Saving the dogs of Chernobyl

On April 26, 1986, reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, exploded. The explosion blew off the reactor’s 1,000-ton steel and concrete lid, spewing radioactive material into the atmosphere in what’s been described as the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever seen.

The following day, 30,000 residents in the nearby town of Pripyat were evacuated.


And they weren’t allowed to bring their pets.

Chernobyl Prayer, an oral history of the disaster and its aftermath, tells of “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. . . . The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” More soldiers were sent in to shoot the abandoned animals. Grief-stricken pet owners pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”

But some dogs survived.

Today, approximately 250 of their descendants roam the sere wasteland of what’s come to be known as the exclusion zone, a 1,000-square-mile area immediately surrounding the power plant where radioactive contamination from fallout is highest. Most don’t live to see their fourth birthday—if the numbing nighttime cold doesn’t kill them, roving wolves and wild boars will.

In all, 120,000 people were eventually evacuated from 189 cities and villages in the zone and permanently resettled.

Now, thanks to the Clean Futures Fund (CCF), their pets’ descendants have the same opportunity.

A US 502(c)(3) nonprofit, the CCF raises awareness and provides support for communities affected by industrial accidents and long-term remedial activities like the slow clean-up at Chernobyl. It also administers the Dogs of Chernobyl project.

In 2017, the CCF started raising funds to bring veterinarians to Chernobyl to administer rabies shots and spay and neuter the strays. It also launched a rescue and adoption program to get the dogs out of Chernobyl and into safe, new homes.

The CCF flew the first 15 rescues to the United States to meet their adoptive families in early July.

“It was a pretty powerful experience,” CCF cofounder Lucas Hixson told Newsweek.

Before the dogs go up for adoption, they’re quarantined and given a thorough medical exam, including vaccinations and a spay or neuter. They also go through something that doesn’t happen during exams at most hospitals: decontamination.

All dogs are screened for radioactivity, and any radioactive dust is cleaned from their fur. Another 15 dogs have been rescued, treated, and await adoption, although the CCF hasn’t said when they’ll be available yet. The dogs won’t lack for good homes—the CCF received hundreds of applications from people around the world who wanted to adopt one of the strays.

In all, the CCF hopes to rescue and find new homes for at least 200 Chernobyl dogs in the next 18 months, and go on from there.

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

Photo credit: © iStock/Grandfailure

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