Victims of past lives. Those are the words that I think of, when I consider the fate of the abandoned dogs of Chernobyl. My name is Lucas Hixson and I’m an environmental contamination specialist from the United States. Over five years ago I started traveling to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant as part of an international vocational exchange program.
If you told me five years ago that I would be working in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and providing care for these abandoned animals, I don’t know that I would’ve been able to believe it. But, life finds a way to surprise us.
I had studied Chernobyl professionally for around ten years prior to traveling to Chernobyl, and I thought I knew a lot. I very quickly realized that I didn’t know half as much as I thought that I did.
I will never forget my first day arriving at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. I got off of the train with the rest of the workers and walked onto the plant site. I was astounded to meet a group of about eight stray dogs that lived at the train station.
At this time, no one had ever written about or discussed the fate of these abandoned animals. The more we travelled around the site, the more dogs we saw. I was amazed to find almost 300 stray dogs living at the industrial site that is the home of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
Over the next few years, my co-founded Erik Kambarian and I, continued to ask questions about the dogs;
· Where did they come from?
· What were their lives like?
· Was there any management program for them?
We quickly learned that these animals were descendants of pets that were left behind after the former residents were evacuated. When people were evacuated after Chernobyl, they were told by the government that they would only be gone for three days. They were told to only take the things they needed for a short trip; some clothes, money, food and identification documents. They were specifically told to leave their animals and livestock behind.
The contamination spewing out of the destroyed reactor fell into the environment and collected on their fur like dirt and dust. The government was concerned that if the animals were transported out of the evacuated areas they would transport this contamination with them into clean areas.
The dogs living around the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone live lives as stray animals. They are not feral, but also not domestic. They choose to live in populated areas of the Exclusion Zone because the workers and tourists will bring food and provide protection from the wild predators in the zone. They do not want to be picked up, but will tolerate interaction with people in exchange for food.
The power plant did not have a management program in place for these animals, and that shouldn’t be surprising – it’s an industrial power complex, normally having no need for veterinary services. When we started working with the dogs in 2017, we performed a survey of the population and found there were over 1,000 stray dogs living in the 30-km abandoned environment.
Through our survey we learned that most of the dogs only lived to be one or two years old. The reader is probably surprised to learn that the biggest challenges to their lives is not the radiation it’s the lack of food and water, the harsh Ukrainian winters without protection from the elements, and predation from wolves and other beasts in the zone.
Let’s talk about what that actually means for the population. If you have over 1,000 dogs, living lives of one or two years on average, it means that between 300 to 400 dogs would die every year and 300-400 new puppies would be born into this unforgiving environment.
While human interaction is good for the animals and for the workers, it also carries considerable risk. The dogs have been exposed to rabies by animals in the exclusion zone, including the packs of wolves that claim the surrounding areas. Ukraine receives its rabies vaccine for humans from Russia, but has not been receiving an adequate supply for nearly eight years because of the breakdown of relations and the ongoing conflict with Russia in Eastern Ukraine.
Over the last three years we have treated over 1,500 animals. We can now see the impacts of our program on the population. The overall population has declined to around 600 animals, but we are seeing healthier dogs living longer lives. I believe this is because there is not as much competition for food and shelter and the dogs are able to stay in populated areas safe from the predators that stalk the forests surrounding them.
In 2019 we began a feeding management program for the dogs to improve their quality of life. We have transported and distributed over 5 tons of dog food at the time of this article. We would not be able to do this without the support of the public and our followers.
When the Covid-19 crisis began sweeping around the world and countries began shutting down borders and enforcing quarantine, we did not know if we would survive the disruption. We were approached by Airbnb about the possibility of providing a virtual feeding experience. This experience allows us to raise money to purchase and deliver food for these abandoned animals. Thanks to your support we are able to bring food and support for these animals and help improve their quality of life. From myself and all of these abandoned animals, I can’t express how grateful we truly are.
To book your Airbnb experience and meet the Dogs of Chernobyl, click here. All proceeds go directly to Clean Futures Fund, a U.S. non-profit organization that supports the workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and affected communities