In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant melted down, sending nearby residents fleeing the disaster zone. And sadly, most pets got left behind. Over the last 32 years, the surviving pups have multiplied, creating a community of hundreds that live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and another 250 that live on the grounds of the former power plant itself.
According to the Russian website Meduza, Ukrainian authorities have captured 200 of the stray Chernobyl puppies. They are currently keeping them in a 45-day quarantine in the city of Slavutych, and then a dozen will be shipped to the United States.
“We have rescued the first puppies, they are now in our adoption shelter going through the quarantine and decontamination process,” Lucas Hixson, co-founder of the U.S.-based Clean Futures Fund, a non-profit created to take care of Chernobyl clean-up workers, their families and the dogs tells Novak. “The goal is 200 dogs but will likely be more in the long run. My hope is to get 200 dogs rescued and adopted in the next 18 months and then go from there.”
The pups have a heartbreaking story, as The Guardian’s Julie McDowell detailed earlier this year. During the evacuation, more than 120,000 people were herded onto buses to escape the meltdown of the Unit 4 reactor, leaving most of their valuables and their pets behind. Many dogs tried to follow their owners onto the buses but were kicked off. People left notes on their doors asking authorities not to kill their animals, but Soviet Army squads were dispatched to put down as many contaminated animals as they could find.
Some of the dogs survived the army and the radiation, rebuilding their community as a pack. The Clean Futures Fund reports that the 250 dogs living on the grounds of the former power plant were likely driven out of the surrounding forests by wolves and a lack of food. Another 225 dogs roam Chernobyl City and hundreds of others live and scrounge at security checkpoints and throughout the woods and abandoned communities in the Exclusion Zone. Most of the dogs around the plant are under the age of 4 or 5, and clean-up workers at the site sometimes feed and tend to sick animals.
But last year, after becoming aware of the animals, The Clean Futures Fund decided the pups needed a more permanent solution. That’s why they’ve implemented a three-year program in the Exclusion Zone to spay and neuter 1,000 animals and vaccinate them against rabies. At their first clinic last August, the Fund spayed and neutered 350 dogs and cats in the area. Each animal was tested for radiation, given antibiotics, vaccinated for rabies and microchipped. Each dog's vital data was also recorded.
For the next clinic scheduled for June, the Fund has also partnered with researchers from the University of South Carolina. The team will study the dogs for signs of radiation poisoning as well as genetic damage and disruptions to the dogs’ microbiomes, reports Mary Katherine Wildeman at The Post and Courier. The team will sedate the dogs and look for tumors and cataracts, which can signal radiation poisoning.
Understanding the impacts of radiation exposure is becoming increasingly important, says Timothy Mousseau, a researcher who has studied radiation in the birds, insects and small animals of Chernobyl and will lead the project. Exposure rates in daily life from medical treatments and other sources are on the rise, with the average yearly dose Americans receive doubling in the last 20 years alone.
There is no word when or where the dozen Chernobyl pups will go up for adoption. But even if you're not lucky enough to have one of the reminders of Soviet-era nuclear power at the foot of your bed, it’s still possible to see the place for yourself and hand out treats to some of the remaining pups. There’s a booming tourism industry in the area to visit the eerie ghost towns and surprisingly quiet and beautiful green space that has overtaken the Zone.