Atomic dogs: Chernobyl’s strays being groomed for new life in US
Hundreds of puppies are being caught, cleaned up and fed, ready for adoption by American families
The restricted zone around Chernobyl is eerily quiet but one building near the scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster is full of barking and whining.
The long, single-storey structure once served as a makeshift medical centre for workers from the plant to receive help after the 1986 disaster.
Today it is a hospital for stray dogs in the 30km (19mile) exclusion zone long after its human residents were evacuated following the meltdown.
Lucas Hixson first came to the Ukrainian disaster site from the United States in 2013 to work as a radiation specialist but set up the “Dogs of Chernobyl” adoption and vaccination scheme after being surprised by the number of canines in the area.
A dog lover, he adopted a pet from the exclusion zone in 2017, which he named “Dva” – the Ukrainian word for “two” as it was the second dog adopted from Chernobyl. Both animals now live in the US.
“One of the first things that you notice when you go to the plant is the dogs,” he said. “The dogs can’t read radiation signs – they run, they go where they want.”
About 1,000 stray dogs live in the zone where people are not allowed to live, according to the Clean Futures Fund (CFF), the US organisation that oversees the dog adoption project.
Some 150 live in the area of the power plant, another 300 in the city and the rest at checkpoints, fire stations and villages where a few hundred people are thought to have unofficially moved in.
These dogs have to endure severe winters, snow and rain, not to mention disease and radiation.
Wildlife has recovered in this almost human-free spot and the dogs face a serious threat – wolves.
There are currently 15 puppies in hospital and after medical examination they will join other young dogs at Slavutych, a city some 50km from Chernobyl that was built mainly for workers of the plant after it exploded.
The puppies will stay in Slavutych for up to six weeks then travel to new homes in the US.
CFF has partners in the US who help find the new homes and provide all the necessary things to transfer the dogs to their new families.
The US-based volunteers spend time with the puppies after they arrive from Ukraine, too, and later help them get used to their new owners.
The “Dogs of Chernobyl” programme, which started last year, offers dogs under one year-old for adoption in the US.
Prospective owners fill out an online application form before interviews and even home inspections by the fund and its representatives in the US.
And the response has been good, with 300 offers for the initial 200 puppies in a short time, Hixson said.
He said the aim is to find families for 200 puppies over the next two years and to treat as many dogs as possible.
In the shelter, these puppies have a strict schedule – between walks and meals they have extra exercises, massages and even a so-called beauty salon.
“These are probably the most treated dogs in Ukraine,” Hixson said.
The volunteers admit some of the older dogs are too wild to be adopted, so they can only be offered medical treatment and then released back into the wild.
None of the puppies caught in the zone were radioactive, but some adult dogs were.
“We screen every dog before it comes into our hospital,” Hixson explains.
If the volunteers do find some contamination, they wash the dogs, decontaminate them with a special powder and, if necessary, shave their fur off.
“By the time the dog gets out, it’s just as clean as any other dog,” he said.
Nadiya Apolonova, representative of the Clean Futures Fund in Ukraine, said the life expectancy of a dog in the disaster zone is five years.
Over the last few years, wolves have been responsible for around 30 per cent of dog deaths.
The volunteers believe the programme also helps to tell people about the reality of Chernobyl.
“There are a lot of perceptions about Chernobyl that are not realities,” Hixson underlines.
While people might imagine deformed creatures living in the exclusion zone, the puppies born there are just like any other.
“People who have never been here expect to see something without ever coming and looking for themselves,” he says. “These are the healthiest and smartest dogs I’ve ever seen.”