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Orsk during flooding

‘If we didn’t take them, they’d die’ A dam breach in Russia’s south forced thousands to flee their flooded homes. Volunteers describe trying to save the animals left behind.

Source: Meduza
Orsk during flooding
Orsk during flooding
Anatoly Zhdanov / Kommersant / AP / Scanpix / LETA

In early April, extreme seasonal flooding caused a dam in Russia’s Orenburg region to collapse in two places. According to the latest data, more than 10,000 houses are in the flood zone, and around 6,500 people had to be evacuated. As people fled their homes, many left pets behind. The independent journalists’ cooperative Bereg spoke with volunteers who are rescuing the animals left tied to kennels, trapped in enclosures, or locked in houses. With permission, Meduza shares an English translation.



Our Orenburg region is essentially steppe. We have the Ural River, which has been gradually drying up for several decades now. In some spots, you could walk across it without getting your underwear wet. Where the Ural River overflowed, where the water rose — we used to walk there. Orenburg residents never imagined that they’d face this kind of flooding! The last time it flooded like this was in 1994.

My friend Viktor, who’s going around in a boat with me rescuing animals, has a dacha. On Saturday, he rang me up and said: “Let’s go take a look. There’s flooding there.” When we arrived, we launched the boat. We noticed the water was rising, [so we] moved belongings upstairs and did our best to save the car [by parking it on higher ground]. As we were making our way back through the gardeners’ cooperative, we heard abandoned dogs barking, saw cats, and we knew that if the water kept rising, these animals would be in trouble. The next day, we woke up to find the water had risen even more, and immediately we called each other: “Vik, are we going to help?” “We are.” So, we got ready and set off.

We’re using a regular boat; we’ve gone out three days in a row now. On the first day, Viktor borrowed a boat from a friend, but we had to give it back; they needed it too. We called all our friends with boats — one of them said he could sell his. We bought it, and that’s what we’re using now. It wasn’t expensive, considering the losses people are suffering now… 30,000 [rubles, about $300]. We bought it solely for the purpose of trying to help people out.

Initially, we planned to rescue people, but those in [the dachas] knew the water was coming, and those who wanted to had already evacuated themselves. The folks who stayed either have their own boats or have friends [who can come get them]. Although on Monday, as we were rowing through the water, a man called out to us: “Guys, guys! Can you take me to shore with you?” He said his friend brought him there, then left, and he couldn’t reach him. So, we gave him a lift.

The situation varies from place to place: some houses are flooded up to the second floor, in others, only half of the first floor is underwater, and in some areas, the water is knee-deep. We tried to take any living beings that needed help with us. But there are still many animals on plots of land that the water hasn’t reached yet. We didn’t take those dogs and cats: they’re on their own dacha plots, they’re not in any danger yet, and nothing is threatening them for now. If you take a cat from there, the owner might show up an hour or two later.

But the water is rising rapidly: places that were dry just yesterday are now flooded. So, as a precaution, we noted down all the plots with animals. But we only rescued those in life-threatening situations, where if we didn’t take them, they’d die.

We searched for animals based on owners’ requests. It takes an hour or two to get each animal: rowing to the location, finding the animal, and rowing it back to shore. For instance, we were told about two cats locked up [in a dacha]. We found one hiding behind some pillows [in the house]. It scratched us all over, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is we saved it. We found the second one too, but it was too late. It was floating in the water, dead.

You have to record everything on video. After all, we’re entering someone else’s property with an angle grinder and cutting off locks. Someone might mistake us for looters instead of rescuers. Almost all the locals who are still at their dachas take us for looters. They’re confrontational, immediately asking questions like: “What do you want? Why are you snooping around?” We have to explain that we have good intentions.

Fortunately, we reached out to the chairmen of these gardening cooperatives and the head of security and coordinated with them. So, when locals have questions, we direct them to these people.

Besides people like us, there really are individuals who take advantage of the situation and loot houses. Locals told us that [people dressed in emergency services] uniforms were going around the dachas and stealing. They’re impostors, not genuine rescuers — maybe they bought a uniform, or maybe they added the acronyms to work clothes themselves.

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Once the dam gave way, it was clear that lots of homes would be flooded. I have a motorboat, and I decided that I needed to head to the scene and help.

I posted on Instagram that I was heading out with a boat and within just 15 minutes, I was inundated with calls. I tried to manage everything with a cool head. I weeded out those who were just asking me to check on their house or take photos, and I prioritized requests [to rescue] people. And when I realized there weren’t many [of those], I started responding to calls to rescue animals too.

There were lots of calls — about a hundred a day. In the southern part of the city, where I was working on Sunday and Monday, I reckon there were over 30 [private] boats out. Some people were going to save their property, some were helping others.

Locals turn to volunteers because, for many, it’s their only option. They’re grateful to anyone they manage to reach, whoever responds to their request. The main focus of the Emergencies Situations Ministry is ensuring people’s safety. They’re inspecting houses, delivering humanitarian aid to the “island of safety” [what residents are calling the dry part of the city] on Sovetskaya Street, monitoring [neighborhoods and guarding them] against looters. Although sometimes I saw cats and dogs in the Emergency Situations Ministry boats, too.

