Future Tense

Why the Internet Is Obsessed With the Cats and Dogs of Ukraine

A woman sits on the ground with a dog in her lap, three dogs next to her, and a cat in a cat carrier.
Natalia and her pets wait to board an evacuation train from Kyiv, Ukraine, to western regions on Tuesday. Pierre Crom/Getty Images

The images coming out of Ukraine after Russia’s invasion are striking: Ukrainian citizens huddled in subway stations, trying to get as far underground as possible to avoid the fighting. Individuals gathering in parks to make Molotov cocktails. And a Ukrainian soldier, with a small black cat perched on her shoulder.

Alongside images of destruction and resistance, the visual story of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has included a fair bit of cats and dogs. The Albanian Times shared a story of Ukrainian soldiers taking in a puppy left in the cold. Facebook posts tout soldiers cuddling cats and show families refusing to leave their pets behind as they flee. Famed Twitter Maine coon Lorenzo the Cat shared the story of Aleksandra Polischuk, a breeder of sphinx cats who was killed when her home was destroyed. And of course, Twitter couldn’t help but go aww at the photos of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his dogs.

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It would be easy to position cat and dog content in a warzone as contradictory to conflict. But pet and animal content aren’t the opposite of war—they’re a part of it. Every pet image coming out of Ukraine right now shows a human impacted by the war in some way. In the above-listed examples, every story of a rescued dog or a cuddling cat was bookended by the actions of people.

Animals remind us of our own humanity, and they can be stark reminders of the human face of geopolitical strife. These cat and dog images coming out of Ukraine remind us, paradoxically, that there are real, individual people on the frontlines. There are real, individual people whose lives are forever changed by this aggression. These aren’t just images of animals in conflict, but reminders of the humans who take care of them and fight on the ground.

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It is no accident that we flock to cat content online. It is also not a coincidence that these stories of pets and animal in war circulate widely on the internet. The internet is an ideal space for this type of sharing, as pet and animal images help keep digital spaces lighthearted and fun. Pet and animal images are often the opposite to “doomscrolling,” or the endless scrolling through negative, serious, and depressing news online. Right now, as we doomscroll through a war, cute pet and animal content provides relief, but in conjunction with the war photos themselves, reminds us of the human cost of conflict.

There is, however, a careful tipping point to be aware of. Sometimes, there’s prioritizing of animals over humans in warzones, and this is something that can fuel anger. For instance, reports that U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson authorized rescue dog evacuations out of Afghanistan over Afghan citizens who had worked for the British in the country sparked immense backlash.

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Pets, and their images, are always embedded in human contexts, cares, and concerns. In this way, our treatment of pets and animals, and how we communicate with them, are funhouse mirrors. They reflect to us convoluted things we don’t always want to see or grapple with. Rescue pet shelters tell stories of what’s called Black Dog Syndrome, or the social phenomenon of individuals coming in to adopt any cat or dog but a black one. In the age of social media, shelters self-report that this trend has increased. This is the case, according to those coming in to adopt a pet, because black animals don’t photograph well for social media.

We can be a culture that projects racist, colorist beliefs onto pets. We can be a culture that authorizes pet evacuations out of a country over humans. Such actions reinforce human inequitable, hierarchical thinking of who matters, and what matters.

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By all means, enjoy the cat and soldier images and pictures of President Zelenskyy’s dogs. In this context, such visuals help remind us of the human face and toll of the conflict, as each animal shared is always tied to a person. But in sharing these images, and seeking relief from doomscrolling, it’s important to ground ourselves. We might enjoy the images of cats and soldiers because of the contrast of something so cute with the horrors of war. Sharing it might be a bright spot amid the doomscrolling. But in enjoying the pets, please remember the humans.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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