CHERNOBYL EXCLUSION ZONE — A dozen puppies with satellite-dish ears and wagging tails scampered behind Natalia Melnichuk as she carried an oversized bowl of dog food. She stopped walking, turned around, and commanded the puppies to sit, showing off one of the four commands they’re required to know before leaving the small Ukrainian town of Slavutych to find new homes.
These puppies are about to become the first dogs ever to leave an area known as the Chernobyl exclusion zone and live abroad with foreigners who’ve adopted them. The dogs have spent their lives in one of the strangest places on Earth, a region still grappling with the fallout of Europe’s worst-ever nuclear disaster.
Yet these dogs are as normal as any others. “If one of them picks up a stick," Melnichuk said, “everyone else needs the stick.”
These puppies and their older brethren are also internet famous. One video of the dogs last year racked up nearly 6 million views on Facebook, another two-minute one received over a million views in 2017. One of the videos was part of a crowdfunding campaign that raised $56,000 to help the dogs of Chernobyl. (The fundraiser enjoyed a boost when pictures of the puppies were posted by large Twitter accounts like We Rate Dogs and Darth.) The nonprofit behind that crowdfunding project is called the Clean Futures Fund. Along with helping the dogs that call the exclusion zone home, CFF provides medical care and other services to the people who continue to be affected by the massive nuclear accident that occurred at the Chernobyl power plant more than 32 years ago.
CFF was started to help humans, too, but it’s the dogs that generate the most passion among CFF’s donors, and the most online attention.
Lucas Hixson, the cofounder of CFF, said when they post stories of the children they help, or other projects CFF works on, he gets angry emails from donors who want to make sure their money is going to dogs in Chernobyl rather than the people.
“On social media if we put up a picture saying, ‘Hey, we helped send this kid to treatment, thank you,’ we get three to five angry emails saying, ‘I give my money to dogs — you better not use my money on kids,’” Hixson told BuzzFeed News.
Hixson showed BuzzFeed News one email accusing CFF of receiving money from George Soros, the Hungarian billionaire who’s the constant target of right-wing and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. For Hixson, that’s part of working in Chernobyl, an area filled with history, emotion, and misconceptions. Despite the frequent negative comments, he and cofounder Erik Kambarian keep working with the people in Chernobyl in between doing media hits about the area’s dogs.
The whirlwind of viral stories about the dog program sometimes play up their radioactivity to the point of inaccuracy, but they also help CFF’s visibility. One outlet called the dogs “feral” and another claimed that the puppies couldn’t be touched because of radioactivity (a blatant inaccuracy as the puppies are not radioactive). Hixson said it’s mostly grown dogs who could have radiation in their fur, and even that’s rare. They haven’t come across a single radioactive puppy in the last year and have only seen one or two overall.
“Usually it’s just on their butt, if they sit in something,” Hixson said.
Prior to 2018, it was illegal to bring dogs out of the exclusion zone. But last summer it was Melnichuk’s job to help take care of the puppies and get them ready for adoption. Her sunny disposition is at odds with the horror she lived through some 32 years earlier, when she was 6 years old and the Chernobyl power plant blew up, spewing the largest amount of radiation ever recorded into the air and poisoning the land, as well as the people, animals, and trees that lived on it, for decades to come. Now Melnichuk dances with the puppies to their favorite song, “Despacito,” and names them after famous composers because “this batch likes to sing.”
“We know everything about them,” Melnichuk said in Russian. “We know every spot on their fur, we know every attitude, we know every look. We can even tell now, from a glance, if the dog is not feeling well or if something is worrying her.”
Aside from the two years she spent in Cuba after being evacuated from Chernobyl, Melnichuk has never been out of Ukraine. She asks friends to bring her fridge magnets from around the world so she can imagine traveling to new places. She is thrilled about her furry wards finding new homes in the West, but laments being left behind.
“Bring us with them,” she joked.
Melnichuk was a week shy of her 7th birthday when reactor 4 at Chernobyl exploded, an accident that would end up leaving 28 people dead and many sick for life, while also passing the effects of the radiation on to their descendants.
It was a nuclear accident that defined a generation. First responders died slowly, their skin peeling off in chunks. People who lived around the plant developed cancer and incurable health problems. Pregnant women had miscarriages and hospitals became morgues. Winds spread radiation across the Soviet Union and then into Europe — which is the only way the world learned something was wrong. The Soviet Union had tried to hide it until then.
Like most people who lived in Pripyat, Melnichuk’s mother and father worked at the plant — she as a crane operator and he as an engineer.
In the panicked aftermath of the explosion, she was separated from her sisters and parents and put on a bus headed to Odessa, a city in southern Ukraine. With her hair cut off to remove the radiation, she lived in a seniors home for four months while her parents tried to find her. Melnichuk said she’s retained that trauma her entire life. She still visits her old apartment in Pripyat, an abandoned city that now welcomes tourists, and can rattle off the address from memory. After her family found her and her sisters, they were sent to Cuba for a couple of years, where her dad helped build another power plant and she enjoyed the sun and the sea. “I can still remember the taste of those mangoes, to this day,” she said.
The explosion turned Pripyat, surrounding villages, and the entire country upside down. Soviet soldiers evacuated residents on buses, and wouldn’t let them take much aside from documents and the clothes on their backs. The farms that helped people get through hungry winters were abandoned, along with cows, cats, dogs, and other animals. Soldiers later returned to shoot the animals and bury them in mass graves. They were worried the animals might try to follow their owners, spreading radioactivity in the process.
