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CHUBYNSKE, UKRAINE —Natalia Popova has found a new purpose in life: Rescuing wild animals and pets from the devastation wrought by the war in Ukraine.
"They are my life," says the 50-year-old, stroking a light-furred lioness like a kitten. From inside an enclosure, the animal rejoices at the attention, lying on her back and stretching her paws up toward her caretaker.
Popova, in cooperation with the animal protection group UA Animals, has already saved more than 300 animals from the war; 200 of them went abroad and 100 found new homes in western Ukraine, which is considered safer. Many of them were wild animals who were kept as pets at private homes before their owners fled Russian shelling and missiles.
Popova's shelter in the Kyiv region village of Chubynske now houses 133 animals. It's a broad menagerie, including 13 lions, a leopard, a tiger, three deer, wolves, foxes, raccoons and roe deer, as well as domesticated animals like horses, donkeys, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats and birds.
The animals awaiting evacuation to Poland were rescued from hot spots such as eastern Ukraine's Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, which see daily bombardments and active fighting. The Ukrainian soldiers who let Popova know when animals near the front lines need help joke that she has many lives, like a cat.
"No one wants to go there. Everyone is afraid. I am also scared, but I go anyway," she said.
Often, she is trembling in the car on her way to rescue another wild animal.
"I feel very sorry for them. I can imagine the stress animals are under because of the war, and no one can help them," Popova said.
In most cases, she knows nothing about the animals she rescues, neither their names and ages nor their owners.
"Animals don't introduce themselves when they come to us," she joked.
For the first months of the war, Popova drove to war hot spots alone, but a couple from UA Animals recently offered to transport and help her.
"Our record is an evacuation in 16 minutes, when we saved a lion between Kramatorsk and Sloviansk," Popova said. An economist by education with no formal veterinary experience, she administered anesthesia on the lion because the animal had to be put to sleep before it could be transported.
Popova says she has always been very attached to animals. In kindergarten, she built houses for worms and talked to birds. In 1999, she opened the first private horse club in Ukraine. But it wasn't until four years ago that she saved her first lion.
An organization against slaughterhouses approached her with a request for help saving a lion with a broken spine. She did not know how she could help because her expertise was in horses. But when she saw a photo of the big cat, Popova could not resist.
She built an enclosure and took in the lion the next morning, paying the owner. Later, Popova created a social media page titled "Help the Lioness," and people began to write asking for help saving other wild animals.
Yana, the first lioness she rescued, has become a family member since she could not find a new home due to a disability. Popova took care of her until she died two weeks ago.
The shelter is just a temporary stop for the animals. Popova rehabilitates them and then looks for new homes for them. She feels a special connection with each big cat but says she does not mind letting them go.
"I love them, and I understand that I do not have the resources to provide them with the comfortable life they deserve," says Popova.
At first, she bankrolled the shelter with her own funds from the horse business. But since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the horse business has not been profitable. With more than $14,000 a month needed to keep animals healthy and fed, she has turned to borrowing, and seen her debt grow to $200,000.
She gets some money from UA Animals and from donations but worries about how to keep everything together have kept her up at night.
"But I will still borrow money, go to hot spots and save animals. I can't say no to them," she said.
Popova sends all her animals to the Poznań Zoo in Poland, which helps her evacuate them and find them new homes. Some animals have already been transported to Spain, France and South Africa. Her next project is sending 12 lions to Poland this week.
With no end to the fighting in sight, Popova knows she will still be needed.
"My mission in this war is to save wild animals," she says.