Almost 33 years have passed since the explosion at reactor no. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the early hours of April 26, 1986, saw an unimaginable amount of radioactive material being spewed into the air and the regions surrounding the plant.
When it became apparent that the scale of the disaster was nothing that humanity had ever witnessed previously, hundreds of thousands from 189 cities and communities were forcibly evacuated, but at a heavy cost.
Promised they would be allowed to return to their homes at the most three days, evacuees were told they could not take with them anything they could not carry, including pets. Thousands of dogs were left behind, and as more than 600,000 liquidators — the term given to those who assisted in the cleanup operation — made their way to the plant in the aftermath of the disaster, some were given an unenviable task.
The pets left behind had absorbed fatal amounts of radiation and would no doubt suffer a painful existence as its effects took a toll. The Soviet government decided that they had to be put down, in the name of mercy. All of them were tracked down and killed, with their bodies dumped in the ground and covered with concrete to prevent the radiation from seeping in the surrounding. Or so the government thought.
As years passed, it emerged that quite a few of the canines had survived in what is now the sprawling, near-abandoned Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. While the 2,600 km sq zone around the power plant will remain uninhabitable for humans for the next 20,000 years, it has proved to be the opposite for several species of flora and fauna, including dogs, that have thrived in their absence.
The Clean Futures Fund estimates that over 250 dogs 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.
Organizations such as the CFF and Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International (SPCA) are now working to ensure that these dogs receive vaccinations against rabies, parvovirus, distemper, and hepatitis, and are spayed, neutered, and implanted with microchips.
In an exclusive to MEA WorldWide (MEAWW), SPCA International revealed they had staff in the exclusion zone last week for the same and were working out of a clinic set up in an abandoned facility adjacent to the now-infamous reactor no 4.
Photos and videos shared with MEAWW show volunteers working with the puppies and dogs in the area and the organization revealed their team was getting the highest readings they've seen in three years.
One particular video captured the moment their Geiger counters detected an unusually high reading of more than 4200 counts per minute (CPM) — associated with the detection of alpha and beta particles — on two puppies.
"A reading of under 100 CPM is safe to be admitted to the clinic," said Lori Kalef, program manager, SPCA International. "Over that and the animal is put through a decontamination wash, which is a soapy bath. That washes away the radioactive particles in their fur and brings the readings down under 100 most of the time."
The lives of these strays are anything but straightforward. Persistent radiation in the region, predators, lack of food, water, and veterinary care, as well as the harsh Ukrainian winter that sees temperatures drop to as low as -27C, has meant they do not live beyond five years of age.
Did such a high reading adversely affect their already short lifespan? "From what we can tell, the dogs in the zone do not experience significant negative effects from their radiation exposure," Kalef told MEAWW.
"It would take many years (10-30) of this radiation exposure for them to develop negative health effects, like higher rates of cancer," she continued.
But how had it gotten so high in the first place?
"There are radioactive particles still all over the ground in the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone," Kalef explained. "Humans working in the zone know not to eat off the ground, sleep in the dirt or roll in the grass, but dogs don't! So, as they live a normal dog life, they are exposed to radioactive material/particles that exist in the environment there."
But these puppies were the exception, not the rule. Diligent testing of radiation levels of these dogs conducted by the CFF and SPCA International found that a majority did not pose any threat to humans.
More than 40 volunteers will be working in the exclusion zone with the animals this year (Source: SPCA International/Provided)
The low radiation levels saw the two organizations work with the Ukrainian government to pave the way for 15 puppies to be removed from the exclusion zone, all of whom were adopted into homes in the US last year.
To put into context how significant that achievement is, no animal, or even object, had ever been allowed to leave the exclusion zone in the last three decades.
However, their work is far from over. Currently, the SPCA International is seeking sponsors for nine dogs that will provide the canines with radiation testing, sterilizations, vaccines, and veterinary care.
The CFF has similarly 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.
This year, over 40 volunteers from around the world, including veterinarians and veterinary technicians, will be visiting the exclusion zone Chernobyl to treat an estimated 700 animals.
Your help could go a long way in ensuring their efforts are not in waste.