Once upon a time there was a farmer with 10 sheep, a beekeeper with 41 beehives (and a turtle) and a cook with 62 pheasants and peacocks. And they all lived peacefully in the fields and meadows of a place called the Donbass.
But then Russian invaders came from the north and east, and rockets rained down around them, and the farmer, beekeeper and cook prepared to leave their homes, joining millions of fellow Ukrainians in an exodus that has become Europe’s biggest migrant crisis since the world. Second war.
As their owners were about to leave, where could the sheep, the bees (and the tortoise), the pheasants and the peacocks go?
The answer was the Green Grove, a farm and cheese factory in a bucolic corner of the Ukrainian countryside that became an unexpected sanctuary for an ever-expanding stable of war-displaced animals – and for some of the humans who couldn’t stand party with them.
As the conflict in Ukraine enters its fourth month and the Russian army pushes deeper into the east of the country, residents have seen their lives turned upside down and their homes destroyed in the torturous artillery duels raging in the towns and villages of the Donbass.
But the demands of war also forced many of them to abandon their animals. In the open farmlands of the east, this means fewer cats, dogs and other pets abandoned in besieged major cities such as Kyiv and more not-so-transportable working animals that represent means subsistence if not of the company.
After arriving in Dnipro, the city in central Ukraine that has become the main crossing point for those fleeing the east, people with animals often find their savior in Evgenia Molchanova, 31, the tireless woman who owns and runs the Green Grove with her husband, Anatoliy Pilipenko.
“When the war started, we felt we had to, because there were no shelters that would accept these animals without paying,” said Molchanova, in white jeans, a Green Grove T-shirt and cap.
“What money can you take from people who have no house? We decided to welcome them for free.
The move turned Molchanova and Pilipenko’s 14-month-old farm into something of a Rwanda hotel for animals. In addition to the aforementioned guests, the list now includes dozens of sheep, goats, cows, pigs, horses, geese, African hens and other types of poultry, rabbits, dogs, cats and a pair of emus, with each week bringing new additions. .
Of course, this raises questions of management and administration. Can you keep baby rabbits around dogs? Where to place the exotic birds of the Askania-Nova reserve, brought from Russian-occupied Kherson in the south? Is there room for the 18 horses arriving soon from Severodonetsk? And where are you going to put all the sheep?
“In March, a man brought us a crocodile. I told him I wouldn’t know what to do with it, so he asked if we had a jacuzzi,” Molchanova said with a tired smile. They ended up sending the reptile to a zoo in western Ukraine.
Like millions of humans in Ukraine, the animals of the Green Grove bore the wounds, physical and psychological, of the war.
There was DiShiKa, a black poodle whose back had a pair of raging fur-cutting scars. Its original owner in Donetsk Province was gone; some soldiers had taken her in, renamed her after the DShK heavy machine gun, and left her sleeping in one of their tents when Russian bombs fell on their position. A fire in the tent burned DiShiKa, leaving marks on his back.
Other scars are not as visible. Some of the horses, Molchanova said, would crumble to the ground from stress whenever they heard the rumble of an airplane overhead.
“When they got here the carriage had broken windows – war damage,” she said.
A constant presence around Molchanova was Fiesta, a golden retriever whose owners escaped in March to Germany from the northeastern city of Kharkiv, a frequent target of Russian bombing. They had left Fiesta with friends in Dnipro, who in desperation turned to Facebook to find him a home. Molchanova reached out and offered her a place at the Green Grove.
“At first, she needed shots to calm down. She would hear loud noises and pass out,” Molchanova said. She seemed happy now, as long as she didn’t leave Molchanova.
Some of his fellow citizens have enlisted in the effort to help newcomers cope.
“Our neighbors here are perfect. They took dogs, cats and rabbits as pets for a few weeks, just giving them love before bringing them back here,” she said, looking at Fiesta.
“It’s the best rehabilitation, love is.”
