Humboldt State University alumnus Douglas Thron has dedicated the past few years of his life to rescuing animals strayed in the wake of natural disasters: The 2018 Camp Fire, Hurricane Dorian, the Australian bush fires, the 2021 Western Kentucky tornado. While Thron’s passion project has taken him to some hazardous locations, it’s hard to believe his latest mission: Three weeks in war-torn Ukraine, searching bombed-out buildings for lost pets that need a home.
The 52-year-old cinematographer, who uses a drone fitted with an infrared camera to locate and ultimately rescue stranded animals for his Curiosity Stream TV show “Doug to the Rescue,” arrived in Kyiv last week.
Thron has told the Outpost that he’s currently living in a hotel room about 10 minutes away from a heavily shelled town on the outskirts of Kyiv – an area he and fellow rescuer Ryan Okrant travel to daily to scour the wreckage for stray cats and dogs.
“We hear the [air raid] sirens go off every night, and that’s when the missiles are shot at Kyiv, ”Thron said. “Missiles hit some buildings about two miles away from our hotel a few days ago, but we were far enough away that we couldn’t hear it.”
Despite the ongoing war with Russia, Thron said entering Ukraine was easier than he imagined.
“It’s surprisingly easy to get in,” he said. “It took about three days, several flights and a bus to get here: Miami to London, London to Warsaw, then a 16-hour bus ride right into Kyiv.”
Once Thron and Okrant arrived in Kyiv, they were paired up with mandatory military security and a translator that they lucked into finding on their bus to Kyiv.
“To get the permits to fly in, we had to get permission from the government for military security that protects us,” Thron said. “We have two Ukrainian soldiers that travel with us continually. It gives you a certain level of comfort. We found our own translator. We were on the bus and some college guy who was applying to Stanford was sitting next to us. He spoke pretty good English and we asked him if he knew any translators. He told us about his friend who’s studying to be a lawyer. We figured a guy smart enough to be a lawyer would be a good translator. ”
With his team assembled, Thron said that he’s managed to rescue as many as 15 animals in the first week of the trip.
“We rescued a mom cat and kitten three nights ago, and had a feeling that there may be more kittens,” Thron said Wednesday. “We left an infrared trail cam set up over night. Upon reviewing the footage the following morning, we discovered three additional kittens living in the kitchen. ”
Leaving fresh food and water for the remaining cats, Thron and Okrant returned on Wednesday with the mother cat to capture the remaining kittens.
“We sat silent for nearly 15 minutes before we saw one kitten emerge from the kitchen, followed by another, and then the last,” he said. “We’ve now rescued an entire family of 4 kittens and their mother from the eighth floor of a bombed-out building.”
The rescued cats were deemed to be malnourished, but Thron said that they are in good health considering the circumstances.
“They had to have been in this apartment complex during the bombing and somehow survived,” he said. “The whole area was heavily bombed. The cats must have gotten scared and crawled in cabinets, behind the fridge or scurried underneath stuff. Half the complex was turned to ash and the other half is completely blown out. ”
Thron said that 15 rescued animals are already enough to consider the trip a success. But with two weeks left, he plans to save as many animals as possible and take in all the Ukrainian culture he can.
“Most of our friends think we’re batshit nuts,” he said. “Kyiv is an unbelievably beautiful city. I don’t know if it’s the TV news that makes it look dreary, but it’s got these really colorful buildings and magnificent, giant cathedrals. It reminds me a lot of Humboldt, with its rolling hills, mountains, trees and a big beautiful river on the side of the city. It’s much more beautiful than I was expecting. ”
While he’s enjoyed his time in Kyiv, Thron said that living in a war zone does weigh on his mind at night as he lies listening to the air raid sirens.
“You think about it more times than not,” he said. “I’m not so much afraid of dying as I am stepping on landmines or being held captive. At certain times, when we’re climbing into buildings, the soldiers tell us to be careful of trip wires connected to grenades. “I hope that that won’t happen, but I will probably kiss the ground when I land back in the US.”
Aside from his health, Thron is also taking financial risks with his current project. In the past, Curiosity Stream has funded many of his rescues. However, he said that the Ukraine trip is so dangerous that no company was willing to accept the risks involved with bankrolling the trip. Instead, he and Okrant have paid for the rescue by crowdsourcing and spending thousands of dollars of their own money. While he hopes to make it home safely and eventually sell his footage to recoup his losses, Thron said that rescuing the animals is his biggest concern.
“It’s not hard to do something that you love for a living,” he said. “You have to live pretty frugally, like sleeping out in sheep pastures in Poland while you wait for the bus. Our hotel is a small, shared room that was donated to us. But I like to travel and meet people, and I certainly love saving animals and being outdoors. ”
Over the years, Thron has successfully reunited many animals with their families. In Kyiv, he and Okrant are working with local vets and pounds to document the rescues in hopes that someone is out there looking for their lost pet. However, he said that a reunion in the Ukraine seems unlikely.
“I think this is going to be different from hurricanes, fires and tornadoes,” he said. “Thousands of people have passed away. I think a lot of owners won’t be coming back. ”
Given the deadly nature of the war, Thron is actively organizing adoption plans for all of the rescued animals.
“All are spoken for,” he said. “There are multiple sanctuaries willing to take them: Places outside of Kyiv, in France, Canada, Puerto Rico. I have a list of people who want to adopt from Canada, California, Michigan, Georgia. The one thing that is nice about animals rescued from [disaster areas], is that people want to help out and have an animal with a fascinating story. It certainly helps place them in a good home. ”