In 1986, tragedy struck the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine when the Unit 4 reactor failed, spewing nuclear waste and radiation throughout the nearby city of Pripyat. The Soviet Union evacuated 120,000 people and established what is now known as the Exclusion Zone, covering 1,000 square miles. Those forced out of their homes had to leave behind their pets. And like first responders to the disaster, these dogs and other animals were subject to radiation.
Now, over 30 years later, hundreds of stray dogs live in and around the power plant, along with scores of other animals that call Chernobyl home. Though efforts have been made to cull the canine population, the dogs of Chernobyl have proven remarkably hardy. Now, they're getting a chance to live in loving homes, thanks to the efforts of multiple nonprofit organizations devoted to animal welfare. In 2017, these organizations began offering the Chernobyl dogs medical attention. In May 2018, they brought the first batch of dogs to the United States to experience life outside the Exclusion Zone.
The Dogs Are Descendants Of Pets Abandoned After Chernobyl
After the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, about 120,000 people were evacuated. They could not take anything with them for fear of contamination, and that included pets. Some dogs chased after their owners to follow them onto evacuation buses, but soldiers pushed them away.
Dog owners also reportedly left notes on their doors, begging the government to spare their pets' lives, but that didn't stop officials from trying to kill as many of the remaining animals as possible. In the years since, however, the descendants of these dogs have bred and multiplied.
Cold Is More Of A Threat To The Dogs Than Radiation
Without permanent indoor shelter, dogs, even if they have long or thick coats, cannot survive long periods of harsh cold temperatures.
Workers In The Exclusion Zone Care For The Dogs
It's easy to imagine Chernobyl and its grounds as a ghost town. However, according to the Clean Futures Fund, a nonprofit sponsoring a project to help the Chernobyl dogs, 3,500 workers are in the area daily. An estimated 250 dogs live at the plant itself, 225 in the city of Chernobyl, and hundreds more roam around, for a total of more than 1,000, according to SPCA International.
Wolves and the need for food have driven the dogs from wooded areas surrounding the plant into the Exclusion Zone. Some of the workers in the zone feed and care for the stray dogs, but haven't been allowed to take them home.
Few Of The Dogs Live Beyond The Age Of Four
One of the most striking things about the dogs living in Chernobyl is that they're all relatively young - most do not live to be older than four years. Although disease, malnutrition, and wolves and others predators contribute to their short lives, the main cause of death is harsh Ukrainian winters.
The dogs depend on workers at the plant to feed and shelter them.
Organizations Have Partnered To Help The Dogs
Four Paws, an organization devoted to helping animals in need, and the Clean Futures Fund, which supports "communities affected by industrial accidents," have partnered to help dogs living in the Exclusion Zone.
Their goal is to spay, neuter, and vaccinate the dogs - not only to stop breeding, but also to protect them from rabies and other contagious diseases they've been exposed to while living in the wild.
Dogs Have Been Cleared For Adoption
SPCA International and the Clean Futures Fund have partnered to make the dogs available for adoption in Ukraine and North America. In 2018, more than 200 dogs were cleared for adoption, including at least a dozen bound for the United States. They were captured and quarantined for 45 days in the Ukrainian city of Slavutych before being shipped to the United States. Only dogs younger than one year old will be released for adoption.
The Available Dogs Are Thoroughly Decontaminated
Tom Mousseau, a biologist at the University of South Carolina who has studied the effects of radiation on wildlife in the Chernobyl area, told Newsweek that before dogs are cleared for adoption, their fur is cleansed of radioactive dust, and the animals are thoroughly screened and examined. "They certainly pose no significant threat to anybody handling them," Mousseau said.
The dogs also appear to be free of genetic deformities, even though other wildlife in the area affected by the radiation have shown abnormalities, such as increased cataracts in wolves and albinism in birds.
According to SPCA International, which is working with the Clean Futures Fund to release the dogs for adoption, "More than 450 animals were tested for radiation exposure, received medical care, vaccinations, and were spayed or neutered. The radiation testing revealed that the dogs living in the zone were not harmfully contaminated."
The Dogs Have Survived Multiple Removal Attempts
Since 1986, authorities have made multiple attempts to remove the dogs from the area. Not long after the reactor exploded, the Soviet Union sent soldiers to kill the dogs and other animals, but in an area as vast as the Exclusion Zone, this proved impossible.
The nuclear plant hired someone to kill the dogs again because it had run out of funds to try other removal options, but the Clean Futures Fund reported that the worker refused. That's when the CFF stepped in to try to save the 1,000 or so dogs roaming the area.
Though a large part of the plan to help the dogs involves medical care, some of the dogs have been released wearing collars that will help researchers map out radiation levels in the Exclusion Zone.
Visitors Should Not Pet The Dogs
The Chernobyl dogs placed for adoption are free of contaminating radioactive particles and are safe to hold and cuddle, but visitors to the area - yes, people go on tours of the region - should not touch dogs that haven't undergone this rigorous decontamination.
Drew Scanlon, in his short documentary "The Puppies of Chernobyl," says visitors are advised not to touch the dogs while in the Exclusion Zone, no matter how tempting the adorable puppies are.
The Pups Will Still Need Help In Their New Homes
Though the dogs being put up for adoption are physically healthy, they've more or less been living as wild animals with limited human contact. Lucas Hixson, co-founder of the Clean Futures Fund, one of the organizations working to help the dogs, explained to Motherboard that they are not typical domesticated animals and will need additional care after adoption:
They don't understand the concept of a toy - the only things they like to play with are sticks and things to eat. We have developed a special training program for the puppies while they are in the adoption shelter, but they will likely still need a little extra love to reach their full potential.