This Town in Ukraine Is Deserted, Except for the Man With a Pet Panther and Leopard

“I can’t live without them, and they can’t live without me either.”

Mar 9 2022, 6:57am

In the last two weeks, 40-year-old Girikumar Patil has settled into a new routine in the southeastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. Every morning at 8AM, when the curfew is lifted in his small town of Severodonetsk, he treks to neighbouring towns to buy five kilos of meat. 

When he gets back, he settles down in his bunker with his two “kids” Yasha and Sabrina until the next morning, when he makes yet another trip to buy five kilos of meat. 

As Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, Patil’s own town has now been completely deserted. He’s the only one left behind.

In Donbas, which borders Russia, Russian soldiers were stationed even before the invasion, and Ukrainian forces have been clashing here with Russia-backed separatists since 2014, claiming over 14,000 lives. But after the invasion, Patil’s neighbours packed up and left.

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“I will not leave without my kids,” Patil, an orthopaedic doctor, told VICE World News in a video interview as one of his “kids” paced in the background. Yasha is a 20-month-old mix of a male amur leopard and a female black jaguar, and Sabrina is a six-month-old black panther. Their trio has been braving the crisis all by themselves. 

Girikumar Patil, the 40-year-old doctor currently in Ukraine, said he's always dreamed of owning big cats ever since he was a kid. Photo: Girikumar Patil

“The situation is very dangerous. We’re surrounded by Russians, and the security is getting worse. But I will be with them until my last breath,” he said.  

Patil is originally from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, and came to Ukraine 15 years ago to get his medical degree. With over 1.45 million people having fled the country of 44 million people since the invasion started on Feb. 24, Patil is among the few choosing to stay back in Ukraine. As a foreign national, Patil is not required to stay on in the country and join the Ukrainian Ground Forces like local men. Hundreds of South Asians and other foreigners have fled the country in the last two weeks. 

Amid the exodus, many people in Ukraine have been taking extraordinary measures to rescue pets and animals. Many refused to leave until their pets could come with them, too. 

Even before the crisis, Patil has been documenting his life on his four YouTube channels, one of which has over 16 million views. Through these, he gives daily updates on his suddenly solitary life with his big cats. Ukrainian law allows keeping wild animals as pets as long as owners secure a government permit.


On his meat run on Monday, Patil said he was stopped by some soldiers. “They put guns to my chest and asked me to verify my identity. I was lucky to have come back home,” he said. “I’m not sure who they were, but most probably they were Russians.”

Patil has loved animals since childhood, and he used to own many dogs and cats. “In Andhra Pradesh [India], near my home, there’s a forest. As a kid, I would go there in search of big cats,” he said. “Once, someone told me that there’s a leopard or a tiger in a cave, and I went there looking for them. That’s how much I loved them.”

For now, Patil lives in his two-storey six-room house that has an enclosure of around 200 square metres. Yasha and Sabrina have one room each. When the curfew is lifted during the day, the three take a walk in the enclosure, while at other times, they visit a nearby forest where the animals run around and play. “I can’t live without them, and they can’t live without me,” he said. 

Keeping the two wild cats is not cheap. “I’m a doctor and I run four YouTube channels. Yet, I spend all my income on them,” he said. “I’ve sold my belongings, like my cars, just so these two are taken care of.”

During the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Patil said he waits for the curfew to lift and takes the two cats out for a walk in the enclosure as well as the nearby forest. Photo: Girikumar Patil

So far, Pati says nobody has asked him to leave. Over the weekend, he made appeals to the Indian government through various Indian news outlets to evacuate him – but only if he can bring the two animals with him. Indian law prohibits private ownership of big cats without a certificate of ownership, which have only been granted to zoos. He couldn’t leave the two in the forest either because he fears “hunters or poachers will hunt them down in a matter of hours.” The closest zoo from him right now is hundreds of miles away, so bringing Yasha and Sabrina there is out of the question, he added. 

“If the Indian government puts them in a zoo park, what’s the point of me going?” he said. “It’s impossible for me to be anywhere but here, and without them, I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.

Tagged:

Ukraine, India, Panther, big cat, leopard, south asia, Russian invasion, jaguar, dombas, wild animal, worldnews, world conflict

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