The Abandoned Dogs of Chernobyl

Edwina Owusu-Adjapong
May 16, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

Disaster Strikes

Fig. 1: A tourist petting a dog outside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located about 81 miles north of Kiev in Ukraine,then part of the Soviet Union, had four reactors. The plant was close to two towns: the bigger city of Pripyat and the smaller town of Chernobyl, with the rest of the region consisting primarily of woods and farms. In the early Spring hours of 26th April, 1986, the plants Reactor number 4 exploded releasing an estimated total radiation of 50 million curies (including radiation from I-131, Cs-134 and Cs-137) into the atmosphere. There was a second, even greater explosion seconds after the first, bring it to a total of two that fateful day. The after-effect of these explosions was widespread, with 70 percent of the fallout from the explosion falling on neighboring Belarus. [1] The Chernobyl disaster has been described as the worst nuclear disaster in the world to date.

36 hours after the explosions, the residents of Pripyat were asked to evacuate the vicinity, with many already exhibiting sign of radiation sickness. Evacuees were only allowed to bring belongings they could carry, and were told that would be allowed to return within a few days to their homes. Many people left their valuable personal belongings behind. Eventually, an Exclusion zone made up off an 18-mile area around the plant was set up into which evacuees were not allowed back.

The Fate Of The Abandoned Pets

Some of the abandoned included pets, mostly dogs. After the evacuation and the setup of the Exclusion zone, the Soviet Union government dispatched soldiers to shoot the abandoned dogs, but it was not feasible to round up all of the animals throughout the exclusion zone. As such, some of the pets survived. The abandoned pets migrated from the Exclusion Zone to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where their descendants live to date.

Today, the Clean Futures Fund, a US non-profit organisation dedicated to helping communities affected by industrial accidents,and which has already established three veterinary clinics in the area, including one inside the Chernobyl plant, estimates that there are about 300 stray dogs in the 2,600 square km zone around the plant itself, and even more within the exclusion zone. [2] These dogs are the descendants of the dogs left behind when their owners had to hastily evacuate over 30 years ago. The Chernobyl strays live hard lives. Not only are they malnourished and have to brave the harsh Ukrainian winters without any form shelter, while battling attacks from wolves, they could also be carrying radioactive particles in both their bones and fur and have shortened life expectancies. [3] The attacks from wild predators have exposed these dogs to rabies making them in dire need of medical care.

The dogs of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant rely on the workers at the station to stay alive. Some bring the animals inside and give them care if they seem injured or sick but the workers also risk exposure to rabies by interacting with the dogs. These workers also take care of the new puppies born at the Chernobyl Plant each and every year during the harsh Ukrainian winter and some workers have even adopted them unofficially within the Exclusion Zone, even though they do not have permission to take them outside the zone.

The dogs that live near the checkpoints within the zone have little kernel-like huts built for the by the guards to serve as their homes, and get food from the visitors who frequent the local cafe. As such, the dogs rely on visitors and work for food and play (see Fig.1). Visitors are however warned against touching the puppies because of the radiation they carry in their fur. While the dogs get some food and play from the workers and some visitors, their health needs are met by Clean Futures Fund. CFFs clinics treat emergencies and issue vaccinations against rabies, parvovirus, distemper and hepatitis. The clinics also neuter puppies to control the population. [2]

© Edwina Owusu-Adjapong. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] V. Kortov and Y. Ustyantsev, "Chernobyl Accident: Causes, Consequences and Problems of Radiation Measurements," Radiat. Meas. 55, 12 (2013).

[2] J. McDowall, "Meet the Dogs of Chernobyl - the Abandoned Pets That Formed Their Own Canine Community," The Guardian, 5 Feb 18.

[3] T. Avakian, "You Can't Pet the Puppies in Chernobyl Because They're Radioactive but Help Is on the Way ," People Pets, 26 Sep 17.