The current was strong. It [wasn’t safe for] very small rowboats — they’d just be swept away into the fields. But I noticed people tying small inflatable boats to motorboats, loading them up with belongings, people, and animals, and towing them behind.

On Sunday morning, we rescued a couple from their roof in Forshtadt. That’s the place with the worst flooding [in Orsk]; it’s just 300 meters [about 330 yards] from the dam breach. They were camping in a tent on their roof, but the water had almost reached them already. We got them to dry land. After that, we shifted our focus to animals because [Emergency Situations Ministry workers] had begun rescuing people.

We couldn’t differentiate between pets and strays — we saved them all. They [sought refuge] on the rooftops and sheds, and drifted on logs that had been washed away from dacha plots. I found birds on top of sheds; I climbed up to get a dog, and there were also chickens. But catching them was impossible — they scattered. Geese and ducks were swimming peacefully, drinking water. For them, it was normal.

Many animals were impossible to reach because there were fences sticking out of the water. It wasn’t possible to jump over them from the boat, although I really wanted to. Some animals simply refused to be caught: they ran off or swam away.

Of course, there were times when someone gave us the address of a house with animals inside, but it was already submerged up to the roof, to the ceiling, and it was clear that the animals couldn’t be saved anymore. There also wasn’t any way to rescue large aggressive dogs; they resisted and bit at us.

I only rescued cats and dogs, but I saw a more powerful boat save a cow. The poor thing, they towed her by the horns for about 300 meters [about 1,000 feet] to the island of safety on Sovetskaya Street, but it seems they saved her, resuscitated her.

demanding compensation

‘Putin, help us!’ Protesters in southern Russia demand compensation after dam breach causes thousands of homes to flood

demanding compensation

‘Putin, help us!’ Protesters in southern Russia demand compensation after dam breach causes thousands of homes to flood



In Orenburg, there’s a strong community of volunteers dedicated to helping stray animals. I’m part of the DobroDom group. On April 6, we heard that the Orenburg Strays shelter outside the city was flooding. We immediately started rallying people and searching for boats and cars. We coordinated who would help get there and who we’d pick up along the way. It was very difficult to find boats, so we started posting requests on Orenburg social media pages, asking followers to help in any way they could. In the end, some young men from [the internet provider] Ufanet helped with boats. There were also some guys from private houses [who offered theirs].

It had already started to get dark while we were getting ready, and the roads were flooded. We couldn’t get near the shelter by car, so we had to walk another five to ten minutes along the railway tracks, along the embankment, over rocks. [Once we were as close as we could get to the building], we waited for the dogs to be brought to us on boats. They brought them one or two at a time, and then the volunteers took them ashore.

There were a lot of dogs: about 60. They were all frightened and wet, and so naturally, they were acting aggressively. We had very few leashes and collars so we had to tie their mouths shut with rags or whatever else we could find so they wouldn’t bite anyone. The dogs there are all big and very heavy. It took three of us women to haul one dog from the boat to the car.

Given how much each dog weighed, it took about 30 minutes just to get one to the car. In general, it took about an hour per dog — from rowing the boat there, loading the dog into the boat, rowing the boat back, handing the dog over, and then hauling it to the car. Toward the end, we enlisted the help of someone who could shoot tranquilizer darts at aggressive dogs that were difficult to catch. This ensured they wouldn’t run around the enclosures and, well, it’s easier to transport a sedated dog. We worked there until 2:00 a.m. [on Sunday]. Some dogs managed to break free and flee, but there was nowhere to run [because of the water], so they stayed nearby. About six dogs escaped, but by Monday they should have been caught.

The next day, April 7, we headed to the Husky Kennel, which is also near Orenburg on the banks of the Sakmara River. We rescued 43 dogs from there. We posted a call in the group the day before, saying that we were going there at 11:00 a.m., and all the [volunteers] began to gather. People already knew what to do: everyone brought leashes, collars, and blankets (because the dogs are wet). The Huskies were easier to rescue since they’re calmer and more friendly. Although one dog did bite a volunteer.

All the animals we rescued made it. Maybe they’re not all healthy, but they’re all alive. The Huskies were taken to private homes and apartments — either one dog or in pairs. I got the addresses and took the animals by car. Recently, an employee of the Federal Penitentiary Service offered us a kennel [for service dogs], where we could house the rescued animals, and we also took them there.

As for the other dogs, we put them in the Filimosha shelter. They gave us a large building in Orenburg that isn’t affected by the flooding. However, the building is cold and unheated. We’re taking food, bowls, water, bedding, and straw there so that the dogs lying on the concrete floor don’t get any sicker.

Currently, the shelter is overcrowded: there are about 200 dogs there, and animals [from flooded areas] are still being rescued. That’s why we’re looking for people who can foster these animals in their homes. For example, people are writing in groups: “I can take in one or two dogs” or “I can take a cat.” You search through dozens of groups on all the social networks, make calls, pick the animal up by boat, and then take it [to a foster home]. You take a dog that you can definitely handle by yourself, no more than one in a car, so it sits quietly and doesn’t have anyone to fight with.

Volunteers are posting requests for help in local groups, and people are responding. Surprisingly, some people were previously unaware that there were these animal assistance groups, or even called us “zoo-zealots.” But now they’re coming to us, saying: “Please help, our pet dog [is tied up where it’s flooded], save it!” Now, we’re needed.

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