Meet the dogs of Chernobyl the abandoned pets that formed their own canine community

Hundreds of stray dogs have learned to survive in the woods around the exclusion zone mainly descendants of those left behind after the nuclear disaster, 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 is thin, with brindle fur and yellow eyes. Igor, our guide, makes a lunge and clamps his hands over its snout. They wrestle in the snow and icy water shakes from the trees. The dogs eyes flash as Igor grabs a stick and throws it into the trees. Distracted, the animal chases it and our little group is free to move. But the dog reappears and drops the stick at Igors foot. He throws it again. The dog brings it back. I almost laugh with relief.

Igor, who, it turns out, is very familiar with the dog, throws a few snowballs, which it tries to catch and chew.This isTarzan, says Igor. Hes 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. Hes only a baby, really

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The abandoned dogs at Chernobyl endure harsh Ukrainian winters. Photograph: Courtesy of Solo East

Tarzan isnt alone. There are approximately 300 stray dogs in the 2,600km zone. They live among the moose and lynx, the hares and wolves that have also found a home here. But while the Mongolian horses and Belarusian bears were recently introduced to the area, and other animals have come in as opportunists, the dogs are native.

After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, Pripyat and the surrounding villages were abandoned, and residents were not allowed to take their pets to safety. Chernobyl Prayer, a devastating oral history of the period, tells of dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages. Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: Dont kill our Zhulka. Shes a good dog. There was no mercy. Squads were sent in to shoot the animals. But some survived and it is mainly their descendants that populate the zone.

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The dogs often carry increased levels of radiation in their fur and have a shortened life expectancy. Photograph: Courtesy of Solo East

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

But its not all bad news. The dogs that live near the zones checkpoints have little huts made for them by the guards, and some are wise enough to congregate near the local cafe, having learned that a human presence equals food. These canine gangs act as unofficial Chernobyl mascots, there to greet visitors who stop at Cafe Desyatka for some borscht.

Nadezhda Starodub, a guide with the Chernobyl tour specialist Solo East, says the visitors (there are no tourists in the zone) love the dogs. Most of the time people find them cute, but some think they might be contaminated and so avoid touching the dogs. There are no rules that forbid a visitor from handling them, but Nadezhda asks her charges to exercise the same common sense they 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 love them.

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The strays are helped by the Clean Futures Fund, which has set up veterinary clinics in the area. Photograph: Courtesy of Solo East

While the dogs get some food and play from the visitors, their health needs are met by Clean Futures Fund, a US non-profit organisation that helps communities affected by industrial accidents, which has set up three veterinary clinics in the area, including one inside the Chernobyl plant. The clinics treat emergencies and issue vaccinations against rabies, parvovirus, distemper and hepatitis. They are also neutering the dogs. Lucas Hixson, the funds co-founder, says: I dont think well ever get zero dogs in the exclusion zone but we want to get the population down to a manageable size so we can feed and provide long-term care for them. This makes Chernobyl safer for 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 similar cooperation can be seen with the dogs. In the woods behind Chernobyl I look again at yellow-eyed Tarzan and see, not a wild animal, but a playful example of global kindness and cooperation.

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We want to get the population down to a manageable size so we can feed and provide long-term care for them. Photograph: Courtesy of Solo East

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/feb/05/dogs-chernobyl-abandoned-pets-stray-exclusion-zone