Art piece by Exeter medical student spurs British Red Cross action to help animals in crisis

A striking art piece by a University of Exeter medical student is encouraging British Red Cross volunteers across the South West to adequately stock their vehicles with pet food ahead of rescue operations.

Compassion in a war by Sophie Wilson

The fifth year student, inspired by the poignant bond shared between humans and their pets, particularly shown in images of families fleeing war-torn Ukraine with pets by their side, created an art piece entitled “Compassion in a war.”

“I remember seeing these heart-breaking photos of people fleeing Ukraine with nothing. It was terrible but one thing that stood out to me was seeing them with their pets on their backs and it just showed compassion and empathy to me in a different way,” Sophie Wilson said.

The compelling art piece, portraying a woman reaching out to her cat amidst the ruins of a burning city, was borne out of a response to a Medical Humanities Special Study Unit (SSU) module which Sophie had undertaken in her fourth year.

Each year, the University of Exeter’s Medical School provides students with the opportunity to take a special study module for in-depth understanding into a field of interest. Sophie had engaged with previous special study units in the past, but it was her first time taking the Medical Humanities module which is designed to provide a creative outlet for medical practitioners, as well as enable them apply learnings from Medical Humanities to their medical practice.

Sophie, to whom expression through art is new, explained: “I haven’t really got an art background and the last time I drew anything creatively was in secondary school, so the entire process was a challenge that pushed me to not only express empathy in a time of crisis but gain new skills.”

Now what started out as a creative art project is raising awareness around the importance of pets and the need to also treat them as refugees in times of crisis. Sophie’s friend and colleague at the medical school who volunteers with the British Red Cross found the art piece intriguing and shared it with his team. It has been well received by the British Red Cross’s Emergency Response Team in the South West who are actively checking their vehicles to make sure they have enough pet food.

Debbie Carrig, Senior Emergency Response Officer in Devon and Cornwall for the British Red Cross, said: “We were thrilled to welcome Sophie to present her artwork during our virtual Emergency Response Team meeting last November. It was a thought-provoking presentation and she spoke about this issue with passion and knowledge.

“Our emergency response teams understand the importance of caring for pets as well as people in times of crisis. We regularly carry pet related items such as pet food, bowls, leads and carriers on our Devon-based vehicles, and we take them with us when we are responding to emergencies such as house fires and floods.

“We will make sure that we continue to consider the needs of pets at the same time as we are providing people with practical and emotional support during emergencies.”

– Debbie Carrig, Senior Emergency Response Officer, British Red Cross

Speaking of her delight in this new development, Sophie said: “I’m so pleased to see that not only has my art piece resonated with people in their love for pets, but it’s stirring change and raising awareness around the understanding that pets as well as their humans are refugees in times like these.”

A few months before commencing “Compassion in a war”, the 5th year medical student lost her 21-year-old cat and has described the process of creating in such a time as “therapeutic”. Sophie explained: “I’ve had my cat since I was ten and she’s been a huge part of my life. The loss hurt a lot and as events around Ukraine unfolded, I could see clearly how healing could come in a moment of pain. My drawing portrays tender moments between pets and their owners in times of crisis and in that piece, I see my cat too.” 

Dr Sarah Ashley, Leader of the Medical Humanities Module, said: “Sophie’s piece is an amazing example of observing and considering a situation from a humane perspective. In reflecting how she observed this issue, she has produced a compassionate and beautiful piece of art. It’s exciting to see its impact beyond the medical school and even more inspiring that what started out as a module within the curriculum has become a real force for changing attitudes across the Red Cross in the South West and Beyond.

“The University of Exeter Medical School regards the consideration of the Humanities as being vital to the development of skills needed in the effective delivery of medicine – and Sophie’s art, like many others from our students, just go to show the power of Humanities, to touch, change and inspire.”