Tag: The Clean Futures Fund

What goes around comes around!

Another account of dogs bonding with humans.

Chernobyl is a name that anyone born before, say, 1970 will associate with a terrible nuclear accident in Russia.

As Wikipedia put it:

The Chernobyl disaster was a nuclear accident that occurred on Saturday 26 April 1986, at the No. 4 reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the city of Pripyat in the north of the Ukrainian SSR in the Soviet Union. It is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history both in terms of cost and casualties, and is one of only two nuclear energy accidents rated at seven—the maximum severity—on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the other being the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. The initial emergency response, together with later decontamination of the environment, ultimately involved more than 500,000 personnel and cost an estimated 18 billion Soviet rubles—roughly US$68 billion in 2019, adjusted for inflation.

But recently BBC Future spoke of the bond that the guards and the abandoned dogs made.

Read it below: (Unfortunately you will have to go here to view the stunning photographs because the BBC prevents them being republished! But it is still a very interesting article.)

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The guards caring for Chernobyl’s abandoned dogs

The descendants of pets abandoned by those fleeing the Chernobyl disaster are now striking up a curious relationship with humans charged with guarding the contaminated area.

It wasn’t long after he arrived in the irradiated landscape of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone that Bogdan realised his new job came with some unexpected companions. From his first days as a checkpoint guard in Chernobyl, he has shared the place with a pack of dogs.

Bogdan (not his real name) is now in his second year of working in the zone and has got to know the dogs well. Some have names, some don’t. Some stay nearby, others remain detached – they come and go as they please. Bogdan and the other guards feed them, offer them shelter, and occasionally give them medical care. They bury them when they die.

All the dogs are, in a sense, refugees of the 1986 disaster in which Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. In the aftermath, tens of thousands of people were evacuated from the Ukrainian city of Pripyat. They were told to leave their pets behind. (Read more about the long-term toll of the Chernobyl disaster.)

Soviet soldiers shot many of the abandoned animals in an effort to prevent the spread of contamination. But, undoubtedly, some of the animals hid and survived. Thirty-five years later, hundreds of stray dogs now roam the 2,600km (1,000 sq mile) Exclusion Zone put in place to restrict human traffic in and out of the area. Nobody knows which of the dogs are directly descended from stranded pets, and which may have wandered into the zone from elsewhere. But they are all dogs of the zone now.

Their lives are perilous. They are at risk from radioactive contamination, wolf attacks, wildfires and starvation, among other threats. The dogs’ average lifespan is just five years, according to the Clean Futures Fund, a non-governmental organisation that monitors and provides care for dogs living within the Exclusion Zone.

That dogs inhabit this ruined place is well known – some of them have even become minor celebrities on social media. Clean Futures Fund co-founder Lucas Hixson, who gave up a research career to look after the animals, offers virtual tours of the Exclusion Zone featuring the dogs.

But less is known about the local workers who interact with these canines on a daily basis.

Jonathon Turnbull, a PhD candidate in geography at the University of Cambridge, realised it might be worth collecting these people’s stories.

“If I wanted to know the dogs,” he says, “I needed to go to the people who know them best – and that was the guards.”

What he discovered is a heart-warming story of the guards’ relationship with the animals they encounter in this abandoned environment – a tale that provides insights into the deep bond between humans and dogs.

The guards sometimes go to the trouble of helping the dogs by pulling out ticks embedded in their skin, or by giving them rabies injections

For instance, the guards have given several of the dogs nicknames. According to Turnbull, there’s Alpha, whose name refers to a type of radiation, and Tarzan, a dog well-known to Chernobyl tourists, who can do tricks on command and who lives near the famous Duga radar installation built by the Soviets. Then there is Sausage – a short, fat dog that likes to warm herself in the winter by lying on heating pipes. These pipes serve one of the buildings used by workers in the Exclusion Zone who are part of ongoing efforts to decommission and decontaminate the ruined power plant.

Access to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone requires a permit, so guards are tasked with controlling checkpoints on roads in and out of the area. People who dodge these checkpoints to trespass in the Exclusion Zone are known as “stalkers”. Guards report them to the police.

When Turnbull, who lives in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, started making regular visits to the zone, he met Bogdan, and other checkpoint guards. They were reluctant to talk at first so he had to win them over. Then he offered them to chance to take part in his research, which he says was a “turning point”. His idea was to give the guards disposable cameras and ask them to take pictures of the dogs – not posed portraits but scenes of everyday life. The guards only had one other request – “please, please – bring food for the dogs”. So Turnbull did.

The photos taken by the guards revealed how much they had developed companionships with the wandering dogs of the Exclusion Zone.

