Saving animals, helping people in Ukraine

Michael Jacobson, a PhD candidate in mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC, provides humanitarian aid in Ukraine. (Photo: Jesse Adams)

By David Staudacher

Some students take a break from classes to relax and unwind. Michael Jacobson, a PhD candidate in mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC, took a break from school over the summer to help save animals and provide humanitarian aid in war-torn Ukraine.

As a former infantry team leader with the U.S. Marine Corps who served during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Jacobson possessed specific skills that are not common, but highly sought for certain environments. With this in mind, he reached out to a military friend who put him in touch with ex-British military veterans rescuing animals and providing humanitarian aid in Ukraine. Jacobson was looking for an opportunity to volunteer in Ukraine after Russia invaded and as the conflict continues.

“I’m very used to operating in a war zone and being under high-stress situations. When I found out that there was a team of military veterans going there solely for humanitarian work and getting into cities where normal organizations couldn’t get into, I jumped at the opportunity to volunteer,” he said.

Jacobson spent two months during the summer working with Breaking the Chains International as they removed animals from dangerous situations and transported them to safety. He went on approximately 20 missions saving more than 100 animals, including lions, dogs, cats, horses, pigs and a baby owl.

During one daring mission, he was part of a team that rescued nine lions from a zoo in the city of Odessa and transported them across multiple borders over a 72-hour period. It was an experience he will never forget as he had to assume a leadership role for part of it.

“The main team leaders had to go off to other missions when we reached the Romanian border,” he said. “But I led the convoy from Moldova and through Romania to safely deliver all of the lions to the zoo.”

In addition to using his military background, he utilized his mechanical engineering education to help the team.

“I used general engineering skills on a daily basis because engineering is problem solving,” he said. “I brought my tablet with me and used engineering software for simple things like designing a shelter and optimizing the arrangement for animal crates on a certain vehicle.”

He also used the engineering knowledge and skills he honed as a member of SAE at UIC to revamp a vehicle tailored to transport multiple lions.

“I took this semi-truck, and I turned it into a flatbed with collapsible sides, so that we could easily rush in, put animals or people on it, and then close it back up,” he said. “It was completely custom; something that I designed on the fly, fabricated and welded.”

While the primary mission was to rescue animals, the team provided food and hygiene supplies to civilians trapped in the war zone and cut off from receiving supplies.

“Any time we did any sort of animal relief, humans were mixed into it because that was just the nature of how we were operating,” he said. “We’re not going to turn down helping people. There were times when the environment was so dangerous, we extracted civilians with us.”

Jacobson’s fervor for helping is a big component of his PhD research at UIC, where he is part of a team developing exoskeletons under the direction of Myungee Kim, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, in the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab.

“I’m a very passionate person for just societal impacts like humanitarian efforts,” Jacobson said. “My research has to deal with a lot of rehabilitation, and when I graduate, I want to have some sort of technology developed that’s a rehabilitation for animals.”

Jacobson is looking into returning to Ukraine to help rescue more animals and help people.

“This is all contingent, but I’m trying to partner with a major rescue nonprofit, because I became very good friends with an ex-Canadian military veteran while I was doing the extractions, and he owns one of the major rescue organizations in Canada,” he said. “If I can set up a team with him and raise the funds, then I would be open to going back during my winter break or in the summer.”

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