In the early hours of April 26, 1986, in the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded causing its roof to blast off and shower its radioactive contents outwards.
Chernobyl, Pripyat, and their surrounding communities were forced to evacuate over 120,000 people within 30 hours of the catastrophe. In the heat of panic, thousands of dogs were left behind. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is still home to nearly 1,000 stray dogs who are descended from those abandoned pets.
A new project called “Dogs of Chernobyl” is sending teams of trained vets to spay, neuter, vaccinate, and provide medical care for those stray dogs living in the 30-kilometers (18.6milese) exclusion zone. The program is being led by the US-based non-profit organization Clean Futures Fund (CFF), which is currently seeking crowdfunding and equipment donations for its ongoing operations.
The animals have also been fitted with electronic tags and specialized radiation-monitoring collars so the researchers can work with the local government to understand the radioactive exposure levels in the area.
"We've been out here for the past three and a half weeks, and we've already spayed, neutered, and vaccinated over 300 dogs and cats," Lucas Hixson, co-found of CFF, told IFScience. “We’re also doing cats as well. If it’s got ovaries or testicles, we’re willing to spay and neuter it!”
“From our perspective this a worker safety and tourism issue. Tourism is really starting to grow in the zone. The animals are exposed to diseases like rabies, and if people are going to interact with these animals we want to ensure there are no risks.”
The CFF estimates that over 250 stray dogs live around the nuclear power plant, at least 225 dogs roam the empty streets of the former Soviet city, and hundreds more live in the surrounding countryside. Many of these are dogs are suffering from malnutrition and are at serious risk of disease, namely rabies from other dogs or wild animals. There also appears to be no dogs older than the ages of six to eight years old, the CFF says, suggesting that life is pretty tough.
Although formerly abandoned shortly after the disaster, the exclusion zone is still visited by thousands of scientists, security staff, workers, and tourists. It’s believed that the dogs have only survived the desolate environment due to food and care given by the few people working around the city, who have often been seen feeding and playing with the animals on their breaks.
The area, of course, is also afflicted with high background radiation levels. A 2016 study in the journal Scientific Reports found that voles living in Chernobyl were found to have high levels of cataracts, a condition that causes clouding of the eye's lens, due to radiation. Despite this threat, wildlife appears to be just fine in the nearby area. Another scientific study of the surrounding land discovered it has relatively strong numbers of wolves, wild boar, red foxes, and raccoon dogs.