Meet the dogs of Ch­er­nobyl – the aban­doned pets that formed their own ca­nine com­mu­nity

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Weekend | Environment -

WE are in the woods be­hind the Ch­er­nobyl plant when the dog runs at us. It is thin, with brindle fur and yel­low eyes. Igor, our guide, makes a lunge and clamps his hands over its snout. They wres­tle in the snow and icy wa­ter shakes from the trees. The dog’s eyes flash as Igor grabs a stick and throws it into the trees. Dis­tracted, the an­i­mal chases it and our lit­tle group is free to move. But the dog reap­pears and drops the stick at Igor’s foot. He throws it again. The dog brings it back. I al­most laugh with re­lief.

Igor, who, it turns out, is very fa­mil­iar with the dog, throws a few snow­balls, which it tries to catch and chew. “This is Tarzan,” says Igor. “He’s a stray who lives in the ex­clu­sion zone. His mum was killed by a wolf, so the guides look out for him, chuck a few sticks, play a few games. He’s only a baby, re­ally …”

Tarzan isn’t alone. There are ap­prox­i­mately 300 stray dogs in the 2,600km2 zone. They live among the moose and lynx, the hares and wolves that have also found a home here. But while the Mon­go­lian horses and Be­laru­sian bears were re­cently in­tro­duced to the area, and other an­i­mals have come in as op­por­tunists, the dogs are na­tive.

Af­ter the Ch­er­nobyl dis­as­ter in 1986, Pripyat and the sur­round­ing vil­lages were aban­doned, and res­i­dents were not al­lowed to take their pets to safety. Ch­er­nobyl Prayer, a dev­as­tat­ing oral his­tory of the pe­riod, tells of “dogs howl­ing, try­ing to get on the buses. Mon­grels, al­sa­tians. The sol­diers were push­ing them out again, kick­ing them. They ran af­ter the buses for ages.” Heart­bro­ken fam­i­lies pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.” There was no mercy. Squads were sent in to shoot the an­i­mals. But some sur­vived and it is mainly their de­scen­dants that pop­u­late the zone.

Life is not easy for the Ch­er­nobyl strays. Not only must they en­dure harsh Ukrainian win­ters with no proper shel­ter, but they of­ten carry in­creased lev­els of ra­di­a­tion in their fur and have a short­ened life ex­pectancy. Few live be­yond the age of six.

But it’s not all bad news. The dogs that live near the zone’s check­points have lit­tle huts made for them by the guards, and some are wise enough to con­gre­gate near the lo­cal cafe, hav­ing learned that a hu­man pres­ence equals food. These ca­nine gangs act as un­of­fi­cial Ch­er­nobyl mas­cots, there to greet vis­i­tors who stop at Cafe Desy­atka for some borscht.

Nadezhda Star­o­dub, a guide with the Ch­er­nobyl tour spe­cial­ist Solo East, says the vis­i­tors (there are no “tourists” in the zone) love the dogs. “Most of the time peo­ple find them cute, but some think they might be con­tam­i­nated and so avoid touch­ing the dogs.” There are no rules that for­bid a vis­i­tor from han­dling them, but Nadezhda asks her charges to ex­er­cise the same com­mon sense they would when ap­proach­ing any stray. “Some guides are afraid of com­plaints,” she says, “so they try to avoid the dogs to stay on the safe side. But I love them.”

While the dogs get some food and play from the vis­i­tors, their health needs are met by Clean Fu­tures Fund, a US non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion that helps com­mu­ni­ties af­fected by in­dus­trial ac­ci­dents, which has set up three vet­eri­nary clin­ics in the area, in­clud­ing one in­side the Ch­er­nobyl plant. The clin­ics treat emer­gen­cies and is­sue vac­ci­na­tions against ra­bies, par­vovirus, dis­tem­per and hepati­tis. They are also neu­ter­ing the dogs. Lu­cas Hix­son, the fund’s co-founder, says: “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.” This makes Ch­er­nobyl safer for the dogs, but also for the work­ers and vis­i­tors.

The Ch­er­nobyl plant has re­cently been sealed un­der a new “sar­coph­a­gus” de­signed and built by a multi­na­tional group of ex­perts, and sim­i­lar co­op­er­a­tion can be seen with the dogs. In the woods be­hind Ch­er­nobyl I look again at yel­low-eyed Tarzan and see, not a wild an­i­mal, but a play­ful ex­am­ple of global kind­ness and co­op­er­a­tion.

Photo: The guardian

The aban­doned dogs at Ch­er­nobyl en­dure harsh Ukrainian win­ters.

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