The Dogs of Chernobyl

Arriving at Dytyatki Checkpoint a solid, wolflike dog comes trotting up to the van. He welcomes each visitor as they disembark at the first checkpoint into the exclusion zone. A wilderness, the controlled zone surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat in Ukraine is now inhabited by very few humans and is home to unique wildlife and dogs. Knowing how to get attention he is the first of many dogs that live within the zone to say “hello”.

In 1986 the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was the location of a catastrophic accident and two days after the disaster the mass evacuation of the area began. People from an area up to 30km from the Power Plant were made to leave taking just a small number of belongings with them. They were not allowed to take pets with them, but many thought the evacuation would be for just a few days and hoped to return to collect pets at a later time. This was not to be the case. Shortly after the evacuation the Soviet Army was sent in to shoot the cats and dogs that were roaming the area. This was an impossible task and the dogs within the zone are descendents of these abandoned pets.

At some point in time some of the dogs have bred with the wolves that are found in the surrounding forests giving many of the dogs a unique appearance. Deep wolf eyes blend with the softness found in domesticated animals. An unnerving feeling of uncertainty as the dog / wolf appearance flits before your eyes.

Life for these dogs is harsh. Winters are bitterly cold, whilst the summer months see high temperatures. The dogs are forced from the forests by the packs of wolves who roam wild, free from the restraints put in place by humans in other areas. Many dogs are malnourished and those that aren’t vaccinated by the visiting vets from Clean Futures Fund are exposed to rabies from the resident wolves.

It is thought that about 250 dogs roam around the nuclear power plant. Attracted by humans and the associated food, their numbers are now controlled by a neutering and spaying programme from Clean Futures Fund. Those that have been ‘done’ sport an attractive green ear tag. Prior to this programme which started in 2017 many were culled by the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in an attempt to stop the numbers growing.

There are also small populations of dogs living around the checkpoints and within Chernobyl town where the workers and self-settlers (people who have chosen to return against government advice) live. The guards ensure the dogs are cared for by providing shelter and food. It is thought there are about 1000 dogs in the area overall. The guides who are compulsory for any legal visit into the zone have befriended many of the dogs and keep and eye out for them each time they visit.

Tarzan lives with the guards at the entrance to the “Duga” Radar System. A solid dog with soft yellow eyes he comes to see what treats have been squirreled for him from breakfast. Bread with chunks of butter are enjoyed with immense pleasure. Every piece of butter is licked from the bread before he starts his tour of the area. Being first into buildings, waiting patiently while photographs are taken he is the unofficial guide. The walk through the woodland is playtime with a stick being brought along and playing like any happy dog anywhere on the planet is part of the tour.

A little later it is time to meet Beard. She is a hairy girl with an impressive beard. Trotting across the bridge at Pripyat River Port she is happy to roll in the sunshine and have her tummy rubbed. Insistent and persistent she is healthy and happy.

All of these dogs, despite the care given by the visiting vets, the guards and the workers have a hard existence. Made harder by the background radiation levels. Whilst they look healthy and happy most never see adulthood with the majority of the dogs being no older that 5 years old.

At first you may not notice the dogs within the zone, but their presence as an unofficial mascot is justified. There are lots of rules within the zone about what can and can’t be done or touched, but the dogs do not feature. Petting is not an option when a large nose is pushed into your hand but sensible precautions of hand washing and awareness of the dogs behaviour is essential. Radioactive dust sits on all the surfaces of the area and whilst uncommon, the dogs coats may have radioactive particles that are invisible. This is inevitable given how much lying around and sunbathing features in these dogs lives. However, this laid back attitude to life does not stop them being an integral and lighthearted part of an area with an intense past.