Roaming to Ukraine: Part Two – back out to Ukraine again

Back in early 2022, Protect the Wild was contacted by a member of the Roaming Sabs who asked if we could help provide a grant towards a vehicle – a vehicle which was going to be driven from Manchester right across Europe into a war zone to help animals! While we typically fund monitor groups or animal rescues here in the UK to protect and support wild animals, the plans were so remarkable we felt we had to act.

The full story – Part One is online here  – is as fascinating as it is audacious. A once-in-a-lifetime experience that saw the author travel into a war zone to rescue animals. We’ve been asked to withhold his name – and not to call him a hero. As he said to us, “All of us who do things to help animals are just doing what we’re able to do“.

Not a hero? We’ll leave readers to be the judge of that…


(From Part One) On the 24th of February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, killing thousands and displacing millions.

I’m out with the Cheshire Hounds but also following the news, watching videos of helicopters launching missiles at apartment blocks and tanks firing on cars full of civilians trying to evacuate. War has returned to Europe.

My blood is boiling. I’m thinking “What can I do?”. I have to do something, so I set a plan in motion that would see me at the Ukrainian border just two weeks later…


Roaming to Ukraine: Part Two – back out to Ukraine again

I’ve been at home in the UK after a long and unforgettable trip through Europe to Ukraine and back. Restocked and replenished, I’m heading out to Ukraine again.

On our way through Germany we get a call advising us of the next job; extracting nine lions from a zoo in Odesa at risk of shelling! The city and the surrounding region has been the target of shelling and air strikes since the illegal invasion started, and all I could think was “Wow, is this real?”.

We divert course to Siret again, this time to meet the remaining ground team and set off towards Odesa for the mammoth job ahead…

Siret, north eastern Romania

On a cold May morning we arrive in Siret, awaiting the rest of the team to join us from inside Ukraine. A quick nap in the grass is all I manage before I hear the sound of wheels on gravel. The convoy has arrived with five vehicles and a whole crew, including Lionel de Lange from South Africa’s Warriors of Wildlife, who has helped co-ordinate the entire mission.

Anticipation fills the air as we get a briefing and set off to the Priest’s compound (I talked about him in Part One) to load up the heavy cages we had waiting for us.


With the wonderful help of the Priest and his tractor, we manage to load everything onto the back of the truck and secure it down.

One last check, one last briefing, and away we go, on our way to Moldova and then Odesa.

Almost as soon as leave, one of the vehicles decided to break down on us. Damn! Awkward as it’s the Ford Transit I bought earlier, driven out by one of our sabs. After a quick check we decide it isn’t salvageable in the time we have available and decide we have to leave it in a nearby car park. It’s a loss but not the main concern right now (though more on it later…).

Back on the road, we finally reach the Romania/Moldova border A quick swap of drivers takes place, documents are checked and we meet two police officers who will be our escort through Moldova so we don’t get stuck in traffic or run into any bother. Fab!

We set off and make our way through quite possibly one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever been through. Absolutely on my list to return.

After about seven hours, we reach the border point with Ukraine, where they don’t seem awfully keen to let us in for some reason. Something to do with the vehicle size? I’m not quite sure. An hour or so of meetings and they finally decide to let us through. Phew! One hour left to Odesa Biopark where the lions are waiting.

Due to the vehicle hiccup at the start and the waiting time at the border, we decide en route that it wouldn’t be wise to rush the lion rescue or do it at dusk. We go to the park, assess the situation and unload the supplies we have brought for the zoo. Then it’s off to find a hotel for the night to unwind before the job ahead!

It’s a pleasant evening. We have some nice food and a good laugh together, a rare relaxing moment in a time of tension and ever-present danger, which the warships patrolling the seafront remind us of constantly. We also get told that our lights MUST be off by 10pm and that rooms are only being offered on the nearside of the hotel facing inland, not facing the sea for risk of missiles or a naval assault.

