Portrait Ukraine 2023
This is the latest blog from our Portrait Ukraine 2023 series, following the journey of photojournalists Allan Mestel and David Graham through Ukraine and providing a firsthand view of current events on the ground. Through the art of powerful portraiture and personal storytelling, they convey the profound impact of the war in Ukraine—revealing its devastating and harsh reality on individuals. Yet, amidst this, they also uncover inspirational stories of resilience, courage, hope, and the unwavering resolve and spirit of the Ukrainian people. Click here to get the backstory on the Portrait Ukraine 2023 project and to read more from this series.
The Transformative Healing Power of Animals and Humans
By David Graham
Day 6 Reporting from Ukraine
Today, Allan Mestel and I embarked on a journey to see firsthand how animals are helping people and how people are helping animals in the wake of war.
Our first stop was a horse training facility that is closely collaborating with a volunteer organization to assist soldiers struggling with PTSD. Their work to help cope with trauma involves working with horses, including teaching soldiers how to ride as part of the therapy. Interacting with animals has been proven to help affected soldiers better deal with issues related to PTSD. According to the National Center for PTSD, “Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can be an effective treatment for PTSD because it provides comfort, support, and companionship, and it can help to reduce stress and anxiety.”
The horses at the training facility are specifically trained to be patient and gentle, and they can provide a sense of calm and security to the soldiers. The soldiers also learn to care for the horses, which gives them a sense of purpose and responsibility.
Soldier’s PTSD Recovery: How Horses Became His Lifeline
During our visit, I had the privilege of speaking with a soldier who told me that he had been struggling with PTSD since he returned from the front lines. He said, “I had nightmares and flashbacks and couldn’t tell the difference between the enemy and my own unit when under stress.” This made him dangerous to his team, and he felt isolated and alone. He started to feel much better after working with the horses. He credited the horses with helping him to relax and reconnect with the world around him.
A Lifeline for Ukraine’s Animals: Inside the Kharkiv Animal Rescue
We also visited an animal rescue in Kharkiv. The Kharkiv Animal Rescue has built new facilities to accommodate the staggering influx of animals under their care. With the invaluable assistance of 20 volunteer staff members and a clinic with two veterinarians who journeyed to Ukraine to offer their expertise, Kahrkiv Animal Rescue is helping animals impacted by the war not only survive but to thrive. They also have partnered with several animal advocacy groups and charities.
The Rescue was formed in 2021 and was responsible for rescuing approximately 1000 animals in its first year. Since the start of the war until today, they have rescued over 11,000 animals, including not only hundreds of dogs and cats but also fish, horses, and even exotic animals that have been found.
I was amazed by the work that the animal rescue is doing. They provide a safe refuge for animals left abandoned or displaced in the wake of war and administer vital medical care and rehabilitation to the animals in need.
One particular facet of their operation that touched my heart deeply was the cat facility. At every turn, I encountered cats perched on couches, nestled among toys, playfully climbing trees, and cats resting upon every available shelf! The facility was exceptionally clean, and the cats looked very well taken care of. There was abundant food and water, and even those cats requiring medical attention seemed at ease and in good spirits.
The work at Kharkiv Animal Rescue is essential and nothing short of exceptional. It extends comfort and care to animals that have endured unimaginable hardships and provides a sense of hope to the people of Kharkiv.
Here are some facts about PTSD and using animals to help with patient treatment:
- PTSD is a mental health condition that may develop after an individual experiences a traumatic event, often characterized by symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and depression.
- Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a therapeutic approach that uses animals to aid people grappling with a diverse range of mental and physical health conditions. AAT has been shown to be effective in treating PTSD in both children and adults.
- How animals contribute to the healing process for PTSD patients includes providing comfort, emotional support, and companionship. They also help mitigate stress and anxiety, helping patients feel more connected to the world around them.
And here are the heartbreaking facts about the abandoned animals since the start of the war:
According to the United Nations, more than 10 million animals have been displaced due to the war in Ukraine.
Many of these animals have been left behind as their owners were fleeing their homes amid the chaos of war.
The abandoned animals are at risk of starvation, disease, and injury.
Volunteer groups like the Kharkiv Animal Rescue, among many others, rely on continuous support to enable them to continue their essential work providing care and shelter for these vulnerable animals.