The dogs of Chernobyl? The real story behind the stray canines who call the radioactive zone home

While the 2,600 sq km area around Chernobyl remains mostly uninhabitable for humans, it's a different story for the animals that were left behind.


                            The dogs of Chernobyl? The real story behind the stray canines who call the radioactive zone home

The explosion at reactor no. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the early hours of April 26, 1986, propelled 50m curies of radiation into the air and into parts of the western USSR and other European countries. 

While the accident immediately caused two deaths within the facility and a further 15 indirectly over the coming years, it could have been far worse were it not for evacuation efforts that saw over 120,000 people forcibly moved from Chernobyl, Pripyat, and the surrounding communities in the first days after the explosion.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is home to thousands of animals, including dogs (Source: Clean Future Fund)

 

What this hasty evacuation meant, however, is that many families had to leave their pets behind. A heartbreaking account from '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, describes the chaos.

The book 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 Zhulka."

Those who fled that night were forced to leave their pups behind (Source: Clean Future Fund)

 

However, there was to be no mercy. Squads were reportedly sent in to kill the animals left behind, though it is now clear that their efforts weren't entirely successful. Several dogs survived and their 1,000-odd descendants now populate what has come to be known as the 'Chernobyl Exclusion Zone' (CMZ) — an area of approximately 2,600 sq km where radioactive contamination from nuclear fallout is the highest and where it's estimated life will not thrive for at least another 20,000 years.

The dogs haven't got the memo, clearly. Neither have the moose, the lynx, the hares, and the wolves who now call the CMZ their home. In fact, authorities even introduced Mongolian horses and Belarusian bears into the zone in 2018, according to the Guardian.

Most of these dogs don't cross the age of six (Source: Clean Future Fund)

 

But it's the stray dogs, most of who are very young, tragically so, whose stories have caught the eye. These strays have to endure the harsh Ukrainian winter where temperatures get as low as -28C. They have also been found to often carry increased levels of radiation in their fur, a consequence of which is that their life span often does not cross the age of six. 

It's not all bad news for these pups, though. A project called 'Dogs of Chernobyl' has been regularly providing medical care for all the dogs living in the CMZ. The program is being led by US-based nonprofit organization Clean Futures Fun (CFF), who help communities affected by industrial accidents, and who have partnered with the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Management Agency for this particular task.

The CFF needs funds to continue operating (Source: Clean Future Fund)

 

The CFF has set up three veterinary clinics in the area, including one inside the Chernobyl plant, where dogs receive vaccinations against rabies, parvovirus, distemper, and hepatitis, and are often spayed, neutered, and transplanted with microchips. Lucas Hixson, the fund's co-founder, explained to the Guardian that this was done to get the population of the dogs down to a "manageable size" so they could feed and provide long-term care for them.

Even then, they require all the help they can get. While the CFF has already treated over 850 stray cats and dogs in the exclusion zone, funding has remained a problem. The organization set up a GoFundMe page to raise donations which would help them purchase medicines, vaccines, medical supplies, food, dewormer, microchips, and other materials. They said their goal for 2019 is to spay and neuter and vaccinate over 500 animals. The page has raised $59,707 of a $120,000 goal at the time of writing.

HBO's upcoming historical drama miniseries, 'Chernobyl', is set to tell "the true story of one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history and the brave men and women who sacrificed to save Europe from unimaginable disaster." It is scheduled for a May 6 release.