There once was a farmer with 10 sheep, a beekeeper with 41 hives (and a turtle) and a cook with 62 pheasants and peacocks. And they all lived peacefully in the fields and meadows of a place called the Donbas.
But then Russian invaders came from the north and east, and rockets rained down around them, and the farmer, beekeeper and cook prepared to leave their homes, joining millions of other Ukrainians in an exodus that has become the largest migrant crisis in Europe since World War II.
With their owners getting ready to go, where could the sheep, the bees (and the turtle), the pheasants and the peacocks go?
The answer was the Green Grove, a farm and fromagerie in a bucolic corner of the Ukrainian countryside that has become an unexpected sanctuary for an ever-expanding stable of animals displaced by the war — and for some of the humans who couldn't bear to part with them.
With the conflict in Ukraine in its fourth month and the Russian army piercing deeper into the country’s east, residents have seen their lives upended and their homes obliterated in the torturous artillery duels raging over the towns and villages of the Donbas.
But the exigencies of the war have also forced many to leave their animals behind. In the open farmlands of the east, that means less the cats, dogs and other pets abandoned in beleaguered major cities such as Kyiv and more the not-so-easily-transported work animals that represent livelihoods if not companionship.
After coming to Dnipro, the central Ukrainian city that has become the main waypoint for those fleeing the east, people with animals often find their savior in Evgenia Molchanova, 31, the indefatigable woman who owns and runs the Green Grove with her husband, Anatoliy Pilipenko.
“When the war began, we felt we have to do this, because there weren’t any shelters that would take these animals without paying,” said Molchanova, in white jeans, a T-shirt and a Green Grove cap.
“What money can you take from people who have no house? We decided to take them in for free.”
That decision turned Molchanova and Pilipenko’s 14-month-old farm into a Hotel Rwanda of sorts for animals. Aside from the aforementioned guests, the roster now includes dozens of sheep, goats, cows, pigs, horses, geese, African hens and other kinds of fowl, rabbits, dogs, cats and a pair of emus, with every week bringing new additions.
Of course, that raises questions of management and administration. Can you keep the baby rabbits around the dogs? Where should you put the exotic birds from the Askania-Nova reserve, brought all the way from Russian-occupied Kherson in the south? Is there room for the 18 horses coming soon from Severodonetsk? And where are you going to put all the sheep?
“In March, one man brought us a crocodile. I told him I wouldn’t know what to do with it, so he asked if we had a Jacuzzi,” Molchanova said with a tired smile. They ended up sending the reptile to a zoo in western Ukraine.
Like millions of humans in Ukraine, the animals at the Green Grove bore the wounds, both physical and psychological, of war.
There was DiShiKa, a black poodle whose back had a pair of angry-looking scars cutting through the fur. Her original owner in Donetsk province was gone; some soldiers had taken her in, renamed her after the DShK heavy machine gun and let her sleep in one of their tents when Russian bombs fell on their position. A fire in the tent burned DiShiKa, leaving the marks on her back.
Other scars aren't so visible. Some of the horses, Molchanova said, would buckle to the ground from stress whenever they heard the rumble of a plane overhead.
“When they came here, the horse carriage had broken windows — war damage,” she said.
A constant presence around Molchanova was Fiesta, a golden retriever whose owners had escaped in March to Germany from the northeastern city of Kharkiv, a frequent target of Russian bombardment. They had left Fiesta with friends in Dnipro, who turned in desperation to Facebook to find a home for her. Molchanova reached out and offered her a place at the Green Grove.
“In the beginning she needed shots to calm her down. She would hear loud noises and just faint,” Molchanova said. She seemed happy now, so long as she didn't leave Molchanova's side.
Some of her fellow villagers have enlisted in the effort to help the new arrivals cope.
“Our neighbors here are perfect. They’ve taken dogs, cats and rabbits as pets for a few weeks, just giving them love before returning them here,” she said, looking down at Fiesta.
“It’s the best rehabilitation, love is.”
