33 years after Chernobyl's nuclear disaster, hundreds of stray dogs still call the exclusion zone their home
While the Soviet government tried to kill all the dogs left behind, a few survived, and their descendants populate the exclusion zone to this day
In the early hours of April 26, 1986, reactor four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant experienced catastrophic failure and exploded, spewing unimaginable amounts of radioactive materials into the air, the surrounding areas, and even as far as the western USSR and other western European countries.
While the number of human fatalities connected to the accident is a point of contention and controversy, it's undeniable that this number would have been higher had it not been for the forced evacuation of over 120,000 people from 189 cities and communities in and around the plant.
But what's often forgotten is the plight of those left behind. The evacuees were forbidden from taking with them anything they could not carry, including their beloved pets.
'Chernobyl Prayer,' a book by Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich which featured interviews from more than 500 eyewitnesses and details the psychological and personal tragedy of the nuclear disaster, reveals their painful memories.
It tells of "dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the bus for ages," and of families pinning notes to the doors of their homes which read, "Don't kill our dogs."
All the dogs left behind in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone — a 2,600 km sq zone designated around Chernobyl that will remain uninhabitable for the next 20,000 years — were later tracked down and killed in the name of mercy.
The heart-wrenching scene of the massacre of the dogs left behind after the caravans of buses made their way to safer ground was arguably one of the defining moments of HBO's 'Chernobyl'.
The historical drama's fourth episode depicted the somber reality on ground zero not long after it had been abandoned, with fresh-eyed teenage recruits given the unenviable task of putting a bullet between the eyes of the dogs even as they wagged their tails in delight at their first human contact in days. They then had to dump the bodies in the ground and cover them in concrete because they were "radioactive" and posed a threat.
But as the Clean Futures Fund, a US-based nonprofit organization who help communities affected by industrial accidents, reports, it was impossible to round up and cull all of the animals in the various small villages that made up the exclusion zone.
A few survived and were forced to migrate close to the power plant thanks to the packs of rabid wolves that made the exclusion zone their own, and the descendants of those dogs live there to this day.
"The fourth episode of the 'Chernobyl' series was very difficult for animal lovers to watch, but it was very true to history and also helped raised a lot of awareness about these abandoned animals and the needs they still have to this day," said Lucas Hixson, the co-founder of CFF, in a statement to MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).
These strays have to endure the harsh Ukrainian winter where temperatures touch -28C and have a reduced lifespan of just five to eight years because of the increased levels of radiation they carry in their fur.
The CFF estimates that over 250 still live around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, with a further 225 living in Chernobyl city and hundreds of others living at the various security checkpoints and roam throughout the exclusion zone.
Every year, new puppies are born, and in a bid to control their population and prevent the spread of rabies — they are often exposed to the disease by other wild predators and pose a risk to human workers in the area — a revisiting of the events of 1986 was proposed where personnel would be hired to track them down and kill them.
The CFF, however, wanted to avoid what they described as an "intolerable and inhumane outcome". So, with the help of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Management Agency, the organization has set up three veterinary clinics in the area where the dogs receive vaccinations against rabies, parvovirus, distemper, and hepatitis, and are often spayed, neutered, and transplanted with microchips.
The third year of the project kicked off on June 3, which is, coincidentally, the same day as the airing of the series finale of 'Chernobyl', and CFF confirmed to MEAWW that they were resuming the vaccination and spay/neuter campaign to keep the dogs healthy and "reduce the rabies public health threat".
This year will reportedly see over 40 volunteers from around the world, including veterinarians and veterinary technicians, visiting Chernobyl to treat an estimated 700 animals, though funding continues to remain a problem.
The organization has set up a GoFundMe page to raise donations that will go towards the purchase of essential supplies such as medicines, vaccines, medical supplies, food, dewormer, microchips, and other material. At the time of writing, it has raised $63,330 of a possible $127,000 goal.
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