Hundreds of stray dogs have learned to survive in the woods around theexclusion zone – mainly descendants of those left behind after the nucleardisaster, when residents were banned from taking their beloved pets to safety

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

Igor, who, it turns out, is very familiar with the dog, throws a fewsnowballs, 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’sonly a baby, really …”

Tarzan isn’t alone. There are approximately 300 stray dogs in the 2,600km²zone. They live among the moose and lynx, the hares and wolves that have alsofound a home here. But while the Mongolian horses and Belarusian bears wererecently introduced to the area, and other animals have come in asopportunists, the dogs are native.

After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, Pripyat and the surrounding villageswere abandoned, and residents were not allowed to take their pets to safety.Chernobyl Prayer, a devastating oral history of the period, tells of “dogshowling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, alsatians. The soldiers werepushing 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 theanimals. But some survived and it is mainly their descendants that populatethe zone.

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

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

Nadezhda Starodub, a guide with the Chernobyl tour specialist Solo East, saysthe visitors (there are no “tourists” in the zone) love the dogs. “Most of thetime people find them cute, but some think they might be contaminated and soavoid touching the dogs.” There are no rules that forbid a visitor fromhandling them, but Nadezhda asks her charges to exercise the same common sensethey 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 lovethem.”

While the dogs get some food and play from the visitors, their health needsare met by Clean Futures Fund, a US non-profit organisation that helpscommunities affected by industrial accidents, which has set up threeveterinary clinics in the area, including one inside the Chernobyl plant. Theclinics treat emergencies and issue vaccinations against rabies, parvovirus,distemper and hepatitis. They are also neutering the dogs. Lucas Hixson, thefund’s co-founder, says: “I don’t think we’ll ever get zero dogs in theexclusion zone but we want to get the population down to a manageable size sowe can feed and provide long-term care for them.” This makes Chernobyl saferfor 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 similarcooperation can be seen with the dogs. In the woods behind Chernobyl I lookagain at yellow-eyed Tarzan and see, not a wild animal, but a playful exampleof global kindness and cooperation.

Source: Julie McDowall

Photograph: Courtesy of Solo East

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