Pets of the apocalypse

The Geiger Counter

“Everyone up and left, but they left their dogs and cats. The first few days I went around pouring milk for all the cats, and I’d give the dogs a piece of bread. They were standing in their yards waiting for their masters. They waited a long time.”

“But the dogs and cats had absorbed heavy doses of radiation in their fur, and were liable, presumably, to wander out of the Zone. The hunters had to go in and shoot them.”

“The first time we came, the dogs were running around near their houses, guarding them. Waiting for the people to come back. They were happy to see us, they ran toward our voices. We shot them in the houses, and the barns, in the yards.”

“We met these strange dogs and cats on the road. They acted strange: they didn’t recognize us as people, they ran away. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with us until they told us to start shooting at them.”

“The dogs have gone wild. I found our Rex, called him, he won’t come.”

-The preceding are people’s first-hand accounts of dogs in Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone following the world’s worst nuclear disaster. They are taken from Svetlana Alexievich’s “Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.”

When the Unit 4 Reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine exploded in the spring of 1986, it poisoned the Earth for thousands of years. Shortly after the meltdown, Soviet authorities evacuated an estimated 49,000 people from the city. They would not allow them to take their pets with them. They told them they would be gone for only three days, so they set out a little bit of food and water.

They were never allowed to return.

After the humans had been driven away, Soviet soldiers went from house to house, shooting as many dogs and cats as they could find, fearful they would escape and spread the massive dose of radiation they had absorbed to other regions. But dogs and cats, just like their human counterparts, are survivors. Some hid. Some fled to the Red Forest. Surely, some soldiers looked into their eyes and simply disobeyed orders. And while they lived in a poisoned land, these pets survived, feeding and breeding as the memory of their human masters faded from their minds.

More than three decades later, volunteers from the Clean Futures Fund, a non-profit that helps people recover from industrial disasters, began traveling to the town of Pripyat, located in the heart of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. What they found was shocking: a huge population of dogs, scavenging and scrounging around the post-apocalyptic cement sarcophagus that now covers the simmering nuclear reactor. These dogs are the descendants of those first pets whose owners left after the meltdown. The first generations of dogs fled to the forest. Eventually, they were driven back to the city by wild bears and rabid wolves. They were skinny and they did not live long, but they did live long enough to reproduce, again and again, leading to a massive population boom, a huge mob of dogs in the bones of what had once been a bustling Soviet city.

They do not have two heads, or three eyes. They do not glow in the dark. In fact, they tend not to live long enough to develop cancer from the radiation in which they live. All around them, the wilderness has been reclaiming the Exclusion zone. Wild plants and animals are taking over. The only exception is the plant itself, where people still live and work, to this day, monitoring the deadly core. Over many years, those workers formed bonds with the feral dogs that wandered the empty streets outside.

Dr. Jennifer Betz is a veterinarian who lives in Portland, Oregon but spends much of her time in the Exclusion Zone. There, she and other volunteers with the Clean Futures Fund’s Dogs of Chernobyl Program work to locate, feed, vaccinate and sterilize the dogs. They are then released to live out their lives in the only home they have ever known. Despite the catastrophe that shaped their lives, most of the dogs are free and happy, once they get a little help from these humans.

Betz has always loved dogs.

“As far as me, it’s always something I had a connection with,” she says. “Even as a kid. Other kids would go and find kids to play with. I would go find dogs to play with.”

“I think they provide some sort of comfort, some kind of responsiveness,” she continues. “They’re really remarkable. There really isn’t any other animal that gives you that connection.”

Betz’s account of why she travels to the Exclusion Zone is simple.

“Basically, in 1986 the world’s worst nuclear disaster happened,” explains Betz. “Everyone was told they would be gone for three days. They left some food for their pets. This was Soviet times; they had no choice. They sent in the military to kill the dogs and cats and prevent contamination.”

But no matter how much they tried to shoot them, the dogs could not be eliminated, and the workers who stayed behind to monitor the plant often fed the dogs.

“Ever since the accident, there have been people working there,” explains Betz. “Those workers noticed the dogs. A lot of times they would eat leftovers from the canteen. The workers there would feed scraps to the dogs.”

“Years ago, when they hired people to come in and shoot them, that didn’t go over real well with the workers,” Betz says. “They boycotted. They loved the dogs.”

In 2016, volunteers with the Clean Futures Fund first saw the dogs, in person. They knew they wanted to help them.

A few of the dogs were adopted and taken outside of the zone, but those adoptions eventually ended due to increased rules and regulations.

“Back in 2018 we had two litters of puppies that their mother disappeared,” says Betz. “They were four weeks old and left to fend for themselves. They were going to die if we didn’t do something. We petitioned for a special circumstances approval, to remove them from zone, then we had to quarantine with the placement.”

Since then, United States and Canada both put a ban on the import of dogs from Ukraine and 111 other countries that are “rabies suspect.”

“Since then, they have really tightened up on their restrictions and have not even let us remove a dog from the zone for medical reasons,” Betz says.

“Because it’s illegal to remove anything from the exclusion zone, they began working on humane population control,” she continues. “We come in and capture the dogs, spay and neuter them, do full physical exams and DNA sequencing. They can’t leave so our goal is to help them be as happy and healthy as they can be while they are there.”

“They are pretty happy, actually,” she points out.

“When they did have tourists, the tourists loved the dogs,” she says.

While Chernobyl is obviously no stranger to strife, it was struck yet another blow in 2022, when the war between Russia and Ukraine broke out.

“In the very beginning, the first thing [Russian forces] did when they captured Chernobyl was put every worker in a bunker for 30 days. They had no contact with the dogs,” says Betz. “The dogs had no food; they almost starved to death. That’s proof these dogs are reliant on people.”

If the world’s worst nuclear meltdown and raging warfare weren’t enough, volunteer efforts were also hampered by the global COVID-19 pandemic. The Clean Futures Fund’s Dogs of Chernobyl has worked in the area in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2022, missing two years during the lockdown.

They continue to work there even now, as the war rages on. Chernobyl is, and always has been, a haunting – and strangely beautiful – reminder of what remains after an unthinkable tragedy. The rusting yellow Ferris wheel at the Pripyat Amusement Park, which was scheduled to open just days after the meltdown, has become one of the planet’s most powerful post-apocalyptic images. It is a reminder of our species greatest aspirations, and of how quickly people and their grand designs will crumble, in the end. Most importantly, it reminds us that the Earth and her many species, her lush vegetation and all the things that swim and slither and run across the ground, are resilient in ways we can hardly imagine. The land is poisoned, and yet life persists.

“It’s kind of like an abandoned ghost town,” says Betz. “You do have to be careful. Some areas are very hot. Some have almost no radiation. It’s like everything just stopped in time.”

“You can’t touch your eyes or mouth. You can’t sit down,” she adds. “You are walking through this crumbling society.”

It is an illustration of both the horrible and wonderful things human beings are capable of.

“Especially after the war, we were able to get a large amount of donations,” she says.

 

Learn more at www.cleanfutures.org

 

 

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