The dogs must have known something was wrong. As hours, then days passed, they must have waited by the door, listening to the town’s sudden silence, wondering when their masters would return home.
In the early hours of April 27, 1986, the people of Pripyat were told to evacuate their town. Something had gone wrong at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. People were already getting sick. They could take their important documents and food with them. Nothing more.
As nearly 50,000 of them climbed onto buses, many ended up leaving their family pets behind. It probably didn’t seem like such a big deal — officials had told them they could return in just a couple of days.
But they’d never come home again.
That was 31 years ago. Today, the original inhabitants of Pripyat are long since gone. But the pets — the pets are still there.
Well, their descendants are, at least. About 900 stray dogs live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone — 1,000 square miles of restricted, still-partially contaminated Ukrainian forest about two hours north of Kiev. The radiation is high enough that visitors are limited in the amount of time they’re allowed to stay.
Many of the dogs live around the power plant, which puts them in contact with the men and women working on sealing it. And that’s a problem.
The workers are there to build the sarcophagus, a huge steel and concrete structure that will seal off the still-dangerous former nuclear power plant. The dogs have learned to rely on the workers and the increasing number of tourists for food.
But for every pup who is friendly towards or at least tolerates humans, there are many more who shy away or could even be dangerous. There’s also the risk that they could catch and spread rabies or other diseases from the wolves and other animals that live in the zone.
But one group in particular wants to change this. Meet the Dogs of Chernobyl.
The group is made of vets, volunteers, and radiation experts from all around the world. Launched by the Clean Futures Fund and working with Ukranian officials, the group runs a recurring vaccine and neutering campaign for the animals.
The campaign runs for several weeks each year. During that time, vets capture the dogs and give them check ups and shots.
Rabies vaccines in particular will help keep both the dogs and humans safe.
Not all of the dogs are people-friendly. Tranquilizer darts help the process along for the shyer animals.
The pups also get spayed and neutered in order to keep the population in check…
… and given a radiation check.
Researchers are still learning what the long-term effects of the radiation have been on animals and plants.
Ultimately, they are tagged and released.
Some of the dogs are also getting collars with radiation sensors and GPS receivers in order to map radiation levels and help researchers learn more about the inside of the exclusion zone.
Locals were initially suspicious of the group but warmed up when they saw how well the animals were being treated.
The old, official method of dealing with the dogs had been to shoot them. The vets’ presence put a stop to that. Within a week, the vets were canteen celebrities, says Lucas Hixson, the group’s co-founder.
When they held a weekend event in the city to help spay and neuter stray cats, so many locals showed up to help they had to turn some away.
The campaigns run for several weeks a year, with this year being the first run. Two more are planned, although more might be in the works, Hixson says. They’re raising money to hire a full-time veterinarian to stay year-round.
They might even be able to help the dogs find their way back to the homes and families they have lost.
In the future, young animals might be able to be adopted or trained as service or therapy dogs, Hixson says. The descendants of those abandoned pups might once again find themselves waiting eagerly at the door.
Only this time, there’s someone coming home to them.
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