daughter, Mikkel, and son, Lex, live in Spokane and Portland respectively.

Waiting for the next ferry to cross the river bringing in more people and pets fleeing the war in Ukraine to the safety of Romania side, I went on a short drive with a local veterinary colleague from Romania, Dr. Maximillian Alexandru, who, along with his colleagues, veterinarian Tudor Christian and vet-tech, Georgiana Calciu, are opening up a practice in Isaccea. He showed me the former bakery where he will be opening the practice.

Alexandru sees primarily companion animals, whereas his partner, Christian, sees mostly farm animals. Traveling in a really old, red Czech Skoda about the size of a chest freezer, we also went into a rural area about five miles from the cornucopia of tents, trailers and trucks at the river crossing to an approximately five acre plot of ground that had old apple and pear trees, pasture and a vineyard with plants in the times of the Romans.

There are archeological studies that show grapes have been cultivated over 6,000 years ago in Romania. To put that in perspective, the United States started in 1776, my home state of Idaho in 1890 and my home town of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, in 1915. Four years from now, July 4, 2026, America will celebrate its 250th birthday.

Walking among ancient vines, we startled some beautiful Chinese Ringneck pheasants as Alexandru pointed and waved his arms, showing me where he planned to build a shelter and sanctuary for homeless dogs and cats as well as injured wildlife from the Danube Delta. The setting in the rolling green hills was moving and memorable as he laid out his “dreams with deadlines,” tangible results which will help animals long after I’ve turned to dust.

I was startled a little bit to have my phone ring. It was my host, who couldn’t figure out where I was! We hurried back to the crossing on a bumpy gravel road, passing horses pulling ancient V-shaped wooden wagons with wagon wheels, heavily loaded; a scene right of a century ago.

When we got back, the ferry was arriving, carrying semi-tractor trailers, cars, cargo and people.

With temperatures in the low 50s with a fierce wind blowing across the Danube, I was bundled up in three layers like John Dutton on the hit Paramount TV show, Yellowstone, and was still cold. I watched as bundled up seniors, adults, children, toddlers and babies in strollers got off the ferry. Very friendly Ukrainian professionals and volunteers like myself in orange vests greeted them warmly. They were immediately offered warm food, beverages, coats and blankets.

I was drawn to one family that including a mix-breed pack including:
  1) Mom – I’d estimate raven haired Alexandra was in her late 30s. She was holding the leash of a really happy two-year-old female Doberman named Homa.
  2) Daughter – Older daughter, Veronica was about 13-years old. In a backpack with a clear bubble for a window, was a grey Burmese cat named Busja.
  3) Daughter – Younger daughter, Vasilisa, was about five and she was carrying a clear, plastic container holding a hamster named, Greicy (Gracy).

This family of six (three people, three pets), had fled their home in Kherson, Ukraine, approximately 220 miles from where we stood. I wrestled with Homa, tossed a tasty-treat into the backpack for Busja, the calmest cat I’ve ever seen, and just got down on bended knees and smiled at Greicy, who was frozen with fright. I asked Vasilisa about her hamster and in broken English she told me he was her best friend. Ahhhh!

Alexandra’s husband and father-in-law were waiting for them after they cleared customs and we stood back -- but still in camera range -- and watched a joyous, tear filled reunion with between two and four-legged family members. The wind must have blown something into my eyes.

In about 15 minutes, Alexandra brought Homa and Busja to the blue veterinary medical tent where we swarmed them. Knowing Fear Free techniques with Considerate Approach, Touch Gradient and Gentle Control, we should have proceeded differently, but our thirst to help overwhelmed our training, and there were three vets exploring every orifice we could access and listening to or palpating organs from “most to toes.”

Dr. Marty Becker takes a moment to tape a few words. He is in Romania;
Ukraine lies on the far shore of the Danube.
The vast majority of pets coming from Ukraine are unvaccinated and have both internal and external parasites. While Romania is a rabies-free nation, Ukraine is not, so unless pet parents can show a valid European pet passport (these are official documents with microchip ID numbers, vaccination status, etc.), their pets must be vaccinated against rabies and quarantined for 21 days before they can be released.

Since many people arriving don’t have places to stay, or must stay in places that don’t allow pets, facilities like Sava Pet Rescue must house them (free of charge) during quarantine.

I showed my veterinary colleagues some Fear Free techniques in handling these pets who almost all suffered from high levels of fear, anxiety and stress. I showed them that rather than approaching these pets with friendly, but prolonged, direct eye contact, extending a hand, and hovering over them they should instead:
  1) Turn sideways, crouch down, or better yet, take a knee
  2) Glance at the pet but avoid prolonged eye contact
  3) Stay put and let the pet approach you
  4) If possible, encourage the pet to make friends with you by Hansel and Greteling them to you with tasty treats.
  5) Examine the pet on the ground rather than putting them up on an elevated, slippery table.
  6) “Speak softly but carry a big stick” ... of Pup-Peroni dog treats to distract them during an exam or when performing a procedure such as vaccinations, implanting a microchip or administering parasite control.

Things are in flux at the border. SAVA has been at the border about every other day delivering van or truck loads of dog and cat food to be taken to hungry shelter and family pets in Ukraine. In addition to food and treats, they’re delivering parasite control products, antibiotics, wound ointments, cat litter, kennels, blankets, toys ... really everything people need to properly take care of their pets.

As recently as last week, two trucks holding about 700 dogs arrived at the border crossing on the Danube at Ismail, Ukraine. Authorities said that they couldn’t bring them across (I’m sure you’ve read the reports of shelter dogs in Ukraine dying from caretakers not being able to reach them due to Russian shelling or bombing; or tragically, people killed trying to get to these pets to help).

The trucks waited out of sight for the next two days, trying to get someone to turn a blind eye and let them cross to the help awaiting just a few hundred yards across the river. Finally they had to turn back. Currently, only five pets per person are allowed into Romania; Alexandra from SAVA and my colleagues in the blue tent told me “clown car” stories of four people and 20 pets driving up the ramp off the ferry in one small car!

It was getting late and we knew we had a four-hour drive on Friday to the town of Lasi (pronounced Yessh), where we are to meet with the dean, faculty and students of one of the four colleges of veterinary medicine in Romania. As I was walking from the blue tent to the van I looked to my left and watched a moving chorus line of pets and people holding hands walking towards a group of vehicles. From left to right: Grandpa, Veronica with the cat backpack, Mom, Homa, Dad, and on the far right, little Vasilisa with the hamster cage in her little pink gloved right hand.

A family together again. Moving towards an unfamiliar horizon, but intact as a family once again.

Exhausted, we all agreed to forget our previous plans to eat at an authentic Romanian restaurant, and instead stopped at McDonalds for burgers and fries. We wolfed the food down and Adrian (Alexandra’s brother) dropped us off at our hotel. I collapsed onto the bed with the cushion of plywood and told my iPhone to play music. What came on? American Authors’ song, “Best Day of My Life.”

While the night wasn’t, I can truly say it was one of the single best days of my life.

To learn how you can help, click here.
A happy reunion.

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Mike Weland, Publisher

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