The Radioactive Puppies Of Chernobyl Are Finally Getting The Help They Need

Hilary Hanson

A viral video this week sheds light on a heart-rending situation: The radioactive puppies and dogs of Chernobyl.

After the catastrophic 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in what’s now northern Ukraine, many people forced to evacuate the surrounding area left their pets behind, thinking they’d be able to return in a few days. Instead, soldiers were dispatched to shoot the abandoned animals.

But some survived. And hundreds of dogs that now roam the area around Chernobyl are believed to be their descendants.

“Puppies of Chernobyl,” a short documentary uploaded to YouTube by filmmaker Drew Scanlon, shows a series of adorable puppies and dogs in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone — a 1,000-square-mile area around the nuclear plant where access is strictly limited.

Workers at the plant, tourists and some others are allowed in, but only under tight government control. Several hundred people, mostly elderly former residents, also have moved back into their villages over the years, against official orders.

Scanlon says in the video that officials forbade him from petting any of the puppies because of the hazards posed by radioactive particles on their fur. Seeing the little puppies come up to him seeking attention is pretty heartbreaking.

But efforts are underway to get the Chernobyl dogs the care they need.

Stray puppies play in an abandoned, partially-completed cooling tower inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017. (Photo: Sean Gallup via Getty Images)
Stray puppies play in an abandoned, partially-completed cooling tower inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017. (Photo: Sean Gallup via Getty Images)

The Clean Futures Fund — a nonprofit dedicated to helping communities in the aftermath of industrial accidents — is spearheading a five-year plan to spay and neuter the dogs and cats roaming in the area, then set up food and water stations and a veterinary clinic to help care for the animals.

The fund’s plan, which kicked off this summer, involves partnering with Ukrainian veterinarians and other volunteers, as well as organizations in Ukraine, the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Anna Sovtus, a Ukrainian veterinarian working with The Dogs of Chernobyl initiative, tends to a stray puppy she had just washed in the bathroom sink at a makeshift veterinary clinic inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. (Photo: Sean Gallup via Getty Images)
Anna Sovtus, a Ukrainian veterinarian working with The Dogs of Chernobyl initiative, tends to a stray puppy she had just washed in the bathroom sink at a makeshift veterinary clinic inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. (Photo: Sean Gallup via Getty Images)

The dogs suffer from a lack of food and water, as well as predation from wildlife that has flourished in the area’s relative absence of people, Lucas Hixson, a radiation specialist and Clean Futures Fund co-founder, told HuffPost. While the dogs are surviving long enough to breed — and overpopulate ― it’s extremely rare to see one live to old age.

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A dog is seen next to a sign of radioactivity in the abandoned city of Prypyat near Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on April 8, 2016. (Photo: SERGEI SUPINSKY via Getty Images)
A dog is seen next to a sign of radioactivity in the abandoned city of Prypyat near Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on April 8, 2016. (Photo: SERGEI SUPINSKY via Getty Images)

To avoid radiation exposure, humans are heavily restricted when it comes to where they can go and what they can do within the exclusion zone. But there’s no way to enforce those regulations on free-roaming canines.

“The rules of man mean nothing to the world of dog,” Hixson said. “They lay, they dig, they roll around, they drink puddles.”

The result is dogs with radioactive particles on their fur and inside their bodies — though researchers don’t know exactly how much.

Employees at the plant technically aren’t supposed to interact with the dogs, but many have grown strongly attached to the animals, feeding and playing with them.

“Many of these workers have adopted some of these dogs almost as pets,” Hixson said, though they aren’t permitted to bring the dogs out of the area.

Workers with a stray dog at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in August 2017. (Photo: Sean Gallup via Getty Images)
Workers with a stray dog at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in August 2017. (Photo: Sean Gallup via Getty Images)

Hixson said there probably aren’t “immediate health hazards” related to radiation from petting the dogs, though he would “definitely suggest washing up afterwards.”

However, the dogs pose another risk — rabies, which they can catch from encounters with local wildlife. Rabies, which is fatal if untreated, is a particularly scary threat in Ukraine, since the country depends on its supply of human rabies treatment from Russia. After years of conflict, supplies are dwindling.

