Douglas Thron, an alumnus of Humboldt State University, dedicated the last years of his life to rescuing animals strayed from natural disasters: the 2018 campfire, Hurricane Dorian, wildfires bushfire, the 2021 tornado in western Kentucky. While Thron’s passion project has taken him to dangerous places, it’s hard to believe his latest assignment: three weeks in war-torn Ukraine, searching bombed-out buildings in search of lost animals that have need a home.
The 52-year-old cinematographer, who uses a drone equipped 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 told the Outpost that he currently lives in a hotel room about 10 minutes from a heavily bombed town on the outskirts of Kyiv – an area he and fellow rescuer Ryan Okrant travel to daily to search wreckage for cats and stray dogs.
“We hear the [air raid] the sirens go off every night, and that’s when the missiles are fired at Kyiv,” Thron said. “A few days ago missiles hit buildings about two miles from our hotel, but we were far enough away not to hear it.”
Despite the ongoing war with Russia, Thron said getting into 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 16 hours by bus to Kyiv.
Once Thron and Okrant arrived in Kyiv, they were matched with mandatory military security and a translator whom they were lucky to find on their bus to Kyiv.
“To get the flight permits, we had to get permission from the government for military security that protects us,” Thron said. “We have two Ukrainian soldiers who continuously travel with us. It gives you a certain level of comfort. We found our own translator. We were on the bus and a student applying to Stanford was sitting next to us. He spoke English quite well and we asked him if he knew any translators. He told us about his friend who is studying to be a lawyer. We thought a guy smart enough to be a lawyer would be a good translator.
With his team reunited, Thron said he managed to save up to 15 animals in the first week of the trip.
“We rescued a mother cat and a kitten three nights ago, and we had a feeling there could be more kittens,” Thron said Wednesday. “We left an infrared tracking camera installed overnight. Reviewing the footage the next morning, we discovered three additional kittens living in the kitchen.
Leaving fresh food and water for the remaining cats, Thron and Okrant returned Wednesday with the mother cat to capture the remaining kittens.
“We were silent for almost 15 minutes before we saw a kitten come out of the kitchen, followed by another, then the last,” he said. “We have 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 malnourished, but Thron said they were healthy considering the circumstances.
“They must have been in that apartment complex during the bombing and somehow survived,” he said. “The whole area was heavily shelled. The cats must have gotten scared and crawled around cabinets, behind the fridge, or scrambled under stuff. Half of the complex has been reduced to ashes and the other half is completely blown away.
Thron said 15 rescued animals are already enough to consider the trip a success. But with two weeks left, he plans to rescue as many animals as possible and soak up all the Ukrainian culture he can.
“Most of our friends think we’re crazy,” he said. “Kyiv is an incredibly beautiful city. I don’t know if it’s the TV news that makes it sad, but there are these very colorful buildings and these magnificent giant cathedrals. It reminds me a lot of Humboldt, with its hills, mountains, trees, and a big, beautiful river on the town side. It’s much more beautiful than I expected.
Although he enjoyed his time in Kyiv, Thron said living in a war zone weighed on him at night as he listened to the sirens of air raids.
“You think about it more often than not,” he said. “I’m not so much afraid of dying as of stepping on landmines or being held captive. At times, when we climb into buildings, the soldiers tell us to be careful of the tripwires connected to the grenades. I hope that doesn’t happen, but I’ll probably kiss the ground when I land in the United States.
Apart from his health, Thron is also taking financial risks with his current project. In the past, Curiosity Stream has funded many of its rescues. However, he said the trip to Ukraine was so dangerous that no company was willing to accept the risks involved in financing the trip. Instead, he and Okrant paid for the rescue by crowdsourcing and spending thousands of their own money. While he hopes to return home safely and possibly sell his footage to recoup his losses, Thron said animal rescue is his biggest concern.
“It’s not hard to do something you love in life,” he said. “You have to live quite frugally, like sleeping in sheep pastures in Poland while waiting for the bus. Our hotel is a small shared room given to us. But I love traveling and meeting people, and I definitely love saving animals and being outdoors.
Over the years, Thron has managed to reunite many animals with their families. In Kyiv, he and Okrant are working with local vets and animal pounds to document rescues in hopes that someone will search there for their lost pet. However, he said a meeting in Ukraine seems unlikely.
“I think it’s going to be different from hurricanes and fires and tornadoes,” he said. “Thousands of people have died. I think a lot of owners won’t be coming back.
Given the deadly nature of the war, Thron actively organizes adoption plans for all rescued animals.
“All are spoken,” he said. “There are several sanctuaries ready to take them: places outside of Kyiv, in France, in Canada, in Puerto Rico. I have a list of people who want to adopt from Canada, California, Michigan, Georgia. The only thing that is good with animals rescued from [disaster areas], is that people want to help and have an animal with a fascinating history. It certainly helps to place them in a good home.