Cat and dog influencers help Ukrainians cope with war

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Patron’s social media posts offer advice on dealing with explosives and difficult emotions
By Vitaly Shevchenko
BBC Monitoring

From fundraising to detecting explosives, cats and dogs have been helping Ukrainians deal with the devastating impact of Russia’s invasion.

Patron, the mine-sniffing dog, is one of them. He works for Ukraine’s state emergency service – but his mine-clearance skills and apparently disarming charisma have also earned him hundreds of thousands of followers online.

He and a number of other animals – some real, some cartoon – have been offering emotional support and posting practical advice on their social media accounts.

This ranges from guidance on how to deal with difficult feelings caused by war to tips on what to do when you see an explosive device.

Through his work, Patron has met numerous dignitaries and celebrities visiting Kyiv, including Lord of the Rings star Orlando Bloom, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Ukraine’s postal service has printed stamps featuring the canine hero, who has also been awarded a medal for “dedicated service” by President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Patron, a Jack Russell terrier, has appeared on postal stamps across Ukraine

Patron’s owner and handler, Mykhaylo Ilyev, says his meetings with foreign dignitaries have helped Ukraine’s emergencies services secure donations of crucial mine-clearing equipment.

The Jack Russell terrier has been involved in raising funds for people affected by war, particularly his colleagues injured while clearing mines. He has taken part in charity collections for animals too.

“Our little friends are going through a rough time after being abandoned or injured. We realise that they also want to live and that they need help,” Mr Ilyev tells the BBC.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak met Ukraine’s hero mine-hunting dog on a trip to Kyiv last year

Patron’s account on Instagram offers not just pictures of the charismatic dog, but also hope, inspiration and advice for Ukrainians facing the horrors of war.

“Hope matters. We hope that this will be over soon. We hope that victory is near. We hope that people won’t be killed anymore. Sometimes hope is all we’ve got,” reads one of his posts.

“Don’t lose hope, I’m begging you. Now, let me give you a hopeful lick!”

Patron also features in a cartoon series educating children about the dangers posed by unexploded munitions.

Despite his celebrity status, Patron is still doing his mine-sniffing day job, Mr Ilyev says.

The fundraising feline

Stepan has helped raise thousands to help animals affected by war

Stepan the cat hails from Saltivka, a district in Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv that has been badly damaged by Russian shelling.

Before the war, Stepan was just another incredibly cute cat from the internet. But since Russia’s full-scale invasion, his Instagram account started offering more than just pictures – it started to comment on the war.

It has now switched to Ukrainian, too, even though it previously used Russian, which was widely spoken in parts of the east and south. Many people across Ukraine did the same after Russia invaded.

“We’ve all changed mentally after seeing what sort of thing this ‘Russian world’ really is,” Stepan’s owner Anna tells the BBC, referring to a concept promoted by Russia to justify intervention abroad ostensibly in support of Russian speakers.

“Ukrainian is part of my life and the life of my country and nation,” she says.

Stepan’s account, which has 1.3m followers on Instagram, has used its popularity to help animals who have suffered in the war. Last year, he helped raise almost 15,000 euros (£12,900) which was spent on food, medicine and other care for them.

After the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in southern Ukraine in June, the cat helped collect funds for the evacuation of animals from flooded areas.

His account was also involved in a collection to repair a library damaged by shelling in Kharkiv.

Many animals needed rescuing from flood areas after the Kakhovka Dam was destroyed two months ago

But it is not just about the money for Stepan’s account.

“He has been offering support to people, particularly children, so that they can forget the horrors of this war at least for a little while. That’s why there is a bit of humour in his posts,” Anna says.

Stepan also tackles the realities of war in his posts, including this one: “Oh how I want my country to win as soon as possible! So that there is peace for which people on the front line have sacrificed their lives. So that there are no more missiles, so that people and animals stop dying.”

The cartoon cat

Olena Pavlova describes her cartoon cat as a “natural anti-depressant”

People are more receptive to advice if it looks as though it is coming from a fluffy pet, says Olena Pavlova, who created a cartoon character called Inzhyr the cat.

“A cat picture travels much further than just words. I’ve seen it many times,” she tells me. “Pictures and memes featuring cats can help deliver a lot of important ideas. They’re easier to absorb. Cat pictures help us cope.”

“Inzhyr the cat is a natural anti-depressant. I created him to make myself and also my readers feel better. He’s positive, cuddly and nice, and he’s helping people find hope and light inside themselves,” Ms Pavlova says.

Inzhyr’s accounts on social media encourage Ukrainians to read more books and offer advice on issues such as fundraising, burnout and why everyone should be like a cat.

“Cats waste no effort, but are determined in achieving their goals,” one of his posts reads.

Sound words of advice for anyone, whether at war or not.

Inzhyr, the cartoon cat, says: “Dreams come true if you try”

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