Vaccinating the dogs and shrinking the population via spaying and neutering will reduce the rabies risk, Hixson said.

A stray dog stands at a monument outside the new, giant enclosure that covers devastated reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in August 2017. (Photo: Sean Gallup via Getty Images)
A stray dog stands at a monument outside the new, giant enclosure that covers devastated reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in August 2017. (Photo: Sean Gallup via Getty Images)

Clean Futures Fund’s work also involves trying to gauge just how much radiation is present in the dogs’ bodies. The findings could open up the possibility of Ukrainian officials allowing some of the dogs to leave the exclusion zone and ultimately be adopted.

Regardless, Hixson said he hopes his group’s work will improve life for the area’s dogs and safety for the people around then.

“I think there will always be a population of dogs in the area,” he said. “But hopefully, we can get down to a manageable population where they can have a good quality of life.”

You can learn more about the Dogs of Chernobyl initiative or donate here.

Also on HuffPost

Stray dogs loiter inside the high-security "local zone" outside the new, giant enclosure that covers devastated reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017 near Chernobyl, Ukraine. An estimated 900 stray dogs live in the exclusion zone, many of them likely the descendants of dogs left behind following the mass evacuation of residents in the aftermath of the 1986 nuclear disaster.
Stray dogs loiter inside the high-security "local zone" outside the new, giant enclosure that covers devastated reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017 near Chernobyl, Ukraine. An estimated 900 stray dogs live in the exclusion zone, many of them likely the descendants of dogs left behind following the mass evacuation of residents in the aftermath of the 1986 nuclear disaster.
A tagged, stray dog walks past a tourist at a monument to firefighters who fought to contain the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster inside the exclusion zone near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 19, 2017. 
A tagged, stray dog walks past a tourist at a monument to firefighters who fought to contain the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster inside the exclusion zone near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 19, 2017. 
Nastya Grabchuk, a Ukrainian medical student volunteering with the Dogs of Chernobyl initiative, tends to stray puppies recovering from a sedative after surgery and vaccinations at a makeshift veterinary clinic inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone on August 17, 2017.
Nastya Grabchuk, a Ukrainian medical student volunteering with the Dogs of Chernobyl initiative, tends to stray puppies recovering from a sedative after surgery and vaccinations at a makeshift veterinary clinic inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone on August 17, 2017.
A stray dog saunters outside the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
A stray dog saunters outside the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
A tagged, stray dog sniffs for food in a trash can outside the workers cafeteria inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
A tagged, stray dog sniffs for food in a trash can outside the workers cafeteria inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
A stray dog stands at a monument outside the new, giant enclosure that covers devastated reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
A stray dog stands at a monument outside the new, giant enclosure that covers devastated reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
Anna Sovtus, a Ukrainian veterinarian working with the Dogs of Chernobyl initiative, tends to a stray puppy she had just washed in the bathroom sink at a makeshift veterinary clinic inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone on August 17, 2017.
Anna Sovtus, a Ukrainian veterinarian working with the Dogs of Chernobyl initiative, tends to a stray puppy she had just washed in the bathroom sink at a makeshift veterinary clinic inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone on August 17, 2017.
A stray dog stands at a monument outside the new, giant enclosure that covers devastated reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
A stray dog stands at a monument outside the new, giant enclosure that covers devastated reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
Terry Paik, a veterinarian from San Diego, California, volunteering with the Dogs of Chernobyl initiative, prepares to neuter an anesthetized stray dog at a makeshift veterinary clinic inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone on August 17, 2017.
Terry Paik, a veterinarian from San Diego, California, volunteering with the Dogs of Chernobyl initiative, prepares to neuter an anesthetized stray dog at a makeshift veterinary clinic inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone on August 17, 2017.
Pavel "Pasha" Burkatsky, a professional dogcatcher from Kiev, carries a stray dog he just captured and tranquilized past workers in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 19, 2017.
Pavel "Pasha" Burkatsky, a professional dogcatcher from Kiev, carries a stray dog he just captured and tranquilized past workers in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 19, 2017.
A tagged, stray dog stands near the new, giant enclosure that covers devastated reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 17, 2017.