After a good night of rest, morning breaks and alarms go off! Time to get up and load up some lions!


Loading up lions

We arrive at the zoo bright and early. Dr. Gemma Campling founder and  Director of Worldwide Vets gets on with preparing the tranquilizer darts. Meanwhile, the rest of us unlock the cages, ready out the makeshift carrier and prepare for a tense few hours.

Zoo staff start separating the lions one by one, and using a large tube they shoot a blow dart in the back leg of the first one being transferred. Once the lion is out cold, the team moves in to get the carrier under the lion. We carry them out and after a quick health assessment by Gemma, load them up into the cages on the back of the truck. This repeats seven times!

After almost a full day of darting and loading, all lions are finally secure, including two cubs that are in one of the smaller trucks.

We have a quick tour around the zoo to meet some of the animals including some incredibly friendly lemurs and giraffes!


Back to Moldova

As we’re in the empty car park double checking that everyone is secure, a woman walks up to us with her dog and starts saying something in Ukrainian whilst breaking into tears. None of us are quite sure what she’s saying but she then tries to hand us her dog. Eventually, with the help of the zoo staff, we understand that she wants her dog to be safe from the bombing and had heard from neighbours that we were in town. She wants us to take her dog to safety while she remains in Odesa. We offer to take her to safety as well but she refuses, only caring for her dog.

After an emotional goodbye we hit the road again and head back to Moldova, this time not only with a police escort but with police in fact closing down main roads to allow our convoy free passage through the country. A surreal experience in itself.

After a long drive with lots of breaks and people at petrol stations getting a scare when they realise what we’re carrying (never gets old), we finally arrive at the zoo in Târgu Mureș, Romania.

We expected to be ushered in through the back gate. Instead, they bring us in through the front during opening hours with visitors everywhere…weird, but oh well! We slowly drive up to the lion enclosure where a line of press is already waiting alongside zoo staff and some heavy lifting machines.

We park up, and let the staff start offloading while we have a quick breather, and then join in to help out. One by one the cages are taken into their own quarantine enclosure where the lions will be kept until their onward journey to South Africa and Colorado. Not ideal perhaps, but far better than being shelled or eaten by Russian soldiers...

Job done, we head out and make our way back towards Siret.

On our way back we get a message telling us to take today and tomorrow off after all our hard work, so we book ourselves a hotel, I got one slightly further out of town that I had been to before as I needed some alone/down time after this mammoth journey, bearing in mind TJ and myself had just driven all the way from the UK straight on to this job with no real downtime in between!

A lovely evening with Netflix and some nice food, followed by a proper bed was just what I needed. Refreshed, the next day we all met up. Most of the team headed back for Vinnytsia and I went back for my Ford Transit – the one that had broken down when we first set off for Moldova.

With the help of some locals, I got the van towed to a local garage that was going to try and fix it for me.

Oops! It turns out one of the Canadian volunteers got confused by the pump colours and had filled up with petrol instead of diesel. Fun times and a running joke still today.


Admin and Maintenance

After getting back to the shelter, there weren’t any more ops scheduled for any time soon, so I got stuck in with general admin and maintenance, speaking to some new volunteers interested in coming out to help as well as some quality time with the animals, before heading to Kyiv for the weekend. We headed back up to the zoo to drop off some medical supplies they had requested, and then spent Saturday evening and Sunday in Kyiv enjoying the city .. downtime wasn’t something we got very often so we made sure we enjoyed it fully when we could!

A few days later the next op started. We had a major shelter-wide hands-on for preparation, loading up all the vans and trucks with medical supplies, food and safety supplies, before the team left at 23:00 for the front lines again.



I stayed behind on this one to look after the shelter as we now had a large number of volunteers on site who needed some oversight and guidance, as well as ensuring daily tasks were performed. A new truckful of medical supplies had arrived as well which needed allocating and storing, a mammoth task with just hand trucks and manual labour.

