Blind Ukrainian students given behind-the-scenes tour of the Yorkshire Wildlife Park

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The students were introduced to a range of animals a Credit: Yorkshire Wildlife Park

A group of blind Ukrainian students whose school was bombed by Russia were guests of honour for a VIP tour of the Yorkshire Wildlife Park.

The youngsters were evacuated when Kharkiv School for the Blind was demolished by Russian forces soon after their invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

After hearing about their plight, charities for the blind, the Thomas Pocklington Trust and the RNIB, organised a visit to the wildlife park.

It came after Sarah, Duchess of York, first met the group through her own charity the Sarah's Trust.

"They have been through unimaginable trauma, separated from their families, broken apart by the dreadful Russian invasion," she said "It is just the most appalling situation.

"I first met the group in Poland at the onset of the war, where my charity has worked for many years. I was humbled to hear their story of survival and determination, and we have remained in touch ever since. It is an honour for me to call them my friends."

Among the animals encountered by the students was a lioness, called Aysa, who was rescued from an abandoned Ukrainian zoo after the war broke out.

Aysa and her cubs Santa, Emi and Teddi, were transported 2,000 miles from a holding facility in Poland to Doncaster after months of planning.

Two of the lion cubs rescued from Ukraine. Credit: Yorkshire Wildlife Park

One of the students said: "I was really upset they had to leave our home in Ukraine, the same as me. But I’m really grateful for the people that helped them like they did me and we are all safe now."

Another said: "I feel emotional that I can be here. I never dreamed I would travel so much. It was a big surprise to find out about the lions from Ukraine, their story is very similar to ours."

Deputy head teacher Marzena Bialas said: "They are really excited about the lions in Yorkshire. They didn’t know they had been shipped over to the UK."

The visit began with a behind-the-scenes tour of the 175-acre park, where the students had the opportunity to hear some of the loudest mammals on Earth, including sea lions.

They fed giraffes, before a private audience in the lion enclosure.

The students had the chance to feed giraffes. Credit: Yorkshire Wildlife Park

Park bosses say the Ukrainian lions are showing "really positive signs" of their adjustment to their new surroundings.

Head of carnivores, Bex Brown, said: "I’m hopeful the pride can come together. Emi has shown the most interest in mum. When they first saw each other, they were cautious but we left them to it, and they started showing some really nice behaviour, including head rubbing.

"We’ve given them some toys and at first they were a bit nervous, but they were soon playing with the wood, the rubes and fire hose that we gave them. They are so intrigued about everything that is going on."

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