A tagged, stray dog stands near the new, giant enclosure that covers devastated reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 17, 2017.
Dogcatcher Aleksander Klimov releases a stray dog back into the wild inside the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after veterinarians with the Dogs of Chernobyl initiative had tagged, spayed and vaccinated it on August 17, 2017.
Dogcatcher Aleksander Klimov releases a stray dog back into the wild inside the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after veterinarians with the Dogs of Chernobyl initiative had tagged, spayed and vaccinated it on August 17, 2017.
Administration workers look at a stray dog at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
Administration workers look at a stray dog at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
Stray puppies play in an abandoned, partially completed cooling tower inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
Stray puppies play in an abandoned, partially completed cooling tower inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
Tagged, stray dogs lounge outside a cafeteria at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 19, 2017.
Tagged, stray dogs lounge outside a cafeteria at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 19, 2017.
Workers on a break watch a stray dog saunter by outside an administrative building inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
Workers on a break watch a stray dog saunter by outside an administrative building inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
A tagged, stray dog lies among tourists about to board a bus inside the exclusion zone near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 19, 2017.
A tagged, stray dog lies among tourists about to board a bus inside the exclusion zone near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 19, 2017.
A dog is seen next to a sign of radioactivity in the ghost city of Prypyat near Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on April 8, 2016. 
A dog is seen next to a sign of radioactivity in the ghost city of Prypyat near Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on April 8, 2016. 
Tagged, stray dogs stand at a monument outside the new, giant enclosure that covers devastated reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
Tagged, stray dogs stand at a monument outside the new, giant enclosure that covers devastated reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
A stray dog tagged and wearing a collar equipped with a GPS sensor and radiation sensor lies in the grass outside a makeshift veterinary clinic near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 19, 2017.
A stray dog tagged and wearing a collar equipped with a GPS sensor and radiation sensor lies in the grass outside a makeshift veterinary clinic near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 19, 2017.
Stray puppies play among moss in an abandoned, partially-completed cooling tower inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
Stray puppies play among moss in an abandoned, partially-completed cooling tower inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
Marie-Louise Chenery, who is from San Diego, California, and is a volunteer with the Dogs of Chernobyl initiative, tends to stray puppies near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant as the abandoned construction site of reactors five and six stands behind on August 17, 2017.
Marie-Louise Chenery, who is from San Diego, California, and is a volunteer with the Dogs of Chernobyl initiative, tends to stray puppies near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant as the abandoned construction site of reactors five and six stands behind on August 17, 2017.
Marie-Louise Chenery, who is from San Diego, California, and is a volunteer with the Dogs of Chernobyl initiative, tends to stray puppies near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant as the abandoned construction site of reactors five and six stands behind on August 17, 2017.
Marie-Louise Chenery, who is from San Diego, California, and is a volunteer with the Dogs of Chernobyl initiative, tends to stray puppies near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant as the abandoned construction site of reactors five and six stands behind on August 17, 2017.
A stray puppy walks along abandoned train tracks near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 19, 2017.
A stray puppy walks along abandoned train tracks near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 19, 2017.
Meredith Ayan (L), executive director of SPCA International, a U.S.-based animal rescue nonprofit, SPCA program director Lori Kalef (C) and volunteer Kerry Anne O'Connor cuddle with stray puppies at a makeshift veterinary clinic operated by the Dogs of Chernobyl initiative inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone on August 17, 2017.
Meredith Ayan (L), executive director of SPCA International, a U.S.-based animal rescue nonprofit, SPCA program director Lori Kalef (C) and volunteer Kerry Anne O'Connor cuddle with stray puppies at a makeshift veterinary clinic operated by the Dogs of Chernobyl initiative inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone on August 17, 2017.
Pavel "Pasha" Burkatsky, a professional dogcatcher from Kiev, releases stray puppies that have been neutered and vaccinated inside the exclusion zone next to workers' dormitories near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.
Pavel "Pasha" Burkatsky, a professional dogcatcher from Kiev, releases stray puppies that have been neutered and vaccinated inside the exclusion zone next to workers' dormitories near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.