After a few days, the team were on their way back with around 30 cats that had been rescued from the front line area of Kharkiv, so it was once again all hands on deck to offload, inspect and allocate all these new cats to quarantine before our onsite vet was able to assess them all once more. Some were pregnant, some were injured and required immediate assistance.


Working in the shelter

The following few months were mostly spent at the shelter, I had been allocated shelter manager meaning it was my role to ensure the daily operations as well as finances and volunteer management, making sure folks were happy and balanced with getting the daily work done.

It was also a great opportunity to learn some Ukrainian from our local staff members, whom I bonded with closely! I also had the laborious task of getting all of our 150+ animals vaccinated and getting all their paperwork and passports in order.

I set up a database from scratch containing all of their information from colour to vaccine status and batch numbers, all of their credentials and chip numbers.

Not an easy job when you don’t speak the language, but I got there in the end!


The Vinnytsia atrocity

On the 14th of July, three missiles fired from a Russian submarine in the Black Sea hit the city of Vinnytsia. They killed 27 people including three children. They struck a GP practice, shop and office building in an area I knew well and was parked up in only a few days earlier!

The EU slammed the Russian missile attack as an “atrocity”.

Naturally this affected our local workers as they were frantically calling loved ones to check everyone was alright. A stark reminder of where we were and what was going on, as it was easy to forget sometimes…

Getting arrested!

Eventually August came around and my mind started thinking about returning home. My finances were starting to run low (no paycheck for six months eventually catches up!) so I embarked on my final op to Kyiv with Gemma from Worldwide Vets, meeting a local veterinarian who had some medication for our vet onsite. Nothing too exciting but important nonetheless!

On our way back we went through another checkpoint, as standard, however this time we got pulled over and checked thoroughly. With an increased risk to Kyiv, tensions were higher and all foreign cars were getting checked.

After around 20 minutes, an official came over to inform me that I was under arrest for overstaying my visa! Naturally I was shocked but understood that they were doing their job.

We waited around an hour for a police escort, which eventually turned up. One officer got in the back of our van with a rifle pointed at us, whilst the other drove the police car for us to follow. We arrived at Kyiv central police station and were taken to an interrogation room where a friendly sergeant with great English came into us full of apologies. He had just chewed out the arresting officers for bringing in humanitarian aid workers for something as silly as an expired visa when the country is at war.

Passports returned and with a letter absolving us should we get stopped again, we headed back for base.

For me, it would be for the last time…

Returning home

On the 6th of August 2022, I left base camp, heading away on a final mammoth mission before heading home. This time I would be driving an adopted cat to Romania, dropping them off in a shelter Cluj Napoca to be collected, then picking up a dog from the same shelter and driving him all the way to Copenhagen!


It was an emotional farewell, but a very pleasant drive back!

Loaded up on snacks, and drinks and with the aircon blasting, my new pooch friend and I set off on the long drive to his new home.

We arrived in Denmark’s capital city on the 9th where I dropped him off with Linse, one of our ex-volunteers – before assisting her with painting her house as she’d asked for a hand! Who am I to say no?

After some reflection over dinner, I load back up and head for Calais, this time on my own! Music blasting, I set off on my last leg of a long journey, with some stops along the way including a little treat to myself of a beach day in Ostend.

On the 14th of August 2022 I finally arrive back home, marking an end to my whirlwind adventure in an active warzone – and just in time to get my sabbing boots back on for the cubbing season!


  • Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine has now lasted for two years. Over 10,000 civilians have been killed. Whole cities have been flattened. The UN estimates that more than 14 million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes at some point in last two years. On the second anniversary of the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s President Zelensky stated that more than 30,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed but he remained defiant saying: “I thank all of our soldiers, our people, and everyone around the world who stands with us and the truth. Glory to Ukraine.”



All images copyright Roaming Sabs. Part One of ‘Roaming to Ukraine’ can be found here.

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