Molchanova and Pilipenko seem unlikely Dr. Dolittles. As a teenager, Molchanova had worked at her father’s car dealership in Dnipro before she decided to join a university student-exchange program that took her to Anchorage. There she learned cheesemaking, and returned to apprentice at various cheese factories across Europe.
In 2014, after protests in Kyiv, the capital, toppled Ukraine’s then-Moscow-friendly president, Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists who fought for control of the Donbas. After taking part in the demonstrations, Molchanova volunteered to go to the front line, going first to a military hospital in Dnipro for training.
That’s where she met Pilipenko, a 51-year-old veteran who had fought in Afghanistan and other countries with the much-vaunted Soviet Airborne. He was tasked with teaching new recruits.
“After two weeks we were living together. And that's all,” Molchanova said.
When a shaky cease-fire came into force in 2016, they decamped for the Czech Republic, where Pilipenko had a dried-fruit import business. A year before the pandemic began, they decided to buy a plot of land in Dnipro’s countryside. When the coronavirus lockdowns began, they returned to their homeland.
“Business was good in the Czech Republic, but my heart is always here in Ukraine. There's no better place for me. That's how I feel. And my husband felt the same way,” Molchanova said. “Our dream was to have a good view, nice coffee … something that would inspire us to wake up early in the morning.”
By March of last year, they opened the Green Grove, a place for Molchanova to make and sell cheese, with a coffee shop and a petting zoo for a few sheep and goats they needed for milk. They named the establishment after the village — Zelenyi Hai, in Ukrainian.
Since then, the new arrivals brought by war have forced a rapid expansion even as visitors still come to enjoy the animals — which Molchanova thinks is more important than ever before.
“Before, we did tours for money, but now it's free for all people. We’re open for all who want to come here and be with animals,” she said, adding that more than 1,000 children had visited since the war began. “It's helpful for us, helpful for the animals too.”
Beyond the animals, the Green Grove has also become home for some of the people escaping the Donbas, which is now the focus of Russia’s offensive. Living in the house of Molchanova’s grandmother is a family from Lysychansk, one of the last areas of Luhansk province in Ukrainian hands.
“He came with five dogs and two cats. They were all terrified,” she said.
Beauty salon worker Anya Savchenka, 32, fled with her family from the town of Soledar, 140 miles east of Dnipro, in April. She, her parents, husband, daughter and nephews are all now involved in the farm’s upkeep.
Savchenka’s father and husband were busy behind a barn repairing an ancient-looking push tractor. To the side, her nephews mashed up Egyptian pumpkins for the pigs while her daughter, 3-year-old Yesenia, toddled up to the sheep pen under the eye of Savchenka’s mother.
“My house was still intact when I left, but it was just getting too dangerous. So we came here, since there’s still a way to go west if we need,” Savchenka said, squatting to put some food in a cage with some baby rabbits.
It was a “big change” for Savchenka, but she seemed to enjoy it — she now has plans to open a salon for pets.
“A proper beauty salon, with manicures and hair-styling,” she said, smiling.
With its verdant pastures, clear skies and the steady chorus of sheep and goats, the Green Grove can seem to occupy a different dimension compared with much of the rest of the war-torn country.
But the conflict can still intrude. Last month, Ukrainian air defenses shot down a Russian cruise missile, which rained fragments near the Green Grove. Moments like these make Pilipenko, who showed a scrapbook with pictures of himself as a soldier, want to join the fight.
Molchanova insists that she needs him to stay with her and their two daughters, Ivanka, 7, and Olyana, 2.
“I can’t do this on my own,” she said.
Coffee in hand, she stood on the porch of the Green Grove’s store and gazed out at one of the enclosures where a chestnut-brown horse trotted to the fence’s edge. And the bees buzzed in their hives, and the peacocks strutted about, and the sheep grazed placidly in the fields.
What would be her “happily ever after"?
“In the future, I don't want the animals to have chains or enclosures. They should be free. I think this place will be like a reserve,” she said, pausing for a beat to take the scene in.
“I like my dream.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.