In 1986, tragedy struck the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine when the Unit 4 reactor failed, spewing nuclear waste and radiation throughout the nearby city of Pripyat. The Soviet Union evacuated 120,000 people and established what's now known as the Exclusion Zone, covering 1,000 square miles. Those forced out of their homes had to leave behind their pets. And like first responders to the disaster, these dogs and other animals were subject to radiation.
Over 30 years later, hundreds of stray dogs live in and around the power plant, along with scores of other animals that call Chernobyl home. Though efforts have been made to cull the canine population, the dogs of Chernobyl still prove remarkably hardy. Now, they're getting a chance to live in loving homes, thanks to the efforts of multiple nonprofit organizations devoted to animal welfare. In 2017, organizations began offering the Chernobyl dogs medical attention. And in summer 2018, two groups brought the first batch of dogs to the United States to experience life outside the Exclusion Zone.
After the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, about 120,000 people were evacuated. They could not take anything with them for fear of contamination, and that included pets. Some dogs chased after their owners to follow them onto evacuation buses, but soldiers pushed them away.
Dog owners also reportedly left notes on their doors, begging the government to spare their pets' lives, but that didn't stop officials from trying to kill as many of the remaining animals as possible. In the years since, however, the descendants of these dogs have bred and multiplied.
The Chernobyl dogs placed for adoption are free of contaminating radioactive particles and safe to hold and cuddle, but visitors to the area - yes, people go on tours of the region - should not touch dogs that haven't undergone the rigorous decontamination process.
Drew Scanlon, in his short documentary The Puppies of Chernobyl, says visitors are advised not to touch the dogs while in the Exclusion Zone, no matter how tempting it may seem.
Without permanent indoor shelter, dogs, even if they have long or thick coats, cannot survive for long in the harsh, cold temperatures.
It's easy to imagine Chernobyl and its grounds as a ghost town. But according to the Clean Futures Fund, a nonprofit sponsoring a project to help the Chernobyl dogs, 3,500 people work in the area daily. An estimated 250 dogs live at the plant itself, 225 in the city of Chernobyl, and hundreds more roam around - for a total of more than 1,000, according to SPCA International.
Wolves and the need for food have driven the dogs from wooded areas surrounding the plant into the Exclusion Zone. Some of the workers in the zone feed and care for the stray dogs, but haven't been allowed to take them home.