Sign at train station in Berlin that describes free support for pet owners coming from Ukraine.

Ethical Challenges Associated with the Protection of Pets in War

(Photo: Sign at the central train station in Berlin (Berlin Hauptbahnhof) that offers free support for pet owners coming from Ukraine. Courtesy of Kristin Sandvik.)

By Kristin Bergtora Sandvik


The care for animals rapidly became a part of the humanitarian narrative of the attack on Ukraine.

There are countless accounts of the efforts of activists, shelters and zoo staff to keep animals alive, as well as underground operations to get them to safety. And, as Ukrainians flee for their lives, they are frequently accompanied by their pets.

EU initiatives and advocacy efforts by animal rights groups pushed receiving countries to modify entrance requirements, waive fees, provide veterinary services, and shorten or eliminate quarantine times. The EU announced a special derogation in Regulation 2013/576, allowing the import of Ukrainian refugee pets without meeting standard requirements. Many governments have welcomed Ukrainian pets with or without their owners, and without documentation, rabies vaccine, and/or microchip.

Humanitarian action is typically human centric; this broad societal acceptance of pets as legitimate refugee companions, and the attendant rapid regulatory accommodations, are unique developments. In this blog, I draw on perspectives from disaster studies, international humanitarian law (IHL), refugee studies, and animal studies to articulate a set of ethical dilemmas around classification and policymaking that arise when pets are recognized as a humanitarian protection problem.

A problem of classification: What kind of ethics and which animals do we protect?

What kind of ethics are we talking about? According to animal ethics, we must take the well-being and dignity of non-human animals into account when making moral decisions. In contrast, according to humanitarian ethics, the objective of humanitarian action is to prevent and alleviate human suffering — by assisting according to need, and by not doing harm. I argue that these vantage points not only lead towards very different problem framings, but that there is also a tension between them that needs to be addressed.

How do we protect animals? In the emergent but vibrant IHL literature, scholars are now asking a range of questions regarding the classification and status of animals.

Much of the current IHL discussion focuses on the lack of specific protection for animals — and the problematic protection guarantees resorting from classifying animals as property. For example, Article 53 of Geneva Convention IV prohibits the destruction by the occupying power of private and public properties, except in cases of absolute military necessity. This provision could provide minimum protection to certain animals, but only when considered to be items of private or public (or living) property.

A middle position argues that animals should be recognized as legal persons and treated as sentient beings, which would ensure animals greater protection than inanimate objects. At the same time, animals cannot be assimilated into the category of “protected persons” under IHL (“combatant/prisoner of war” or “civilian”), because this status also incurs obligations animals are unable to undertake.

Yet, from another perspective, that of animal rights, scholars have endeavored to extend the refugee definition to animals such as elephants, arguing that they, too, are crossing borders in search of protection.

Which animals do we protect? Moving beyond the anthropocentric bias requires a principled rejection of speciesism and discrimination. For the purposes of forced displacement, this means that the rights of companion animals are not only in the same category as those of humans, but also as those of production animals and wild animals. This also points to initial categorizations of animals linked to ideas of emotional or economic protectability. A parallel question concerns how we deal with culturally and legally contingent demarcations of pets: what about the import of either prohibited breeds (for example, in Norway, Pitbull dogs), or species not legally classified as pets (typically wild animals), or only classified as pets in certain jurisdictions (tigers and tarantulas)?

How do we calibrate the conversation? Prior to the Ukraine conflict, when discussing the protection of pets during war and conflict, there was a concern that animal protection might interfere with the goal of alleviating the extreme suffering of humans during hostilities. Today, the concerns about what it would mean to accommodate pets under humanitarian law and refugee law regimes — or whether just talking about this would amount to a form of “species treason” and represent unethical humanitarian discourse — remain acute.

I propose that a different way of approaching this dilemma is to consider a plurality of perspectives. For example, as Ben White suggests, “to understand human displacements, past and present, we need to consider animals too.” Particularly in the context of climate change, there is a need to see animal and human migration together. Thus, there is a broad set of policy and normative issues that transcends the human/animal dichotomy.

Additionally, we must acknowledge the possible difficulties arising with an animal-centered protection discourse, while also highlighting false trade-offs (the reception of dogs without quarantine in Norway does not come at the expense of refugee resettlement). This also entails admitting that it will be difficult to maintain clear-cut arguments: for example, nothing stops veterinary expenses of hosting countries from being budgeted as “aid.”

The ethics of planning and non-planning

This section suggests that there is an ethical aspect to planning for pets at war. Even before the pandemic, estimates suggested that more than half of the world’s households contained at least one companion animal. The emotional toll experienced by displaced people is exacerbated by the sometimes-unavoidable abandonment of companion and domesticated animals. The reality of contemporary displacement makes it necessary to engage in policy making for pet displacement. Disaster studies has a relatively longstanding focus on pets in the context of emergency planning, evacuations, and shelter, in part ushered in by singular disasters such as the 2005 US Hurricane Katrina. Reforms are motivated by the recognition that people will protect their pets, even at the expense of their own security.

Focusing on a wide range of events (flooding, fires and hurricanes), these perspectives offer important practical insights for how we can make policies for pets at war. Yet, disasters are not wars. This framework assumes the existence of a fundamentally benign (if ineffective) state and does not take violence against pet-owners or aid workers into account. Hence, as suggested above, experts on international law and humanitarian ethics should engage actively in furthering knowledge on this topic.

A lack of planning has ethical implications: We should also recognize the politics and ethics of non-planning and non-inclusion of pets into preparedness efforts and humanitarian programming. Consider, for example, effects of insufficient preparation at the interface of animal and human health. We are familiar with the catastrophic impact of animal emergencies that involve zoonotic illness (such as Jacob-Creutzfeldt disease or avian flu). In these instances, groups of animals are subjected to mass slaughter because of animal-human disease transmission.

How does mass displacement of pets feature into these kinds of animal emergency scenarios? Ukraine is a high-risk country for rabies. Who is responsible for maintaining animals’ continued health if new risks are introduced into receiving communities? What individual responsibilities rests on Ukrainian pet owners — and what kinds of responsibility, and legitimate expectations — do receiving communities have?

A humanitarian ethics for dismantling the anthropocentric bias

The status and rights of animals in many national jurisdictions are changing, with increasingly forceful advocacy for the recognition of animals as legal persons with full rights. In a world where human life is valued so differently depending on geographical origin, gender, and background, efforts to alter the relationship between humans and animals are fraught with ethical risk. We are currently at a crossroads: The underlying issues of speciesism and the anthropocentric bias of law are increasingly contested. The extension of international protection to Ukrainian pets raises issues with respect to the legitimate expectations of future refugee populations. Seen from that angle, taking pets at war seriously is indeed a proper ethics challenge.

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (LL.M 2003, S.J.D Harvard Law School 2008) is a professor of legal sociology at the Faculty of Law, University of Oslo and a Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies at PRIO. She works on the digital transformation of humanitarian action and refugee management with a focus on legalization, accountability, ethics and rights. 

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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