Molchanova and Pilipenko seem unlikely Dr. Dolittles. As a teenager, Molchanova had worked at her father’s car dealership in Dnipro before deciding to join a college student exchange program that took her to Anchorage. There she learned cheese making and returned to apprentice at various cheese factories across Europe.
In 2014, after protests in the capital Kyiv toppling the then Moscow-friendly Ukrainian president, Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists who fought for control of Donbass. After participating in the protests, Molchanova volunteered to go to the front, going first to a military hospital in Dnipro for training.
It was there that she met Pilipenko, a 51-year-old veteran who had fought in Afghanistan and other countries with the highly touted Soviet Airborne. He was responsible for teaching new recruits.
“After two weeks, we were living together. And that’s it,” Molchanova said.
When an uneasy ceasefire took effect in 2016, they decamped for the Czech Republic, where Pilipenko had a business importing dried fruit. A year before the start of the pandemic, they decided to buy land in the Dnipro countryside. When the coronavirus lockdowns started, they returned to their home country.
“Business was good in the Czech Republic, but my heart is still here in Ukraine. There is no better place for me. This is how I feel. And my husband felt the same,” Molchanova said. “Our dream was to have a nice view, good coffee…something that would make us wake up early in the morning.”
In March last year they opened the Green Grove, a place where Molchanova made and sold cheese, along with a cafe and a zoo for some sheep and goats they needed for milk. They named the facility after the village — Zelenyi Hai, in Ukrainian.
Since then, newcomers brought in by the war have forced rapid expansion even as visitors still come to enjoy the animals – something Molchanova thinks is more important than ever.
“Before, we toured for money, but now it’s free for everyone. We are open to anyone who wants to come here and be with animals,” she said, adding that more than 1,000 children had visited the site since the war began. “It’s useful for us, useful for the animals too.”
Beyond the animals, the Green Grove has also become home to some people fleeing Donbass, which is now at the center of the Russian offensive. Living in the house of Molchanova’s grandmother is a family from Lysychansk, one of the last regions of the Luhansk province in Ukrainian hands.
“He came with five dogs and two cats. They were all terrified,” she said.
Beauty salon worker Anya Savchenka, 32, fled with her family from the town of Soledar, 140 miles east of Dnipro, in April. She, her parents, husband, daughter and nephews are now all involved in maintaining the farm.
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Savchenka’s father and husband were busy behind a barn fixing an old-looking push tractor. To the side, her nephews crushed Egyptian pumpkins for the pigs while her daughter, Yesenia, 3, trotted to the sheepfold as Savchenka’s mother watched.
“My house was still intact when I left, but it was getting too dangerous. So we came here, because there is still a way to go west if we need to,” said Savchenka, crouching down to put food in a cage with baby rabbits.
It was a “big change” for Savchenka, but she seemed to like it – she now plans to open a pet salon.
“A real beauty salon, with manicures and hairstyles,” she says, smiling.
With its lush green pastures, clear skies, and the steady chorus of sheep and goats, the Green Grove may seem to occupy a different dimension compared to much of the rest of the war-torn country.
But the conflict can still interfere. Last month, Ukrainian air defenses shot down a Russian cruise missile, which rained down fragments near Green Grove. Moments like these make Pilipenko, who showed off an album with photos of himself as a soldier, want to join the fight.
Molchanova insists she needs him to stay with her and their two daughters, 7-year-old Ivanka and 2-year-old Olyana.
“I can’t do this alone,” she says.
Coffee in hand, she stood on the porch of the Green Grove store and stared at one of the paddocks where a brown horse trotted to the edge of the fence. And the bees buzzed in their hives, and the peacocks strutted about, and the sheep grazed quietly in the fields.
What would be his “happiness forever”?
“In the future, I don’t want the animals to have chains or enclosures. They should be free. I think this place will be like a reserve,” she said, pausing for a moment to take in the scene.
“I love my dream.”