Are the Dogs in Chernobyl Radioactive?

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Last December, my mom organized a trip to Chernobyl, Ukraine, for my husband Isaac and me. We went with a tour group and had a great trip learning about the tragedy that almost wiped out the entire continent of Europe. Oh, and I’d like to point out that we went there before the HBO show came out, a.k.a. before it was cool.

Now back to the dogs…

If you watched the HBO show, which was fairy similar to what our tour guide told us about Chernobyl, you’ll know that people had to go around shooting all domestic pets to make sure they didn’t get out and spread 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. 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.” – Bustle

As a dog lover, it was a hard episode to watch. These animals would have infected thousands of others though. Plus, being shot was a much better way to die than from the effects of radiation. It is too bad more humans didn’t have this option.

If you visit Chernobyl today, you will likely see packs of dogs living there. Someone shared a photo of a dog they ran into on a tour in the popular Dogspotting Society Facebook group. It looked exactly like the dog that I had met and played with. I shared my photo and it turned out that lots of other people had encountered the same dog!

Ukraine is unfortunately known for not treating dogs very well. Before big events such as the 2012 Football Championship, there were mobile crematoriums that picked up stray dogs and burned them alive to “clean up the city.” Even today, there are many stray dogs roaming the streets and they often get poisoned or killed in other horrible ways.

The dogs in Chernobyl get royal treatment in comparison. If you ever go on a trip there, you may notice that they are all tagged. This is because there are funds and organizations that specifically go into Chernobyl to take care of these dogs. They are vaccinated, neutered/spayed and they get basic vet care. They are also fed and taken care of by the employees who work there, but they are essentially homeless.

But are these dogs radioactive? Maybe…

On my tour, the guide played with the dogs and let us do the same. We saw other employees play with them and they didn’t set off our radiation meters. I’ve heard that other guides don’t always let people touch the dogs because they claim that they are, in fact, dangerous.

According to an extensive article from The Guardian, many of them do carry “increased levels of radiation in their fur.” There are an estimated 300 stray dogs, all descended from the original Chernobyl pets, who survive in the exclusion zone. Supposedly, they rarely live past the age of six due to factors such as radiation, lack of food, and the freezing winter temperatures.

For the past few years, non-profits such as Clean Futures Fund have done their best to protect these dogs and ensure that fewer puppies are born there. They take donations if you are interested in helping.

Clean Futures Fund has an annual event to help raise money for the dogs of Chernobyl. Keep an eye on their website for their 2020 event. They offer fun extras, in case just helping dogs isn’t enough motivation for you. In 2019, they offered  a limited-edition Dogs of Chernobyl Challenge Coin to the first 150 people who donated $250 or more. The first 50 people who donated between $50 and $249 received a Dogs of Chernobyl T-shirt!

In the end, I guess the question of the dogs radioactivity isn’t quite answered. I don’t regret petting the dogs even if their fur does potentially contain “higher levels or radioactivity.” X-rays expose us to radiation and so do other unsuspecting household items including bananas (no joke, Google it.) The bottom line is, you will not die from radiation poisoning from petting a Chernobyl dog.

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