“I’m not sure the British would help animals during the war the way the Ukrainians do.” Volunteer Neil Hanson left the stables in Britain and came to Ukraine to help
Over 160,000 cats and dogs need help in Ukraine because of the war. Such data was made public by the Ukrainian Pet Association Worldwide, which works to overcome
humanitarian crisis after the start of the Russia’s full-scale invasion. Community volunteers deliver animal drugs and feed around the country, and collect funds for the construction of animal shelters.
Neil Hanson, a retired British soldier, is one of these volunteers. For many years, he has been taking care of horses and dogs in his home country, and now he helps Ukraine at his own expenses. A journalist Ghanna Mamonova recorded a conversation with Neil when he was on his way to Poltava with a humanitarian cargo.
I do everything that depends on me. Because are there any other options?
Russia’s attack on Ukraine shocked me. Even scared: Russia invaded an independent state and is killing innocent people. I think it was shocking not only for me, but for all humankind.
I will not say that I couldn’t believe that Russia would start a war in Europe. I used to prepare for something like this. I served in the British Army for over thirty years, now retired. From 1985 to 1990, I was part of a military team preparing for a possible Russian attack on Western Europe. We trained to defend our countries in low temperatures, when there’s lack of heating and light. Many watched how the Soviet military conducted battles, what their tactics were. Now this survival experience helps me in volunteering.
I’m talking to you in the middle of the road between Kharkiv and Poltava. The internet connection is weak here, there are power outages and frosty weather. I didn’t come under fire, but I saw destroyed houses, killed people, hungry animals ― it seemed that I had to get used to it. But I’m still in a state of shock from the fact that there is a war in Ukraine. Both people and animals need help. Therefore, I do everything that depends on me. Because are there any other options?
In the first months of the war, I didn’t know how to help Ukrainians. I had no friends in Ukraine and I had never volunteered. Fortunately, I came across an article about a woman who was collecting donations for war victims in Britain. I contacted her and found out that she also sends humanitarian aid for animals.
I had to choose whether to help people or animals. Since I had more contact with vets and horse trainers in Britain – I’ve been keeping stables for many years – I decided to help animals. This is how my volunteering began.
We have collected veterinary drugs and food for cats and dogs. I rented a truck and took aid to Ukraine. Got behind the wheel myself. It took me three days to get through six countries. It was in August. Then I crossed the Ukrainian border for the first time. I expected that Ukraine would be similar to Germany or Poland, and it really is, but I didn’t think that your country has such large spaces. Meadows, fields. And the biggest surprise was that Ukraine is so modernized and technologically developed. I thought it would be more like Romania in the 1980s or 1990s.
Ukrainians there not only help each other, but also take care of animals
Unfortunately, I don’t know Ukrainian. And not all Ukrainians know English. I kept thinking about how to communicate with people, ask for directions or something else. Then I asked other volunteers to write in Ukrainian on a piece of paper: “Hello. I’m Neil, a volunteer from the UK. Show me the way to Lviv.” It worked. People were happy to help.
I deliver goods on trucks by myself. I like being behind the wheel, seeing your country. Ukrainians are extremely responsive. I constantly see cities that Russia is shelling with missiles and artillery. Ukrainians there not only help each other, but also take care of animals. Near Kharkiv, I was at one stable for horses. The animals are looked after by teenagers Katia and Sofia, they are 13 years old. The only adult there is Lara. I’m not sure that if there was a war in Britain, people would invest so much mental strength and efforts to take care of animals.
Lara’s stables were partially destroyed during one of the bombings. The roof broke, as well as windows. Katia and Sofia ride bicycles four kilometers from their house to the stable every day to help Lara. The girls’ mother, Tetiana, told me that before the war, Katia dreamed of becoming a world champion in horse jumping, but now the competition has stopped and the girl’s future fate is unknown.
I also met Victoria. She took horses whose owners evacuated to other countries because of the war into her stable. Victoria did it without thinking twice, even though she was in a difficult situation herself. Her stable usually accommodates only eight horses, but now she has 20 to look after. She needs financial support for taking care of the horses, a veterinarian. Another stable needs to be built. I help her with this.
I love horses very much. I have stables, and am interested in horse racing. I also always had many dogs at home. But there were never any cats. Once, I took blankets for cats to one of the shelters here in Ukraine. They must have been used, there was cat fur on them. It turned out that I’m allergic to cats.
Volunteering is expensive, but it is worth it
During my four months of volunteering, I visited Lviv, Rivne, Borodianka, Bucha, Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Poltava, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, and Mykolaiv. I met many people. And realized that when you bring help, you need to take a lot of pictures together. Then it’s easier to collect aid in Great Britain. Now I’m in Ukraine for the third time and brought a huge load: I never expected to collect so much.
In Britain, I live on a pension I receive from the UK government as a military man. And also on profits from my business in Australia — it’s about renting and selling houses. Now my daughter supervises it. I invest my money in volunteering. In four months I spent about 25 thousand pounds on fuel, truck rental, and some other combined expenses. Yes, it’s expensive. But volunteering is worth it. There is a website in Britain where those who want to help Ukraine, but don’t know how, gather. I myself once belonged to such people. Now I tell them how to help ― donate, bring goods to Ukraine, and come yourself.
I plan to volunteer in Ukraine for a long time. Now I help animals, but in the future I want to take part in the reconstruction of the country. I want to be near Ukrainians at this time. Because they never lose heart.