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Fort Collins veterinarian keeps Ukrainian refugee families united with their pets

A group of Ukrainian refugees in thick jackets and toting suitcases arrive at the veterinary clinic set up at the border of Ukraine. A person in an orange safety vest directs the group on where to go.
Courtesy of Dr. Jon Geller
Croatian vet students work with Dr. Geller

It’s been about six weeks since Russian forces invaded Ukraine. In that time, millions of Ukrainians have fled the country -- many of them refusing to leave without their beloved family pets. That flood of images of refugees with children in tow, and dogs or cats in carriers or in their arms, made Dr. Jon Geller want to do something to help.

In March, the Fort Collins-based emergency veterinarian hopped on a plane and headed overseas. Once there, he set up a clinic providing the necessary care to ensure families' pets are cleared to travel to other European countries.

In 2015, Geller founded the Street Dog Coalition, a nonprofit based in northern Colorado that helps people experiencing homelessness get free vet care for their companion animals. He quickly discovered that his mission assisting Ukrainian refugees wasn’t all that different from helping unsheltered people care for their pets here in the U.S.

Colorado Edition had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Geller on April 1, shortly after he’d returned home from the Ukrainian border.

Interview highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: How did the idea to go to Ukraine come about?

cat at ukrainian border clinic courtesy of jon geller.jpg
Courtesy of Dr. Jon Geller

Dr. Jon Geller: Yeah. It's like everybody else, wanting to go help, so dismayed at seeing what was going on over there. My wife actually prompted me to go. She said, "well, instead of just talking about it, why don't you do something? You see the pictures of all the pets; you should go over there and see how you can help." So, I kind of went over there blind -- meaning I didn't really know what I was going to do. I had two large suitcases of medical supplies because I knew those would help somewhere. And I was able to connect with some local veterinarians who were living at this one border station called Isaccea, in southern Romania. And they said, "Yeah, come down here, we'll figure out how we can do this."

Where were you in relation to Ukraine?

I was on the Danube River, which separates Ukraine from Romania, in southern Ukraine. I was pretty close to where that river drains into the Black Sea. And the closest city to us would be Odessa, which has come under some pressure recently. It's about three hours’ drive away, but folks from southern Ukraine, especially southwest Ukraine, would be coming through our border station.

And how were people arriving there?

They were both on foot and in cars. And I think some of them may have arrived by bus and train. The station I was at was a ferry crossing, so they all came across on a ferry, either in a car or on foot.

Of course, we all saw the incredible images on the news of people fleeing with their pets, often in their arms. What kind of care did you provide for the animals?

Well, we kind of had two different things we were doing. One was to provide basic veterinary care if it looked like they needed it. And the other part was to provide them, along with this care, what's called a pet passport, which is required in the European Union to travel between countries. Without that, they wouldn't have been able to leave Romania with their pet, and many of them were planning to leave Romania to go further west to Germany, for example, or maybe even France. And so, to do that, we had to do some technical procedures like microchips. We had to do rabies vaccines, deworming. In addition to that, then we took care of any other minor medical problems they had. We also had use of a local veterinary hospital for any serious problems.

refugees arrive at the border clinic courtesy of jon geller.jpg
Courtesy of Dr. Jon Geller
Ukrainian refugees arrive at the vet clinic set up at Isaccea, Romania

Let me ask you about the people you encountered when they arrived at your clinic. What kind of shape were they in?

Outwardly, they appeared fairly stoic. Then, when we'd start talking to them, some of them would really express their dismay at what was happening, and break down a little bit. Physically, though, they seemed okay. And remember, this is all, almost, women and children and some older men because anyone between 18 and 60 — any man — was required to stay in Ukraine unless they had an exemption. And it was amazing, watching all of the baggage and little kids that they were hauling, in addition to their pets. I’d say mostly it was Ukrainian women, and these women are really tough because — the weather, when I first got there was brutal. Cold wind was blowing across from Ukraine, but they were unperturbed and they really wanted to make sure their pets got taken care of.

How did you communicate with people while you were there? I'm assuming that you don't speak Ukrainian...

No, that was actually kind of a funny situation, because none of the Romanians that I was working with spoke any Ukrainian, and none of the Ukrainians spoke any Romanian; but they both spoke a little bit of choppy English. So, I ended up being almost like a translator, even though I spoke neither language. Luckily, they did have some translators at this border crossing site, and I had some vet students from Serbia helping me with the pets, and most of them speak three or four languages. They were great at translating.

woman with pet and passports courtesy of jon geller.jpg
Courtesy of Dr. Jon Geller
A Ukrainian woman holds her dog and pet passport

What was the atmosphere like at the tent clinic?

It was amazingly positive. These folks would come over in these ferry boats — and so there'd be a wave of folks; we’d take care of their pets, they'd be getting fed and everything. And then we'd just kind of, you know, hang out and celebrate and have fun. There was a little Greek restaurant that set up and, you know, we'd do some music and Greek dances and things like that. It was just so much fun getting to know everybody at the border. I was pretty much the only American that was there for any length of time, and I felt humbled to be around folks from all over the world.

Did you worry about your safety at any time?

My family was worried about me going over there, but where I went was not really a war zone. And as you know, if you follow the news, the Russians are really trying to limit their efforts to Ukraine and not do anything in a NATO or European Union country, which could trigger a whole other level. So, because we were on the Romanian side of the river, although we were pretty close to Ukraine, I never felt I never felt any concern regarding my safety while I was there.

When did you come back?

