A volunteer holds a puppy at a hospital for stray dogs near the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster
Chernobyl (Ukraine) (AFP) - 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, one-storey structure once served as a makeshift medical centre for workers from the plant to receive assistance after the 1986 disaster.
Today it is a hospital for the stray dogs that remain in the 30-kilometre (19-mile) 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 still in the area.
Dog-lover Hixson himself adopted a pet from the exclusion zone in 2017, which he named "Dva" -- the Ukrainian word for "two" as it was the second dog to have been 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 told AFP.
"The dogs can't read radiation signs -- they run, they go where they want," he added.
About 1,000 stray dogs live in the zone where people are not allowed to reside, according to numbers from 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 of Chernobyl, 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 lingering radiation.
And as the wildlife recovers in this almost human-free spot, the dogs face another serious threat -- wolves.
- Future American citizen -
There are currently 15 puppies in the hospital and after medical examination they will join other young dogs at Slavutych, a city some 50 km from Chernobyl that was built mainly for workers of the plant after the explosion.
The puppies will stay in Slavutych for up to six weeks and 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 up for adoption in the US, while adult dogs are given vaccinations, sterilised and sent back to the area where they were caught.
People who want to adopt the dogs fill out an online application form before a number of 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 period of time, Hixson said.
Hixson says the aim is to find families for 200 puppies over the next two years and to treat as many dogs as possible.
"This one is almost an American citizen," said Nataliya Melnychuk, a dog trainer at the Slavutych shelter.
The black and white puppy she was referring to is waiting for special documentation and will soon be transferred to Chicago.
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.
- Screen for radioactivity -
The volunteers admit some of the older dogs are too wild to be adopted, and 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," the American said.
Nadiya Apolonova, the representative of the Clean Futures Fund in Ukraine, said the life expectancy of a dog in the disaster zone is just five years, and not only because of the weather conditions and diseases in the wild.
Over the last few years, wolves have been responsible for around 30 percent of dog deaths.
The volunteers believe that the programme also helps to inform 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.
He stops for a moment and smiles: "These are the healthiest and smartest dogs I've ever seen."