A Ukrainian lioness concussed in a missile attack needs a new home

Yuna the lioness at the Wild Animals Rescue Center near Kyiv. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)

CHUBYNSKE, Ukraine — Yuna the lioness lay in the corner of her outdoor enclosure, completely still.

Fragments of a Russian missile, shot out of the sky that morning on its way to Kyiv, sat nearby.

As the veterinarian tried to coax her toward the fence, Yuna’s eyes shifted only horizontally. She didn’t let out her usual growl; she didn’t want food. When she tried to stand up, she collapsed. “She just couldn’t move,” said the vet, Inna Vasylkivska, describing how on Jan. 2 she diagnosed the 2-year-old lioness with a severe concussion.

Ramped-up Russian airstrikes have killed dozens of people and wounded many more in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities over the past two weeks. The increased assaults, paired with doubts about future U.S. support, have stoked anxiety across the country that this will be an especially violent winter. And humans aren’t the only ones in danger.

Yuna, a lioness at a rescue center outside Kyiv, suffered a concussion on Jan. 2 after a Russian missile was intercepted and debris landed near her enclosure. (Video: Wild Animals Rescue Center)

Wildlife specialists are urgently seeking new homes outside Ukraine for Yuna and other large animals, at grave risk of because they cannot easily take shelter when air-raid sirens wail. There is no space left in Kyiv’s main zoo, which has taken in more than 500 animals — many evacuated from front-line areas — since Russia invaded in February 2022.

But in the days since Yuna was concussed, no zoos in Europe have responded to requests to help her, said Natalia Popova, 50, director of the Wild Animals Rescue Center, a rehabilitation facility where the lioness has lived since Popova removed her from an abusive situation at a private home near Kyiv last year.

Any new home for Yuna must be reachable by road, Popova said. Sedating the lioness for air transport after her concussion could kill her. So could keeping her where she is now, on the outskirts of Kyiv, where more Russian attacks are possible each day.

She’s 16. The war in Ukraine wrecked her city — and her childhood.

“Honestly, I don’t think she’ll make it through another explosion,” Popova said. “For her, it’s a matter of life or death.”

Popova met Yuna last year after learning that a wealthy family had moved away and left two young lions in a small enclosure on their property. The family’s staff had been tasked with feeding the animals, but often gave them nothing more than rotten meat. Both lions’ paws were frostbitten. The animals were thin and sick. Yuna, bullied in a small cage by her brother, Atlas, was also emotionally traumatized.

Natalia Popova, 50, stands in front of a lion cage on Jan. 9 at the Wild Animals Rescue Center near Kyiv. (Video: The Washington Post)

Popova moved the lions to her humble rescue facility outside Kyiv, which is meant to be a stopover for wounded or displaced animals before they get new homes in zoos or sanctuaries. Because of limited space, some animals — including several lions and a white tiger — live in a converted horse stable. Others, like Yuna, stay in separate enclosures outside — and aboveground.

For months, as Popova searched for ways to move Yuna abroad, she visited the lioness 10 to 15 times a day, slowly earning her trust. With a new diet and medication, Yuna’s fur and energy levels improved. Recently, she began eating out of Popova’s hand. Popova had hoped she could soon transport her to a zoo in Europe, like three other lions — including Atlas — that are scheduled to move to France this month.

Then the missile was shot down over Yuna’s enclosure, sending a shock wave in her direction. The other animals, somewhat protected by the stable’s brick walls, showed initial signs of stress but were not wounded. Yuna, however, was in worse shape than when she first arrived last year.

“Everything we did for Yuna is gone,” Popova said. “We would need another year to bring her condition back to what we’d achieved.”

A row of indoor cages at the Wild Animals Rescue Center near Kyiv on Jan. 9. (Video: The Washington Post)

The attack, she added, made her feel like “there is no way out” of the war.

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An expert in wildlife rehabilitation, Popova has rescued more than 1,000 animals in Ukraine since the invasion, even traveling to the front line to retrieve them. Some were released back into the wild, and others were moved abroad. But each time a space opens up, Popova said, another animal moves in.

Her facility now houses animals rescued from private owners across the country. One 4-year-old tiger was concussed in her enclosure last year when she ran into a wall after a nearby explosion. Another lion arrived with symptoms of a concussion similar to what Yuna is experiencing. A dog that Popova is treating had shrapnel wounds to his head. In the early days of the invasion, a roe deer she was caring for died trying to escape from a strike. Some 30 other animals were injured, suffering concussions and broken legs.

Unlike the Kyiv Zoo, which has adapted to war conditions by converting more of its indoor and underground spaces into living areas for large animals, her rescue center does not have the resources to build shelters. Over the past week, in response to Yuna’s injury, construction workers began building new enclosures inside the stable — a temporary solution to move the lioness and others inside.

In the longer term, no one knows where the animals will go. On the front line, soldiers often care for dogs and cats that fleeing residents have left behind. Volunteers often hand out food and medicine. But they call Popova to retrieve any larger animals they find, like bears or lions.

International partner zoos that accepted large animals from Ukraine earlier in the war “simply do not have any capacity to accept … any more,” said Kyrylo Trantin, director of the Kyiv Zoo. “It is a huge problem we are facing now.”

Two months ago, Trantin accepted four servals that Popova had evacuated from a private home in the front-line town of Kurakhove in the eastern Donetsk region. Two others had already died in shelling. The cats, now safe in Kyiv, still show signs of severe stress — including excessive pacing. Long malnourished, they are slowly growing back their fur.

The zoo also accepted two lemurs rescued from the southern city of Kherson, where they had been on display in a shopping mall that was bombed. One was badly concussed. Separated for months, they ended up in Kyiv — and were so happy to see each other again that they hugged and chirped during their reunion, said Anna Vdovychenko, 28, head of the wildlife department at the Kyiv Zoo.

Vdovychenko is also caring for a lion moved from Kharkiv and a tiger rescued last year at just 45 days old from an apartment in Kyiv — a sign to her that despite the war, exploitive traders are still selling wild animals into dangerous conditions.

“Obviously, human lives are important, but these animals all depend on us,” Vdovychenko said. “They did not choose to live in Ukraine in wartime.”

For days after Yuna’s injury, Popova monitored her via a CCTV camera to avoid stressing her with visits. Unable to sedate Yuna, Vasylkivska, the veterinarian, provided medicine by tossing syringes at her from afar. Slowly, Yuna gained some strength. She is still wobbly on her feet, but in recent days, she ate her first bites of meat and started to growl.

In three to four weeks, they hope, she will be ready to travel. The only question that remains is who might be willing to take her.

“I’m dealing with the consequences of human activities,” Popova said. “Wild animals are our future, our ecosystem.”

Saving these animals, she said: “That’s my mission in this war.”

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