Running behind buses, howling for their owners: The Chernobyl pets who were left behind.


Thirty-six hours after Chernobyl’s catastrophic nuclear accident, Soviet officials were instructed to evacuate almost 50,000 residents from the nearby city of Pripyat.

Over the coming days, a further 68,000 people were evacuated from neighbouring areas, as well as the town of Chernobyl itself.

But as the people of northern Ukraine were packed onto buses, they were instructed to leave everything behind, including their pets.

First-hand accounts in Chernobyl Prayer, an oral history of the event, tell of “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses…

“The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.”

Soldiers were instructed to shoot the remaining animals left in the exclusion zone. Distraught pet owners left notes on their front doors, begging ‘Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.’

As seen in the Chernobyl HBO series, even puppies weren’t spared.

In the Chernobyl Prayer book, one liquidator recalled the effort to prevent the spread of radiation.

“Dogs were running about near their houses. Guarding them, waiting for people to come back. They were excited to see us, came running to a human voice. They welcomed us,” they wrote.

“We shot them in the houses, the barns, the vegetable plots. Then we dragged them out and loaded them on to the tipper trucks. Not pleasant, of course. They couldn’t understand why we were killing them.”

Thankfully, a number of the dogs managed to escape and survive, and now an estimated 900 stray dogs live in Chernobyl.

chernobyl stray dog
A stray puppy walks along abandoned train tracks near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 19, 2017 near Chornobyl, Ukraine. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images).

What visitors tend to notice immediately about the dogs in the area is how young they are. They don't often live to be any older than four, and while they carry increased levels of radiation in their fur, their shorter life expectancy is mostly attributed to the harsh Ukrainian winters, as well as malnutrition, disease and exposure to predators.

The Stray Dogs Of Chernobyl
Pavel "Pasha" Burkatsky, a professional dog catcher 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. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images).

Recently, out of desperation, a worker was hired to catch and kill the remaining dogs. According to the Dogs of Chernobyl project, the worker refuses to at this point.

Instead, the Clean Futures Fund and the Dogs of Chernobyl program are focusing on spraying, desexing and vaccinating the remaining dogs in the area.

For years, they've been cared for by the people who work in the zone, learning that going where the humans are means they'll be fed.

In 2018, for the first time, a number of stray dogs living in Chernobyl were rescued and permitted to be released for adoption.

The Stray Dogs Of Chernobyl
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. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images).

Before the dogs are cleared to leave the area, their fur is cleansed of radioactive dust and they're thoroughly examined, to establish they pose no risk to humans.

So far, the dogs appear not to be harmfully contaminated by the radiation - unlike other wildlife in the area, who have seen an increase in cataracts and albinism.

While the dogs put up for adoption are physically healthy, they're not domesticated in the way they were just a few generations ago. "They don't understand the concept of a toy," said the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (S.P.C.A.) International. 

"They will likely still need a little extra love to reach their full potential."