One American left safety behind to care for abandoned animals in Ukraine

It's been over a month since Russia invaded Ukraine, and more and more Americans are volunteering to help with ongoing war and humanitarian efforts. One Maryland man has joined them, caring for abandoned and orphaned animals in a shelter in Lviv. Jeff Praul, 28, was waiting tables at a restaurant in the eastern shore of Maryland when the first Russian bombs fell on Ukraine . Three days later, he was on a plane to Warsaw, Poland, determined to help Ukrainians any way he could. "When Russia invaded Ukraine, that entire day my heart just felt heavy," Praul told TODAY Parents via Zoom. "I was just feeling like there was nothing I could do. It was weighing on me a few days, and then I saw a clip of (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy saying, 'Friends of Ukraine, if you want to come and help, help.' That flipped the switch in my mind and I realized there was a way for me to get over here."

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Jeff Praul, pictured at an animal shelter in Lviv, Ukraine, caring for abandoned or orphaned animals.Jeff Praul, pictured at an animal shelter in Lviv, Ukraine, caring for abandoned or orphaned animals.Courtesy Jeff Praul
One of three children, Praul said his family is supportive but not exactly thrilled about his decision to travel overseas.

"There was a lot of crying, especially from my mom, aunt, and sister," he explained. "Even my dad — when we said goodbye, he had a hard time looking at me. He told me he was proud of me and I saw tears, and I can't remember the last time I've seen my dad tear up like that."

"They're really sad, because you don't know if that's the last time you're seeing them in person," he added. "And I acknowledged that potential reality. But they also understood — they know where my heart is and they know where my intentions are. So they didn't want me to go — they still message me every day saying, 'OK, it's time to come home now' — but they know who I am."

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Every day, Jeff Praul takes many of the dogs in the animal shelter for a walk, working to build trust and give the animals a feeling of normalcy.Every day, Jeff Praul takes many of the dogs in the animal shelter for a walk, working to build trust and give the animals a feeling of normalcy.Courtesy Jeff Praul
Praul's family has good reason to worry — when he first arrived in Ukraine, he went to Yavoriv Military Training Base located 25 miles from the Polish border, searching for ways to help. After refusing to sign paperwork that would require him to pick up a gun and potentially kill Russian soldiers, he left the base. Days later, Russian forces launched more than 30 missiles at the base, killing 35 people and wounding 135 more. "When I found out it was the base I was at, I was just thinking about the faces that I saw just a few days before," he said. "I was thinking about the guy from the Netherlands that I traveled with and have yet to hear from. So it's weird when you have those kind faces in your mind, not knowing if they were the people who didn't make it or were injured."

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Narrowly avoiding an attack, Praul made his way to Lviv, where he found Домiвка Врятованих Тварин, loosely translated to "Home of Rescued Animals," an animal shelter working to care for both wild and domesticated animals who have been abandoned, orphaned or displaced as a result of the war.

"They have all the dogs that just come from all over the place — there are some days where they just get a huge number of animals just dumped on them, and that's when it's really loud," Praul explained. "The dogs that I've been working with almost every day now don't really like that — it's too noisy for them. So it's harder to build those bonds of trust."

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Jeff Praul pictured with one of the animals he cares for in the shelter.Jeff Praul pictured with one of the animals he cares for in the shelter.Courtesy Jeff Praul
There can be as many as three dozen animals at the shelter, though the number varies significantly as more dogs are adopted to families both in Western Ukraine and those living in neighboring countries."There's a partner organization from Germany who takes them up to Poland. They stay there during a quarantine period, and then they bring them to Germany to get adopted, which is awesome," Praul explained. "Two days ago we had 30 dogs. Yesterday I want to say around 10. Today, around six. So the dogs are getting adopted on the spot, which is awesome."

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The dogs are a mix of strays and pets who have been left behind by families fleeing the country, Praul said. When he walks the dogs, he can immediately tell if the animal has been domesticated or not. Some of the dogs seem oblivious to the war — their tails never stop wagging and they never stop wanting to play. Others, however, have clearly been traumatized by violence.

"The dog I have the biggest attachment to right now, she can't go out because she doesn't trust anyone," he added. "Animals don't have a choice in any of this — it's human drama and the animals don't have any say. It's really upsetting. One woman came with two dogs who were just left at a train station tied to one of the poles, and they just had two pieces of paper with their names and ages on them."

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One of Jeff Praul's many furry friends at the animal shelter in Lviv, Ukraine.One of Jeff Praul's many furry friends at the animal shelter in Lviv, Ukraine.Courtesy Jeff Praul
While Lviv is safer than other areas of Ukraine, it is not immune to Russian attacks. On Saturday, plumes of smoke blanketed the sky over Lviv after a series of explosions battered the city. Praul was walking some dogs when the explosions occurred, far enough away to remain unharmed.

In that moment, the dogs Praul has been caring for unknowingly cared for him, too.

"Some of the dogs got a little riled up for a bit, but two, three minutes after the hits I go back to the dogs and it's just a loud noise to them," he explained. "Their tails were wagging — they just wanted to get taken out and just wanted some love. It was calming, in a way. I had a view of the attacks, but those dogs are just trying to enjoy their day still. They're still trying to live."

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Praul says back at home, the bills are piling up — he knows he will have to go back home soon after spending a month in Ukraine. And while he is excited to get back to his family and his own beloved pup, a part of him will remain in Ukraine.

"I'm going to try to extend my stay as long as I can," he said. "But I already have a feeling that the day I leave I'm going to be feeling like I should be back here."

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