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The Stray Dogs of Chernobyl

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The 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl sent shock waves around the world. The Ukrainian city became a wasteland in the wake of the tragedy and nobody has lived there for more than 30 years. At least nobody on two legs!

120,000 people were evacuated from the area after the explosion. They were only permitted to travel with what they could carry and so were forced to leave their dogs behind. The descendants of the abandoned pooches still live around the power plant having been driven out of the nearby woods by wolves.

Living on Scraps

There are around 900 stray dogs in Chernobyl. 3,500 people still work at the nuclear plant and the dogs are drawn to it by the rubbish and food which these workers discard. The staff often take pity on the dogs and feed them and even take them into the plant during the harsh Ukrainian winters.

There are very few mature dogs to be found in the exclusion zone. Volunteers have found that most of the dogs are under 5 years old as most die young due to malnutrition, lack of medical care and the effects of radiation.

The Dogs of Chernobyl Project

Now, The Dogs of Chernobyl project, established by the American non-for-profit organisation Clean Futures Fund, is using the dogs to help monitor radiation levels in the region whilst providing the medical care that they need. Volunteers and experts from across the globe are participating in the initiative. The stray dogs help in the study of radiation but also receive much-needed treatment. The dogs are vaccinated and neutered and then fitted with special collars.

Radiation Sensors

Participants in the project capture the stray pooches, study their radiation exposure and provide veterinary treatment. The dogs are then released again into the exclusion zone around the power plant so they can be tracked. The collars they are fitted with feature radiation sensors so that radiation levels across the area can be monitored. This is a huge boon to researchers as radiation levels can now be monitored in areas which are unsafe for humans to access.

Volunteers have found radiation levels in the dogs which are as much as 20 times higher than normal. The project is enabling scientists to map radiation levels across the entire exclusion zone. This simply wouldn’t be possible without the canine helpers.

A Win Win Situation

>The Dogs of Chernobyl is a fabulous project which benefits both the dogs and mankind. The strays play a valuable role in scientific research whilst receiving the veterinary care that they desperately need. The Clean Futures Fund is appealing for charitable donations to finance the ongoing cost of vaccinations and the neutering programme.

The Canine Community of Chernobyl

After the Chernobyl Accident of 1986, Pripyat in Northern Ukraine was left in an abandoned state. Devastatingly, those who lived in this area prior to the disaster were not allowed to take their pets to safety following on from the events that took place. Time was not on side and due to a lack of space, family pets simply could not be part of the rescue.

Chernobyl Prayer, a distressing recountment of this time, tells the story of “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, alsatians.” Heartbreakingly, there were scrawled notes left from families, instructing soldiers not to harm their beloved animals. “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”

When the Soviet troops were eventually sent in to the exclusion zone, the goal was clear - to kill any remaining animals that were still living in this environment. The area was scoped out and any wildlife or abandoned family pets were extinguished. Or so they thought.

There were in fact some survivors of this organised cull, and the dogs who made it through managed to incredibly increase their numbers and survive. The canine survivors, and former family pets continued to reside in the exclusion zone, before eventually moving into the Chernobyl nuclear power plant itself.

There are approximately 250 stray dogs living in the zone currently. And the dog successors can be found in nearly every nook and cranny of the 30-mile wide Chernobyl site. They live amongst the other existing wildlife, from moose and hares, to lynx and wolves. The life of a Chernobyl stray can be incredibly difficult. When winter rolls around, these canines must endure the harsh Ukranian weather with only makeshift shelter on hand.

But the local workers assist the canine community and most incredibly, they see it as their mission to look after these dogs, providing controlled indoor areas by way of building huts for them. Many will even feed the dogs scraps of their meals. Some of the dogs will utilise their canine intelligence by way of seeking out the local cafe, as means of a potential meal.

In 2011, Chernobyl was officially declared a tourist attraction. And there are certain laws for visitors around the human proximity of these dogs within the exclusion zone. These laws strongly advise people to avoid feeding or touching the dogs, due to the risk of contamination. There is a potential risk of radioactive particles within the dogs’ fur alongside contamination within their food and water is contaminated. There is also a risk that the radioactive molecules they ingest could be contained within their bodies. Such is the issue with increased levels of radiation in their fur, that these strays possess a shortened life expectancy. Few of the chernobyl canines live beyond the age of six.

In terms of the dogs’ health needs, these are being met by Clean Futures Fund a US non-profit organisation that helps communities affected by industrial accidents. They have already set up a veterinary clinic inside the Chernobyl plant itself, with three more around the area. Lucas Hixson, co-founder of the fund, has stated: "We could find areas in their bones where radioisotopes had accumulated. We could survey the bones and we could see the radioactivity in them,"

The CFF is also accepting donations to help manage the dogs of Chernobyl. The money collected goes to dog food, rabies vaccinations, and to pay veterinarians to come to the area so that the pooches can be spayed and neutered. And thanks to the CFF, more than 400 animals were spayed and neutered in the first year of the clinic's operation.

Hixson has a vision to help both the dogs and the workers and visitors to the plant “I don’t think we’ll ever get zero dogs in the exclusion zone but we want to get the population down to a manageable size so we can feed and provide long-term care for them.”

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