Doug Thron has traveled the globe from one natural disaster to the next using an infrared drone to find animals displaced by hurricanes, wildfires, and tornados — but none of those adventures could have prepared him for his latest odyssey.
Since June 2, Thron has roamed bombed-out towns and villages around Ukraine's capital city of Kyiv, employing his drone — that can detect an animal's body heat and pinpoint its location — to locate cats and dogs that have been forced to fend for themselves since Russia's invasion of the country on Feb. 24.
"This is my scariest mission so far," 52-year-old Thron, who lives on a houseboat in Miami, tells PEOPLE. "It's mind-boggling. These towns look like they've been ripped apart by a combination of a hurricane and a wildfire. We're going into these buildings looking for animals and are always on the lookout for strings across the stairwells that are tied to grenades [left by the Russian soldiers]. It definitely gets your heart beating pretty fast."
Each night, Thron — accompanied by Ryan Okrant of ASSERT Drone Animal Rescue and military security personnel— travels to communities around Kyiv over roads that have been swept for landmines. (The pair are working alongside Paws of War, a non-profit with members working inside the war-torn country feeding and tending to the countless animals left to survive on their own.)
Courtesy of Doug Thron
Once Thron arrives at that night's destination, he goes to work amidst the rubble with his camera-equipped drone, searching for dogs and cats that likely would never be found otherwise because of the scale of the destruction in the region.
"So many people had to flee so quickly that they weren't able to take their animals," says Thron, who is working with local veterinarians to care for the animals he helps rescue with his drone. "They basically gave them a kiss on the head and said, 'Sorry, we've got to go.'"
On a recent evening, Thron says he used his drone to spot several cats roaming around a charred apartment complex that had been blown apart by bombs — resulting in the death of 40 people. On a hunch that there were probably more cats inside the half-destroyed building, he and Okrant searched inside, carefully working their way up a stairwell to an eighth-floor apartment where they rescued a mother cat and her kitten.
"We had a feeling there were more kittens," says Thron, who left an infrared trail camera in the apartment overnight and spotted three more kittens hiding in the kitchen the next day. "We went back with food and water and brought the mama and the kitten in a carrier and used them to lure the other kittens out and into a drop trap."
Courtesy of Doug Thron
The conflict's toll on humans and animals is hard to stomach, even for someone like Thron, who has witnessed his share of destruction over the years.
"These are people's pets and most of them are super, super sweet, and warm right up to us the second we get on our knees and put our hands out," says Thron. "I can't imagine how challenging all this must be for them. Dogs don't like fireworks. Can you imagine how traumatic it is when a whole town gets bombed? It's gotta be ungodly loud. I'm sure plenty of these animals have broken eardrums."
Despite the risks, Thron — whose docuseries Doug to the Rescue will begin airing its second season on Curiosity Stream on June 16 — admits that the look of gratitude he glimpses in the eyes of the animals he rescues makes all the danger worth it.
"I'm not afraid of dying," he says. "It doesn't worry me so much. But it's the thought of becoming a prisoner of war or stepping on a landmine that definitely keeps me from sleeping too well at night."