In Ukraine’s flood-hit city of Kherson, volunteer Sergei Ludensky balances on logs floating in the dark green water, looking at a stranded cat perched above the water.
The 31-year-old year old lunges to try to catch the distressed animal, but misses and falls into the water with floating wreckage.
He catches it on the second attempt, stroking it as he puts it in a cage.
As he gets back into his boat with the cat, the sounds of explosions echo across the water.
Three days after Ukraine’s Kakhovka dam was breached, thousands of people have fled or been evacuated from zones under Kyiv’s control.
A team of volunteers, including Ludensky, have also worked to rescue animals from rising waters.
“That’s what distinguishes us from the Russians,” says Ludensky, who has saved more than 100 animals in three days.
Cats, dogs, chickens, ducks and geese have come aboard his modern Noah’s Ark through the deluge in Kherson.
Local residents give him coordinates of their stranded pets and he makes several trips a day.
– ‘We saw corpses’ –
Ludensky has been rescuing animals throughout Russia’s more than year-long invasion, setting up an organisation called Animal Care Centre shortly after Moscow sent troops to Ukraine.
But while he is used to rescuing abandoned dogs and cats in the gardens from under shelling in the fighting hotspots of eastern Ukraine, the flooding makes him more nervous.
“This is the first time in Ukraine when volunteers have to work on water,” he said.
“We’re working under fire, but I can’t wear a protective vest. It is heavy and I could fall into the water.”
Looking stern on his boat, Ludensky clears his way through the wreckage of someone’s house with an oar.
Four volunteer colleagues were killed during rescue operations, said Ludensky. “We saw their corpses,” he added, ducking to avoid electrical wires hanging over the water.
But he has little time to reflect, staying focused on saving more pets. And for
now, his mission is to track down stranded cats, several ducks and some chickens.
“Yesterday they were not yet visible, but now the water has risen and they climbed onto the roof,” he says, as his boat veers past the chimney of a house, the only part still visible.
Today was not the first time he ended up in the water during the course of his work. He’s fallen in a number of times already. He has also been bitten by cats and injured by drifting garbage.
Today however, he ends his mission with a smile on his face.
“We saved several lives today,” he says, tucking three rescued ducklings into his jacket.
– ‘They will die’ –
As he ends his mission, an elderly woman — 67-year-old Tatiana Petrenko — wades towards him, the water up to her ankles.
She is desperate for someone to help save the dogs stranded in her flooded house, several kilometres away.
They are stuck on the fifth floor of the building, she says, asking several volunteers for help.
But the official Ukrainian rescuers — using red all-terrain vehicles and inflatable boats — are busy rescuing people, and after a third refusal, she is in despair.
Petrenko has lost everything, caring only now about the animals.
“They will die there, they will die there,” she says.
Ludensky and his colleague Dmitry have just finished a mission, handing over rescued cats and birds to employees of a Kherson animal shelter.
Immediately he writes down the woman’s address and re-starts his motorboat.
“Attitudes towards animals is a test of humanity,” the woman says.
She shows him a photograph of a Chihuahua called “Princess” — blind in one eye — awaiting a miracle from volunteers. But there was no miracle today.
Ludensky went to try and save the dogs, but came under artillery fire.
“A shell fell into the water next to us, we jumped out of the boat and swam to a building,” he said.
“We broke a window in the dormitory and hid there,” he said, drying off near a pavement.
This time, the volunteers returned unscathed from the trip. But they did not manage to find Petrenko’s dogs.
But he would try again, said Sergei, as his boat zig-zagged through the flooded streets of Kherson.