Turnbull published some of the resulting images and material from interviews with the guards in a paper in December. More recently, he interviewed one of the study participants again on behalf of BBC Future. The guard in question has asked not to be identified to avoid disciplinary action at work, so we refer to him here by the pseudonym “Bogdan”.

When Bogdan walks around the abandoned streets of the zone to check for stalkers, the dogs happily accompany him, he says. They always appear eager to see whether he, or a passing tourist, might be carrying food. Should a companion dog get distracted or run off to chase an animal, it always eventually returns to Bogdan, he adds.

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The loyalty goes both ways. Turnbull says the guards sometimes go to the trouble of helping the dogs by pulling out ticks embedded in their skin, or by giving them rabies injections.

Wolves, dogs and other animals could in theory carry radioactive contamination, or genetic mutations potentially passed on by breeding, to places outside the Exclusion Zone

Monitoring who comes and goes from the Exclusion Zone sometimes makes for a dull occupation. But there are always dogs nearby.

At some checkpoints, the guards have more or less adopted some of the animals. They feed them and give them shelter. But not all are so tame. During his research, one guard told Turnbull, “We can’t inject Arka because she bites.”

Another participant spoke of one dog that was even more difficult to approach. It refuses to be touched at all. “You should just give her a pan [of food] and go. She waits until you leave and then she eats,” the guard explained.

The dogs sometimes bark at strangers on first sight, that’s their nature, says Bogdan. But so long as they don’t feel threatened, they sometimes calm down and wag their tails. Occasionally it even seems as though they’re smiling, he adds.

Generally, visitors to Chernobyl are advised not to touch the dogs, for fear that the animals may be carrying radioactive dust. It’s impossible to know where the dogs roam and some parts of the Exclusion Zone are more contaminated than others.

There is wildlife living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone besides dogs. In 2016, Sarah Webster, a US government wildlife biologist who was working at the University of Georgia at the time, and colleagues published a paper in which they revealed how mammals, from wolves to boars and red foxes, had colonised the Exclusion Zone. Camera trap data showed that the animals’ numbers were not noticeably lower in those areas where radioactive contamination is higher.

Animals living in the Exclusion Zone are not necessarily confined there. A later studyby Webster and colleagues, published in 2018, detailed the movements of a wolf tagged with a GPS device. It travelled 369km (229 miles) from its home range in the zone, taking a long arc to the south-east, then north-east again, eventually entering Russia.

Wolves, dogs and other animals could in theory carry radioactive contamination, or genetic mutations potentially passed on by breeding, to places outside the Exclusion Zone.

“We know it’s happening but we don’t understand the extent or the magnitude,” says Webster.

Turnbull says the guards do not generally worry about radiation, though they might occasionally use dosimeters to check a dog over.

It actually seems as though the dogs, through the companionship they offer, end up reassuring those who interact with them regularly, says Greger Larson, an archaeologist who studies animal domestication at the University of Oxford and who was not involved in Turnbull’s research.

“They’re kind of putting themselves in the shoes of the dogs,” he suggests, referring to the guards. “If the dog is fine, that means you’re fine.”

But in truth, this may only be a false sense of security.

“It’s an uncanny environment,” notes Turnbull. “You can’t see the danger. You’re constantly aware that it might be there but everything looks normal.”

Despite the fact that the dogs could pose a risk in terms of radioactivity, guards like Bogdan instead emphasise the benefits of having them around. For example, he claims to know dogs that bark in noticeably different ways depending on what they have spotted in the distance – a human stranger, a vehicle, a wild animal. Because of these helpful warning signals, Bogdan thinks of the dogs as “assistants”.

What’s happening in the Exclusion Zone is an echo of interactions with dogs that are known to have occurred within human civilisations for thousands of years, says Larson.

“We find this for the last 15,000 years or more, this is what people do, they make very close associations with not just dogs but a lot of domestic animals […] to sort of say, ‘this is our attachment to the landscape’,” he explains.

All over the world, there are dogs that inhabit a similar, in-between state – not quite fully domesticated, not quite fully wild. These are the feral dogs that roam cities and industrial areas looking for food, the ones that may become to some extent adopted by people but still wouldn’t be considered pets.

Chernobyl’s dogs also live in this sort of space, on the edge of domestication, but there is a difference argues Webster, who has participated in a separate study of Turnbull’s in the past.

“The Exclusion Zone is very different in that it’s abandoned by humans,” she says. “The only people in that landscape on a day-to-day basis, really, are the guards.” As such, the dogs’ opportunities for befriending humans are very limited.

While the outside world remains fascinated by the dogs, and their story, for many guards the connection runs much deeper. Bogdan says he is often asked why the dogs ought to be allowed to stay in the Exclusion Zone. “They give us joy,” he replies. “For me personally, this is a kind of symbol of the continuation of life in this radioactive, post-apocalyptic world.”

