The moment Stanislav Kapralov, a Ukrainian filmmaker, discovered his country was at war still lays heavy on his heart. It was February of 2022, and Kapralov, 34, of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, was on vacation with his family near the Polish border when he got a call from his mother: Putin had invaded, his parents fled, and amid the chaos and shelling, his family dog, Nika, ran away.
Kapralov, an animal lover, especially regarding his childhood dog, told his wife and child to flee to Poland, but he would return to Kyiv to find Nika and document the war.
"It looked like something out of an apocalyptic movie," Kapralov said. "Everywhere was blocked by the military. But I felt like I had to do something to help Ukraine, so I grabbed my camera and filmed everything I saw."
As he searched for his dog and filmed his surroundings—which included bombing, fighting, and horror—Kapralov discovered something remarkable: selfless people risking their lives and not escaping but staying behind to help injured, abandoned, and impacted animals, including pets and creatures in the wild.
"I knew I had to document this because animals are not always our first thoughts during war and disasters, but they are the most innocent and ignored victims," Kapralov explained.
This began the creation of Kapralov's first documentary film, Searching for Nika. The film puts Kapralov front and center as he works to find his dog while assisting compassionate and self-sacrificing volunteers as they risk everything to save suffering animals in zoos, farms, and around the country. In the film, Kapralov even helps to protect a blind lion and evacuate animals amidst bombings.
Kapralov said, for the first few weeks, he felt tremendous fear as it was challenging to navigate a war zone. He lived in a friend's makeshift underground shelter in Kyiv with 19 other people. But he said he eventually grew more comfortable—to the point where he could differentiate between the sounds of Russian and Ukrainian rockets.
But that didn't always keep him safe.
One time, Kapralov said he crossed over a minefield without realizing it. Only after he was on the other side filming at a particular angle, he saw the thin thread he somehow missed that would have set off explosives. Kapralov was also seriously injured during filming and spent a month recovering. But you will have to see the movie for details on what happened here ...
Searching for Nika is full of heartbreaking and distressing images of animals, which will be hard to watch, especially for animal lovers. Kapralov explained that because of this, he tried to choose shots for the film carefully in order to keep people watching while sharing the brutality and reality on the ground.
"You have to watch it, you have to see what's going on," Kapralov said. "It's hard, but it's important."
Kapralov's work has been supported by Olena Zelensa, Ukraine's first lady and President Volodymyr Zelensky's spouse. She told YahooNews:
"This film provides a notably unique and highly personal perspective of what Ukraine and Ukrainians are enduring in the midst of the ongoing Russian onslaught. Ukraine is not just one land or people, but an entire cultural identity—a cultural identity that includes our art, our language, our hopes, our dreams, and yes, even our beloved animals. This is an important film for everyone around the world to see, even though it is uncomfortable. The whole world must witness the extent of the malicious hostility being carried out within our borders."
Like in Ukraine, selfless humans in Israel also jumped into the fray after the invasion of the country on October 7th by the radical Islamic Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Avihu Sherwood, the founder of For The Wildlife, a nonprofit that typically focuses on saving and rehabilitating wild animals in Israel, took action after the massacre, rescuing all animals—including pets caught in the crossfire.
Four days after the war broke out, the army allowed Sherwood and his team to enter the kibbutzim (communal living spaces unique to Israel) that had been attacked. For weeks, they went from house to house and found injured dogs and cats and animals aimlessly walking around after Hamas militants had mercilessly killed their humans or taken them hostage. They saved every animal they found alive, including goldfish, parrots, and chickens. They also helped rehome animals at petting zoos on some of the kibbutzim.
"The terrorists left mines inside the houses," Sherwood said. "You have to understand how it works. We were there when it was full of dead bodies, and they put bombs and grenades on dead bodies, so if you try to take the dead bodies, it will blow up.
"So it took a lot of time to move between houses. SWAT had to go in before us to clean the houses from the bombs, and only then we could go inside. Even when we saw a dog inside the house, we couldn't go in until they cleared it of bombs."
Sherwood and his team rescued thousands of animals, many of which had to be rehomed.
Currently, they are working to get lions, tigers, and a bear out of a zoo in Gaza, too.
While no one filmed Sherwood and his team's efforts, photos and videos can be seen on their Instagram.
Meanwhile, Kapralov's film has been making the festival rounds, with screenings expected in New York City and Los Angeles.
Kapralov won't say if he found his dog Nika—he hopes his documentary will awaken the world to what's happening in Ukraine.
"This movie is not because of the glory for me; I am not a documentary guy. I work on fiction movies. This film is about humanity and helping my country," Kapralov said. "I need to speak, and I need people to see what Russian soldiers are doing, and the innocent animals suffering ... and make the world understand what's going on. This war is not about land, but about the existence of our culture, language, and country."
Watch the Searching for Nika trailer here.