Settling on a flight for his first animal volunteer trip to Ukraine could be compared to someone regretting being strapped into a roller coaster seat, said Hilton Head Islander and local groomer Jeff Prekop.
There was that “Oh no, what did I do?” moment. he said, then, once past, he remembered the thing that had prompted him to get on the plane in the first place. For him, it all started when he saw a photo of a child carrying a German shepherd who was almost the size of a child over a mile to safety in the midst of the Russian invasion which began in February . After that, he says, he was never afraid.
“I always give my all and it just started to get to me,” Prekop said. “Seeing all the footage coming in and hearing that this shelter has been blocked, they can’t get food, the animals are starving… I could do something.”
As owners of Groomingdale’s, a pet salon on the island, Prekop said for him and his wife, Jen, animal rescue has “always been a part of our lives” and the two often do donations to animal rights organizations. Sending money was not enough, he said. He wanted to do more.
“All of a sudden this knowledge, this call… came over me and I was going to go to Ukraine to help,” he said. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to do it.”
Since his first trip several months ago, Prekop has slept in camps, eaten far too much porridge and even picked up a nickname. Although he’s the only American to travel with Dogbus Transporting Paws Saving Lives, a UK-based animal transport and rescue charity, other volunteers have taken to calling him “Canadian Fred.” “.
On a typical day, Prekop would drive for hours delivering supplies to shelters and, in some cases, the homes of people who were taking in multiple animals at once. As someone certified in pet first aid, he was able to help a veterinarian who assessed the animals they were taking with them which were “worst case scenarios”.
As the invasion continued, families leaving Ukraine had to hand over animals to local shelters, resulting in one shelter caring for 450 to 500 animals at a time.
“They had no food,” he said. “They took the animals away as much as they could, because their only alternative was to let them go and they didn’t want to do that.”
“You get used to it”
During his time volunteering with the organization, Prekop has grown accustomed to air raid sirens and knows how to “pay attention” when they get louder. There were several nearby strikes while he was there, he said, but “missile systems took care of the matter”. As the strikes continued, Prekop was able to continue monitoring government alerts through an app on his phone. Other than that, he spent his day behaving like police sirens at home on US 278.
“Everyone is very puzzled about it,” he said. “You just get used to it.”
On the penultimate day of his last visit, Prekop helped deliver people and supplies to a kyiv zoo with 300 animals and six zookeepers. Due to a scheduling conflict, his group arrived earlier than expected. They were told no one would meet them until 1 p.m., so they decided to head into town to explore. While there they heard popping noises “a few blocks away” and he immediately knew “those weren’t fireworks”. The team remained safe and was able to wait out the conflict before delivering supplies.
Now that he’s back, Prekop is gearing up for a fundraiser in June hosted by High Tide Rooftop Bar at the Courtyard Marriott and says he plans to start bringing animals back with him, but there are restrictions that he must first respect.
“I’m working on a few angles to get vaccines there and inoculating as many as I can and then working on the angle of getting them through from there,” he said.
The response from the community, he said, has been incredible. Donations have come from people coming to his grooming salon who have heard of what he does. Prekop plans to bring all that money with him on his next trip in four weeks, he said. Shipping supplies would become too expensive, and it can be difficult to transport medical supplies while keeping them at the correct storage temperature.
“What keeps me going is knowing they need help and knowing I can help them,” he said. “I have to do it.”
This story was originally published May 15, 2022 3:21 p.m.