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What is so fascinating is that this interaction between the dogs and the people is an echo of the first interaction between hunter/gatherers and wolves of, perhaps, 25,000 years ago or more. And the guards of today and the dogs, whom Larson calls his assistants, are perfectly bonded.

It just goes to show that ‘what goes around comes around’!

The continuing fallout from Chernobyl

Will you, please, consider taking one of these puppies!

I closed last Saturday’s post with this plea: “If only there wasn’t a single dog in need of adoption in the world!

That plea is being used to introduce today’s post. An article that was recently read on the Smart News section from The Smithsonian magazine website.

I have republished it, hopefully without infringing copyrights, because it’s a story that needs to be circulated as far and wide as possible.

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Chernobyl Puppies Going Up for Adoption in the U.S.

Now in quarantine, the pups are expected to come to the U.S. this summer in search of their forever homes.

Please for to adopt us, Comrade. (Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Authority)
By Jason Daley smithsonian.com , May 16, 2018

In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant melted down, sending nearby residents fleeing the disaster zone. And sadly, most pets got left behind. Over the last 32 years, the surviving pups have multiplied, creating a community of hundreds that live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and another 250 that live on the grounds of the former power plant itself.

Now, a dozen of those homeless puppies will head to the United States for adoption, reports Matt Novak at Gizmodo.

According to the Russian website Meduza, Ukrainian authorities have captured 200 of the stray Chernobyl puppies. They are currently keeping them in a 45-day quarantine in the city of Slavutych, and then a dozen will be shipped to the United States.

“We have rescued the first puppies, they are now in our adoption shelter going through the quarantine and decontamination process,” Lucas Hixson, co-founder of the U.S.-based Clean Futures Fund, a non-profit created to take care of Chernobyl clean-up workers, their families and the dogs tells Novak. “The goal is 200 dogs but will likely be more in the long run. My hope is to get 200 dogs rescued and adopted in the next 18 months and then go from there.”

The pups have a heartbreaking story, as The Guardian’s Julie McDowell detailed earlier this year. During the evacuation, more than 120,000 people were herded onto buses to escape the meltdown of the Unit 4 reactor, leaving most of their valuables and their pets behind. Many dogs tried to follow their owners onto the buses but were kicked off. People left notes on their doors asking authorities not to kill their animals, but Soviet Army squads were dispatched to put down as many contaminated animals as they could find.

Some of the dogs survived the army and the radiation, rebuilding their community as a pack. The Clean Futures Fund reports that the 250 dogs living on the grounds of the former power plant were likely driven out of the surrounding forests by wolves and a lack of food. Another 225 dogs roam Chernobyl City and hundreds of others live and scrounge at security checkpoints and throughout the woods and abandoned communities in the Exclusion Zone. Most of the dogs around the plant are under the age of 4 or 5, and clean-up workers at the site sometimes feed and tend to sick animals.

But last year, after becoming aware of the animals, The Clean Futures Fund decided the pups needed a more permanent solution. That’s why they’ve implemented a three-year program in the Exclusion Zone to spay and neuter 1,000 animals and vaccinate them against rabies. At their first clinic last August, the Fund spayed and neutered 350 dogs and cats in the area. Each animal was tested for radiation, given antibiotics, vaccinated for rabies and microchipped. Each dog’s vital data was also recorded.

For the next clinic scheduled for June, the Fund has also partnered with researchers from the University of South Carolina. The team will study the dogs for signs of radiation poisoning as well as genetic damage and disruptions to the dogs’ microbiomes, reports Mary Katherine Wildeman at The Post and Courier. The team will sedate the dogs and look for tumors and cataracts, which can signal radiation poisoning.

Understanding the impacts of radiation exposure is becoming increasingly important, says Timothy Mousseau, a researcher who has studied radiation in the birds, insects and small animals of Chernobyl and will lead the project. Exposure rates in daily life from medical treatments and other sources are on the rise, with the average yearly dose Americans receive doubling in the last 20 years alone.

There is no word when or where the dozen Chernobyl pups will go up for adoption. But even if you’re not lucky enough to have one of the reminders of Soviet-era nuclear power at the foot of your bed, it’s still possible to see the place for yourself and hand out treats to some of the remaining pups. There’s a booming tourism industry in the area to visit the eerie ghost towns and surprisingly quiet and beautiful green space that has overtaken the Zone.

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I am going to contact The Clean Futures Fund to see how one can register a potential interest in taking one of these puppies.

In the meantime, is there any reader who would be interested in having a puppy? Send me an email if so.