Tom Bates of Lakebay, 69, returned home June 23 after nine months of rescuing animals and delivering food and medical supplies as a volunteer to the battlefronts of Ukraine. He arrived for the first time just a month after the Russian invasion began Feb. 24, 2022. He plans to return for a third time in October.
“It has taken a while for me to re-adjust to living without air raid sirens and explosions, but home is always the place to recuperate,” he said. “I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a home that is safe from war.”
Gretchen Roosevelt, his wife of 29 years, has been on a journey of her own with him gone.
“We’re in communication a lot; I’m not really worried about him,” she said. “Certainly there’s a price to pay, but emotionally it’s OK for me. I’m not alone in the house and I also have a pretty tight circle of friends I see a lot.
“I do have people say, ‘He could do animal rescue here,’ but not like he can do there. He’s making a difference in a different place on a different scale. It’s been a life-changing experience for all of us.”
After working with different organizations at the beginning of the war, Bates is now part of a small team called K9 Rescue International, a UK-based charitable foundation with Ukrainian NGO status, which makes dealing with bureaucracy and border guards easier.
Bates works with two other volunteers on occasion but is mostly on his own, he said. No one gets paid anything.
“I pay my own transportation, I pay for all my expenses, food, fuel, housing,” he said. “A very good hotel might be $20 a night, a good meal $3 to $6; fuel is the big one,” at about $5.50 a gallon for diesel. “Then again, the income over there is not even close to ours.”
Bates spent the beginning of the war hauling donated pet food and supplies from Poland across Ukraine and moving injured, endangered or abandoned animals to safer places. He has rescued dogs, cats, raptors, owls and farm animals.
But now the need for the kind of support he can deliver has become more generalized.
“It’s hard to describe the system, it’s pretty organic,” he said. “You meet people, they decide whether you’re a good person or not, and after a while, you’re part of a rescue community, like an underground railroad. I get four tons of dog and cat food a month from one supplier and medical supplies from another one. We’re working with an orphanage; food, clothing, toys. One place wanted to donate 12 generators, and I mean generators of the size to run a hospital. I couldn’t do that, but I knew who could, who to trust.”
Bates drives 10,000 kilometers (about 6,200 miles) a month. He has a few regular stops and warehouses between Kyiv, where donations arrive, and the Donetsk region in the east.
“I travel around to Dnipro, along the Dnieper River, to Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Bakhmut when we could. There’s a lot of action on that eastern front.”
Something that’s not talked about, he said, are the many foreign volunteer soldiers in the country, paying their own way, buying their own supplies, and getting what support they can from people like Bates.
“They are from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland,” he said. “For a while, I thought, ‘This is great, everybody’s here to support Ukraine.’ Not true. They are here to kill Russians. The war could be anywhere, they would be there just the same. Getting even.”
K9’s van broke down in mid-May, stranding the organization until it could raise the $4,000 needed to repair it. While waiting on that, Russian forces blew up the critical Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant dam under their control June 6, flooding cities and towns Bates regularly visited.
“My last ten days were spent in Kherson with the flood, doing evacuations. I always stayed at the same guest house, which was near the river, but when I got there that day the river was just half a block away,” he said.
“We purchased an inflatable boat and met up with some people who had engines and went out and rescued animals off of roofs,” he said. “Got about a dozen. I know river boating and currents; there were quite a few rescuers who ended up needing rescuing.”
Bates said he thought the mood of the general population across the country was good.
“The youth of Ukraine is going to define that country very soon. They are ready to join the EU, they are ready to change their political structure, end corruption. … There are all kinds of indications that they must know something we don’t know, or what we’re all assuming is true: that they’re going to prevail,” he said.
“However, I’m shocked when I get to places like Bakhmut and see what the hell the Russians are doing to the population. The citizens there, they all look like they just came out of a coal mine. They’re just black from soot and debris, can’t get clean water. And they’re stubborn as hell, that’s why they’re still there. I ask them, ‘You want to come with me, evacuate?’ But that’s as far it goes.
“I got to know families there, their kids, their dogs. And then, what happened to them? They’re just gone. Did they evacuate, did they get caught in the shelling, all these people who were digging in for the long haul? I want to go back to Bakhmut after it’s been liberated and find out. Or maybe I don’t. I don’t know. I’ve met soldiers that have asked for this or that, and then I don’t hear from them anymore. I don’t know. Did they make it? I don’t know.”
Near the end of August, Bates learned that his van had broken down again, perhaps permanently.
“K9 Rescue International is without transportation and it isn’t possible for us to replace it,” he said. “Our funds are depleted but our warehouse is full. We can’t make any giant things occur, but we can do the things we do. And the fact is we’re still there, which a lot of organizations are not. There are still some very determined people that are going to stick it out with us. But I’m not a fundraiser; I’m a doer.”
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