GIG HARBOR — Without a secured plan, Tom Bates, 69, left the states to save animals in Ukraine.
Bates has lived in Washington for 35 years. He lived in Lakebay for nine years and now lives in Tacoma.
More recently he’s been traveling back and forth from Ukraine to rescue animals left behind or trapped by the war.
At the beginning of the war, he felt like he needed to be in Ukraine to help with the animal crisis they’re facing.
“I couldn’t help myself, I ended up going and the rest was history,” Bates told the Gateway.
Bates has been updating peninsula residents on his trips through the Key Peninsula News. He’s been calling his updates “letters from Ukraine.”
“People and animals have the right to exist without terror being rained down upon them,” Bates said. “I don’t want to be killed or injured. But, neither did the victims of this war. That is why I’m committing to helping.”
He’s felt nothing but welcomed in Ukraine.
The military has been supportive of the volunteer rescue work, and often they work hand in hand, he said.
“At nearly every military checkpoint there are sick or injured dogs,” Bates said. “The military will ask for our help evacuating the animal to care.”
Bates’ first trip began in March to Poland, where he spent three weeks volunteering in animal shelters to walk dogs and straighten up warehouses.
Poland is where many animals abandoned or injured in Ukraine are being sent.
He was also transporting supplies to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, around 70 kilometers from the border with Poland.
After the three weeks were up, he came back to Tacoma. But, he couldn’t help feeling like he had unfinished work to do in Ukraine.
“My family has given me full support,” Bates said. “They all agree that this is what I should be doing.”
In April he flew back, this time staying almost five months, and became connected with K-9 Rescue International, an organization rescuing animals in Ukraine. Those who want to support the K-9 Rescue crew can visit k9rescueinternational.org.
“Although we’re called K-9 Rescue we’re also doing humanitarian aid,” Bates said. “We bring people out of conflict areas along with their animals. Anybody that has a request that we can handle we’ll take care of.”
He returned to Tacoma for three weeks in October, and just took off to return to spend the winter in the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine. He’ll be going into demilitarized villages rescuing animals. These villages are areas where the fighting has recently ended.
Bates is funding his trip, staying in various hotels.
As for the rescue group, they’re constantly looking for funding.
Donations in the form of money and supplies are what keeps the rescue running, he said.
They receive a lot of donations coming in from all over Europe with semi trucks full of loads of food, he said.
“At the beginning of the war people were really interested in helping, but now volunteer season’s over. People don’t want to be out in the bad weather or other conditions,” Bates said.
When purchasing supplies, the rescue group tries to make choices to support the Ukrainian economy.
“We’ll buy pet food from a Ukrainian producer in a heartbeat to give Ukrainians an income,” Bates said.
He wants to remind everyone that war doesn’t stop when they turn off the television.
“Ukraine is busy fighting a war.” he said. “All of their finances are primarily going towards that. People aren’t eating, animals aren’t eating. People are freezing. Animals are freezing, so it’s up to us to help in any way we can.”
What’s a typical day like for Bates?
“We’ve become a known entity. We get a lot of calls from all over the country looking to help move animals or bring food,” he said.
Mostly they are rescuing household pets that people left behind when they fled. But, every once in a while they come across more exotic animals such as a falcon or a camel.
Some days Bates is just driving, picking up supplies on the west side of the country and taking them to the east. Other days he’s going out with the rescue group to demilitarized villages, he said.
“I see a lot of people that can’t or won’t leave,” Bates said. “But the ones that did flee tend to leave all their animals behind and the neighbors who stayed are taking care of them.”
Many times the neighbors are without any financial assistance or supplies and will contact K-9 Rescue to help.
“When we go out for one request, most times we’ll find additional animals in the same place that are injured or need attention,” he said.
They rescue animals solely on requests.
“We don’t go into villages and just grab animals,” he said. “We need to know where they came from to get them care or back to the owners.”
Rescue requests are mostly from word of mouth.
“Eventually it gets back to us,” he said. “Quite often it’s random conversations, but also Facebook is a big source.”
People requesting a rescue will message K-9 Rescue via Facebook or the volunteers, like Bates.
On average he estimates the group completes a dozen animal rescues a day.
If the animal is in good health it will either go back to its family or to a local foster home, he said.
“If it’s injured it will be taken to a local veterinarian for care.” Bates said. “Sometimes we pay. Sometimes it’s free.”
Eventually most animals end up in an overcrowded shelter hoping for adoption, he said.
“Each one is an obstacle,” Bates said. “We’ve had to break into houses or barns to rescue animals.”
On a few occasions, Bates and other volunteers have been under artillery fire, he said.
“One instance we had a couple of artillery shells go over our heads and explode on the other side of the house,” he said.
He’s also witnessed a few rocket attacks.
“I think it’s hard for people to truly imagine what it’s like over here without being over here,” Bates said. “It’s up to the international community to take care of the humanitarian aid needed in Ukraine. Because otherwise there isn’t any.”
During rescues he wears a tactical vest and a military helmet to try and stay safe.
He also closely follows what’s happening in each area, in case they get word from the military that it could be a dangerous area. The time artillery shells went over their heads, the military had no idea it was coming and couldn’t inform them, he said.
When asked if he was scared, he said not necessarily, but that sometimes he’s frightened.
“No one gets any sleep here,” Bates said. “Air-raid sirens usually start about midnight. The bombs come all through the night.”
Some nights he’ll only hear a handful of explosions, he said.
His love for animals
In recent years of retirement, Bates became involved with the Washington State Fair Traveling Farm. The outreach program travels to local elementary schools to educate students about agriculture and healthy food choices and to let the students meet a few animals.
Before Bates retired, he was an owner operator of semi trucks leased to moving companies.
While he was part of the Traveling Farm, he developed a fondness for working with animals, Bates told the Gateway. In his Tacoma home, he and his wife have a dog and a cat.
“As my favorite bumper sticker says, the more people I meet, the better I like my dog,” Bates said.