‘We had too much to do to be scared’: the couple who fled Irpin with 19 dogs

The image of a windswept young woman holding tight to the leads of nine dogs under an ominously dark sky spread far and wide at the time of the Battle of Kyiv.

The apparent bravery of the woman, who was attempting an audacious evacuation across a broken bridge targeted by Russian fire, and the vulnerability of the animals, some of whom were strapped into dog wheelchairs, epitomised to many the cruelty of the war being waged by Vladimir Putin and the dignity of the Ukrainian response.

The full story of the trials of Anastasiya Tykha, 20, a veterinary student in the final year of her degree, and her husband Arthur Lee, 26, is perhaps even more striking than the photograph, which the couple discovered had gone viral when Tykha saw herself on the television news and listened to the presenter report that she was dead.

Anastasiya Tykha and her dogs attempting to travel from Irpin to Kyiv under Russian fire in March.
Anastasiya Tykha and some of her dogs attempting to travel from Irpin to Kyiv under Russian fire in March. Photograph: Handout

Speaking in Irpin, the town 13 miles north of Kyiv from where the couple had fled on 9 March, Tykha said they ended up making seven crossings of the bridge in total, each one under fire.

“We had too much to do to be worried or scared”, said Tykha, who has run an animal shelter in Irpin for four years, and who on that first journey was seeking to escape with 19 dogs, five cats, a turtle, a chameleon, two Triton lizards, an axolotl and a hamster.

It was not an easy decision to flee, but the Russians had wrestled control of the town, there was no electricity or running water and the dogs were having to drink from the shelter’s aquarium.

It was Snizhana Bugryk, 35, a friend who was involved in finding abandoned and disabled animals for Tykha and Lee’s shelter, who persuaded the couple that they had no choice but to leave.

“Snizhana said we had to go or we would be killed, that this was our last chance for us and the animals to survive,” said Tykha. “And she was right”, added Lee. “Our house was later in the heart of the heavy fighting.”

It was a two-mile walk to the bridge where Ukrainian soldiers were helping people across.

Aerial view of Irpin, destroyed by Russian bombs
An aerial view of the town of Irpin, 13 miles north of Kyiv, which has suffered heavy Russian bombardment. Photograph: Google Earth

Two of the dogs – Strong and Baileys, mongrel border collies with broken spines – were in wheelchairs, while Life, a four-year-old with amputated legs, had refused to be strapped in and was dragging herself on her stumps. “I did think at one point that we would not make it,” said Lee, “but Snizhana called and said there would be a minibus on the other side to help”.

It took three hours to get to the bridge. One dog, Pandora, a one-and-a-half-year-old mongrel Belgian shepherd, was so terrified that he bit off part of his tongue, while four of the others, including the couple’s own dog, Zeus, a beagle, became so worked up by the sounds of war they chewed through their leads and ran away.

Arriving exhausted at the Ukrainian checkpoint by the bridge, the couple and their animals drew the attention of press photographers, who crowded around them.

“That was when that photo was taken – I just wanted them to let us get through to the bridge,” said Tykha. “I was worried because there were burned out cars and lots of smashed glass and metal, and I didn’t want the animals to be cut up.”

A group of Ukrainian soldiers came to their aid, ushering the photographers away. “There were explosions and shooting but after two weeks of Russian occupation, we were used to it,” Lee said.

The couple found the minivan and it took them to a south-western district of Kyiv, where a sauna on the side of a house had been made available to them and their animals to stay in.

It was the next day that the couple discovered that their adventures were being talked about across Ukraine, and that Tykha was presumed dead.

They were determined to go back to find Zeus and the other dogs who had fled in fear.

“We were in the sauna for five days, but every one of those days Anastasiya went to the Ukrainian military checkpoint and demanded that she be allowed through to get the escaped dogs,” said Lee. Every day the commander at the checkpoint refused, and every day she came back. He was finally browbeaten into submission.

Anastasiya Tikha with one of her dogs in her garden.
Anastasiya and Arthur have returned to Irpin, where they now care for 30 dogs and 10 cats. Photograph: The Guardian

After crossing the bridge, again under fire, they faced a three-mile walk to a an abandoned animal shelter, where they knew there were hungry dogs who needed help.

“It was a hard walk because we had all this heavy food,” said Lee. They returned to their own home, where they found Zeus, and picked up some neighbours’ dogs, including a German shepherd, bringing their party of animals for the return to five.

They would make two further trips, and all the dogs that fled on the first escape were accounted for.

Lee said their final trip back to Irpin, on 29 March, was the scariest. “The council had said that the Russians had gone the previous day and that it was safe – but it wasn’t,” Lee said. “The bombs were landing just 2 metres from us. We hid between the minivan and a fence, but it was close.”

Now they are back in Irpin in a new, rented house. Because so many former residents have left, their collection of sheltered animals has grown to 30 dogs and 10 cats. They are, the couple say, just happy to be living the life they love.