K9 Rescue in Ukraine: A Northwest Volunteer Returns


Tom Bates, 70, returned home to Lakebay, on the Key Peninsula, on Jan. 19 after three months in Ukraine as a volunteer delivering food and equipment to people in need and evacuating abandoned or injured animals. It was his third trip to Ukraine since first setting foot there less than a month after the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. All told, Bates has spent more than a year in Ukraine over the last two.

This was the most difficult trip yet. “I was fighting a car and the weather for three months,” he said.

After working with different organizations at the beginning of the war, Bates volunteered for a small U.K.-based charitable foundation called K9 Rescue International, which now has a counterpart called K9 Rescue International Ukraine. He’s spent the war hauling donated food and supplies across Eastern Ukraine and moving rescued dogs, cats, birds, and farm animals to safety in an aging delivery van.

That van finally died shortly after his second visit. The K9 Director Nick Tadd picked up a temperamental 2004 Nissan Patrol SUV in Poland last November to replace it.

“It used to be owned by a nun who liked to go bird hunting with her dogs,” Bates said. “It’s been bounced around a lot. The heater went out for three days in subzero temps. The fuel tank was leaking and had to be replaced — that took six weeks. But it did start, it did work, just not always happily. The capacity is not much, so we do have a trailer, but without brakes in the winter on ice, it’s a bit weird. But we use it anyway.”

Bates said he transported many more dogs on this third visit than previously. “I collect them from all over, then I’m always going to Lviv or Kyiv, getting them ready for transport out of the country,” he said. “One of my passengers was Alena Tolmacheva, a refugee from Kramatorsk. She had five Dobermans, two cats, three chickens, and an owl with one wing. The owl wasn’t hers; the military rescued it. That was a fun ride.”

Bates has a regular place to stay in Kharkiv, though the street he lives on sustained repeated rocket attacks just a year ago.

“Most of my time is driving between relatively safe places with a few exceptions, like Nikopol. This time I saw two dead people from a rocket attack that had just happened before I got there. I was on my way to pick up some dogs in an abusive situation. That one was hard, they were pretty messed up. I was talking to the neighbor, and we could hear a rocket whistle. When you hear the whistles, then at least you know it’s going somewhere else, not right on top of you. It hit the block behind us.”

Gretchen Roosevelt, who has been married to Bates for 30 years, said “I’m always glad when he gets home in one piece, relatively. Tom knows what he’s doing, he has always been an independent agent, and he can make a huge difference there.

“I do worry for his safety with repeated trips — you’re increasing your odds of a big problem. But I would never say ‘You can’t go.’ He’s making such a contribution, maybe one dog or one owl at a time. But when he sends the pictures of the dogs, you know, loaded up in the back of the car, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, they’ve all lost a wing.’ ”

On this last trip, Bates and Tadd cofounded K9 Rescue International Ukraine based in Poltava, between Kyiv and Kharkiv. The group is run by a local former marketing director named Luda Khomenko and meant to simplify logistics. “We are tied together but they are two registered foundations, one in the U.K. and one in Ukraine,” Bates said. “I know Luda quite well; I’ve been working with her for a long time now. She knows how to navigate the systems.”

Donations have dried up, Bates said, what’s left is mostly from the U.K. and Scandinavian countries. “We don’t have the 501(c)(3) option in the U.S., it’s just too expensive for us to do,” he said. “We get enough to keep limping along. This last time, I funded my entire trip. I didn’t ask the foundation for anything. The nine months before they completely paid my expenses, which is the only way I could have done it.”

Bates left the Nissan in Poland for repairs when he returned home. Its condition will factor into whether or not he returns to Ukraine at the end of April for another three months, the limit of his visa.

“If there’s no vehicle, there’s no point in me going back unless I want to hop trains and just go,” he said. “Number two is always funding.” He recently sold his camping vehicles at home in case he does decide to return. “You know, that’s been the way of it,” he said.

Recalling his first trip in March 2022, Bates said he had no plan. “The only motivation I really had was that I saw I could help,” he said. “I was organizing warehouses and establishing a centralized distribution center for aid organizations sending in food from all over, and we managed to get that accomplished. I can remember that feeling; it was ‘I can go now.’ The system was built, working, and there were competent people there.”

He’s looking for the same feeling now. “We’re accidentally accomplishing our goal, which is empowering the locals to help the animals and the people. The Ukrainian people don’t want to be handed things; they want to do things. They want to help. They want to be a part of the solution,” he said.

“But I feel like I need to go back and tie up some loose ends,” he said. “We have a warehouse near Kyiv. People that donate our supplies don’t want to go further. This last delivery from the U.K. was three pickup trucks that were going to the military, but they filled them up with our supplies. I have some people in Kharkiv that are distributing for me, and I just want to strengthen the relationship a little bit more. These are all volunteers.”

Bates said the mood in Ukraine is positive. “The McDonald’s are all open, there’s new construction everywhere,” he said. “When the youth, the 20-year-olds, come up and start running things it’ll be part of the European Union.”

But there are exceptions. “Food aid, whenever I get it, I get it out and I have a contact in Sloviansk, which is a pretty desperate city,” he said. “A lot of elderly people, those are the ones that are left behind. They don’t have the funds to leave.”

On his way to Sloviansk, he stopped to visit two elderly sisters. “I’d met them the year before, I’d brought some aid to them and would stop in to see them,” he said. “All the homes around them were destroyed. It was an emotional visit. One told me about a girl across the street, a young teenager, who died in her arms after a rocket attack. There was more sobbing than talking that time.”

Bates said, “I get a lot of messages from people, comments on Facebook, and I just got one that’s a good indication of how the Ukrainian people feel about international help. They were thanking me for something, and this person said, ‘Tom, come back. We can’t win it without you.’ What they mean is they can’t win it without us. It’s basically a plea to the United States and the international community.

“Those are the real stories, what they’re enduring. I’m just trying to make it more endurable.”

For more information, go to k9rescue.international

This article was first published in Key Peninsula News.

Ted Olinger
Ted Olinger
Ted Olinger is an award-winning writer and associate editor of the Key Peninsula News.


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