Written by: Talita Marchao, UOL News

After the exclusion zone was set up around Chernobyl, hundreds of dogs left behind by evacuated families have learned to live alone.  Today, more than a thousand dogs still live in the area, descendants of these abandoned pets, left to their own devices. But a group of activists from a US NGO has created a system to vaccinate them, track radiation contamination and, in the near future, to facilitate the adoption of some of these animals.

In an interview with UOL , Lucas Hixson, who specializes in radiation, said that he visited the isolated area for the first time because of his work and was surprised by the amount of animals in the area. “They were very docile animals, but the government did not have a good solution to deal with the dogs, and we realized that everyone there, humans and animals, without vaccination was exposed to rabies,” he said.

According to the American, Ukraine receives rabies vaccines for humans from Russia, but with the conflict between the two countries, the Ukrainians have been not been receiving a sufficient supply of rabies vaccines for humans. “So if a tourist or a worker in the area gets bitten by a dog, he can not take the vaccine and he will not be protected. It might even require expatriating the person out of the country to get the vaccine.”

During the evacuation of the area in April 1986, the more than 120,000 people removed from the area were prevented from taking their animals during the escape. Many of them were killed during radiation containment work, but some survived and their descendants occupy the area to this day. Today, in addition to the visitation of tourists, about 3,500 people work in Chernobyl. In view of this, the proposal of the NGO Clean Futures Fund is not only to protect animals, but also to make the relationship between dogs and humans safe.

“We have to think of the perspective of a worker there. They live in Ukraine, a country with a very challenging economic and political situation, a country that is facing an armed conflict against Russia, and they go to work at the most contaminated place in the world, which is Chernobyl.  They go to work and see these dogs, and people have this natural reaction when they see a dog: they smile, interact with these animals. Allowing the workers and tourists who come to Chernobyl each day to interact with the dogs without risk. I think this is a big benefit of our project, “says Lucas.  “In addition, this is not a good region for dogs to live in. There is no healthy food, clean water, the winter is very difficult and there are buildings and industrial activities everywhere, it is also an area with many predators, they eat dogs.  Life is very hard there, and dogs do not live long, but they have many puppies and reproduce very quickly, “says the American.

According to Lucas, besides vaccination, the NGO also works with the castration of dogs, preventing the number of animals to grow even more. “If they do not have more puppies, the population of dogs will be reduced faster and with fewer dogs, it will be easier to take care of all of them,” says the volunteer. “So we can maintain programs to feed them, to secure shelter, veterinary care and, at the same time, protect Chernobyl workers by ensuring that this very special relationship between humans and dogs there is enduring.”

The objective of the NGO is not to extinguish the animals, but to reduce the quantity so that they have quality of life. “I think there will always be abandoned dogs in Chernobyl, now there are about 1,000 dogs, and we want that number to be reduced to between 200 and 300 dogs, which would be ideal for everyone to be properly cared for.”

Adoption in the future

The American 501(c)(3) non-profit organization Clean Futures Fund is also developing a project to care for abandoned dogs within the exclusion zone of Chernobyl. While the current programs are aimed at vaccination, sterilization and providing veterinary care to dogs living in the contaminated area, the aim in the future is to convince the Ukrainian government that they are safe for adoption.

Currently, removing any animal from the exclusion zone is prohibited because of the radiation safety measures. Clean Futures Fund is collecting data from animals to prove to the Ukrainian government that dogs are safe as any other pet. “If you wash them, give them clean food and water for a while, they will not pose any danger because of where they were born. Our idea is to convince the government to allow the rescue of these animals” for adoption, says Lucas.

The radiation expert says the proposal is to remove the puppies under 1 year of age, as they are younger and would adapt more easily to a life as a pet. “When you take out an adult stray dog that grew up in an inhospitable environment like Chernobyl, it’s too stressful for any animal to then be resocialized into a pet. It’s not necessarily in the best interest of the animal to rescue an adult dog who lived all his life there , amidst the forests and debris of an abandoned city.  It may be more aggressive, it can be difficult to train.  That is why the idea is to rescue the puppies and ensure the best quality of life for adult dogs who remain in the area ” , he says.

The NGO receives hundreds of adoption requests per year. Lucas’s idea is to get the release for adoption “in a year or two.” Ukrainian team makes regular visits to the site, and the NGO has an annual program that takes about 100 volunteers to spend four weeks in the no-take zone caring for the animals. Veterinarians attend to medical emergencies in dogs, and the organization works in partnership with companies and universities. Those responsible for administering the exclusion area free spaces to set up the hospitals for care.

“We have a radiation protection team that constantly monitors the levels of contamination of the dogs and everything that goes into the premises where we give the care. For people entering this area, it is necessary to ensure that nobody swallows anything contaminated.  You’re not at risk because you’re in there, but you need to make sure you’re not going to eat or drink anything contaminated, so nothing will be assimilated by the body, “he says. Animals are washed and sheared when necessary – dust contamination and dirt gets all in the hair – until radiation measurement is safe.

During the project, in addition to treating animals, volunteers also collect scientific data from the environment, especially in terms of radiation contamination and how it affects the animals in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Complete check-ups are carried out, allowing the evaluation of the impact of contamination on organs, tissues and bones, since the contamination is due to the accumulation of radiation through food and water consumed. The idea is that since the animals are free to circulate throughout the area, they can also used to measure environmental contamination – helping generate radiation maps and identifying hot spots in the environment – ultimately making people safer, since decontamination activities do not typically occur throughout the exclusion zone, only at the site of the accident.

Clean Futures Fund has developed special radiation detection collars for the stray adult dogs, with radiation detection, data-logging and GPS capabilities. “Dogs do not have a sense of radiation safety, they walk where they want, they are completely blind at risk, they do what they want, they roll in the dirt, they eat food and water contaminated by the environment, so when the dog moves our specially designed collars will detect and monitor the environmental contamination in the areas where they migrate. In this way, it is possible to identify contaminated areas that we were not aware of until now. ”

According to Lucas, the Clean Futures Fund wants the value of these stray animals to be recognized, and that they are not only seen as a problem. “There are many problems with abandoned animals around the world, and the solution found by governments is generally the same: they kill all dogs or put them in animal prisons where no one needs to look at them. Here in Chernobyl, we are trying to demonstrate how the stray dog population can be a benefit to society, not a problem “.

This article was originally published on UOL and was translated and republished here with permission.

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