I just came back this past weekend, so I'm still kind of unpacking everything in my mind and really looking back on what happened. But mainly, wanting to make sure that I set the stage for ongoing care, because that was part of our commitment. The deal I made with those guys was, hey, we'll set up a vet station, and The Street Dog Coalition is going to keep it going in terms of volunteers and supplies. So that's what I'm working on now.

Do you intend to go back to Ukraine, or the border?

Well, I'd really like to because it was an amazing experience, but it really depends on what's happening with the war. If southwest Ukraine comes under pressure and more people start crossing, you know we could be overwhelmed with numbers of pets. [If that happens] I'll be over there in a couple of days. So that's what it depends on.

Do you know anything about the pets that were not able to be brought out, and had to be left behind?

You know, unfortunately, because of travel restrictions on buses and trains, larger dogs, medium-larger dogs often did have to be left behind. So now there's an effort by animal rescue organizations to round up these pets and bring them to a shelter across the border. And this was what had been going on in Poland quite a bit and also in Romania. I just found out in the last two days that they're not allowing these rescued pets across the border unless they've been in Ukraine for at least 21 days after getting a rabies shot, which is how long it takes medically for rabies shots to be effective. These are both countries with some pretty significant rabies incidents. So right now, there's a big dilemma there, that the dogs can't leave Ukraine. We even talked about sending teams into Ukraine to do the vaccinations and microchipping — everything that needed to be done to get them out of there. But that would be a very different kind of project.

I’d think safety concerns would be a little bit different and a bit heightened in that kind of situation.

They definitely would be. And some animal rescue folks have already had some problems with that. But unfortunately, that's what it's shaping up to look like.

I'd like to ask more about your work with the Street Dog Coalition, the nonprofit organization you founded.

jon.jpg
Courtesy of the Street Dog Coalition
Dr. Jon Geller founded the nonprofit Street Dog Coalition.

Our mission is pretty straightforward. We provide free veterinary care to pets of folks who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness. And even though we have a heavy focus in northern Colorado, we have volunteer veterinary teams in close to 50 U.S. cities that do free clinics on a semi-regular basis for these folks.

Sounds like you're used to working in a kind of nontraditional clinic setting. Did that help you in Ukraine?

Oh, absolutely. Yeah, we were kind of made to do this work. You know, we call it street medicine. And human physicians do some of that, too, where we just set up clinics, mobile clinics, wherever the people are. We bring the medicine to the people to make it convenient. We also work with minimal resources to see how much veterinary care we can provide without X-ray machines and lab equipment and all that. And then the group of people we were working with [in Ukraine] had similar circumstances. They were homeless, they were transient. They didn't have home addresses. And so, we were set up to do this, and so far it's been pretty effective.

How does it feel, knowing that you have been able to make that kind of difference for people and their pets, both here and abroad?

Well, the best thing really is getting other people involved. We have a lot of, for example, veterinary students that are starting to do this kind of work. There is more to veterinary medicine, you know, I tell my colleagues, than going to work at your hospital, seeing pets, getting paid and going home. It's like, this is how we engage with the world outside of the walls of our hospital. And so that's resonating with lots of veterinarians, but also other folks. And we call it One Health -- where we're getting medical providers, mental health providers, dentists, et cetera, to join forces to do these One Health clinics. And to some degree, that's what's happening at the Ukraine border.

Because you're not just caring for the animals, you also talk to the owners, the people...

Yeah, we talk about working on both ends of the leash. And we've kind of shifted more and more toward the pet owner side, because the pets are pretty straightforward to take care of. And the pet owners that are experiencing homelessness and are unsheltered and the Ukraine refugees have a lot of things going on, that we can at least be good listeners to them and help provide resources for them as well with their problems and issues.

pets in a stroller at Ukrainian border courtesy of dr jon geller.jpg
Courtesy of Dr. Jon Geller

I know people hearing (or reading) this will want to help in some way. What's the best way to do that? 

People have been amazingly generous so far and we really appreciate it. And we've been funneling some of the donations we've gotten back into the border, to some other smaller nonprofits that are, for example, sheltering some of the pets. The Street Dog Coalition.org is our website, and people can tag their donations as Operation Ukraine; and they will be used directly on the border. Everybody's a volunteer that's working there, so it goes toward things like travel costs, medical supplies and other medical equipment.

How has this experience changed you, or the way you think about what you're doing?

Well, it really did change me, because I realize this international groundswell of support for the Ukrainians has had a unifying effect on the world. Because I saw volunteers from all over the world, it was almost like a little Olympic Village that was set up at this border station. There wasn't a real town there. And it's overshadowed some of the negativity of COVID and some of the controversy and divisiveness that I've been used to dealing with, especially regarding, for example, the homeless populations we work with here in the U.S.. None of that came into question there. Everybody was there to help them. And to see that kind of outpouring of love was pretty amazing, and gave me a lot of hope for the future.

Colorado Edition is hosted and produced by Erin O'Toole (@ErinOtoole1). Web was edited by digital operations manager Ashley Jefcoat. The mission of Colorado Edition is to deepen understanding of life in Northern Colorado through authentic conversation and storytelling. It's available as a podcast on iTunesSpotifyGoogle PlayStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Colorado Edition is made possible with support from our KUNC members. Thank you!

Our theme music was composed by Colorado musicians Briana Harris and Johnny Burroughs. Other music in the show by Blue Dot Sessions.

As host of KUNC's Colorado Edition, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. And because life is best when it's a balance of work and play, I love finding stories that highlight culture, music, the outdoors, and anything that makes Colorado such a great place to live.
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