Many of the dogs that live there today are descendants of those that survived massacres, long winters, and wild animals. Other stray dogs wandered their way into the exclusion zone or were abandoned by owners who no longer wanted to care for them.
Some locals now take up the job of caring for them. One woman in Chernobyl City said she takes care of all the dogs she can, but the puppies have a low chance of survival because food and shelter are sparse. By Hixson’s estimation, dogs in the zone don’t live more than six years — not because of the radiation, but because of a lack of food and shelter, especially in the winter. Still, some residents adopt strays or give food to a pup that comes and goes. It’s part of the routine of the place, an unspoken understanding among residents.
“I’m really surprised at how healthy they are — they’re very well-fed,” said Jennifer Betz, a veterinarian working with CFF in Ukraine. “The people around here really make sure they’re well-fed and get what they need. That’s what I’m surprised [about]. They love ’em.”
On a sunny day in June, a handful volunteers with the dog capture team gathered together at a hospital in town to study a map and identify places where humans might reside — for where there are humans, there are dogs. Two of the team’s members, Rob Snyder and Michelle Clancy, scouted a street that was thought to have a lot of housing but turned out to be a deserted road. As they walked down the road, a dog appeared. Fearful and barking loudly, it responded to a piece of sausage by backing away. The next dogs to appear were so eager for treats that they immediately lay on their backs and wagged their tails, shedding fur the moment they were petted.
“This, right here, is when I’m happiest,” Clancy said while crouching, surrounded by four or five playful dogs. The dogs were soon collected, some by being picked up, others lured into cages with treats or sedated with an anesthetic blow dart.
The dogs were then brought to a temporary CFF hospital, where a small piece of masking tape was wrapped around one of their hind legs for labeling. They were tested with a dosimeter, scientists drew blood samples, the vets operated when necessary, and the vet techs helped with recovery from the anesthesia.
The hospital is filled with improvised equipment and tools. The box that helps measure the dogs’ radiation is just five sheets of lead that scientists move from location to location. The surgery room of Dr. Betz, who is in charge of the dogs’ health, uses ironing boards for tables, and empty pop bottles taped to coat hangers as IV fluid containers.
“We just makeshift things. Ironing boards come in handy,” she said. “We’re used to improvising. Sometimes if the tables aren’t high enough, we’ll just get some bricks outside and put them under the table.”
Prior to Chernobyl, Betz spent five years traveling around the world helping strays in Belize, Mexico, Peru, and Hawaii. Betz is based out of Portland, Oregon, and helps run an organization called Veterinary Ventures, whose mission is to care for animals around the globe. Safety was a concern for Betz before she got to Chernobyl, but the dogs are checked for radiation before and after they go through surgery by a team of scientists.
“These little puppies can’t fend for themselves,” she said, pointing to the room where dogs recover from surgery. “If each puppy grows up, they have the potential to create 64 dogs in its lifetime, and if you can spay one dog, you can prevent 64 unwanted dogs running around.”
After being treated, grown dogs are returned to where they were found and puppies are sent to horse stables in Slavutych, a nearby town outside of the exclusion zone that was built after the explosion. It’s clean, beautiful, and small, and it’s also where the power plant workers and volunteers live. Reminders of Chernobyl are everywhere — even the local church features icons that depict the accident as an act of God. It’s in Slavutych that the puppies are placed in Melnichuk’s care.
Melnichuk met Hixson in 2017, when CFF helped finance her son’s 11th surgery — like many born in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, he had been diagnosed with a birth defect. His affects his bones. CFF was already helping plant workers, children, and dogs in the region. A year later, it launched its puppy adoption program and Hixson hired her to care for them.
CFF first established a hospital near the plant because, Hixson said, dogs congregate around the nearby canteen that was once used to feed plant workers. Dogs still scurry around at lunchtime hoping for scraps of food. Nearby is a cooling pond that holds infamous giant catfish. Workers say that at lunchtime, the fish allow them to pat their bellies in exchange for crumbs, just like the dogs.
This past summer, CFF set up three temporary animal hospitals as it moved around the exclusion zone looking for dogs to treat. One was established in Chernobyl City, along Lenin Street, which used to be its main road but is now a strip of abandoned homes with caved-in roofs. Nobody is allowed to live in Chernobyl City for more than three weeks at a time because of the still-present radiation, and it has a strict curfew.
Before last year, when the power plant and exclusion zone authorities allowed CFF to bring vaccinated and decontaminated dogs out of the area, the organization would care for the dogs in makeshift hospitals and release them back onto the streets. Now, with the help of SPCA International and governmental permission, more than 40 puppies are eligible to find new homes in the United States and Canada.
CFF approached the power plant administration to help the dogs. The war between Russia and Ukraine had made vaccines expensive and difficult to access, including the vaccine for rabies, and that’s part of the reason why something needed to be done. Hixson heard from power plant workers that someone was hired to cull the dog population but didn’t do the job, which is when CFF stepped in to run a five-year program with the goal of humanely reducing the dog population in the region.
The puppy program brings the most attention to CFF, but it also sticks close to the mission that prompted its founding — helping those in the Chernobyl exclusion zone without enough money to help themselves.
Ukraine is currently mired in a deep recession that has been exacerbated by the war with Russia. One doctor who worked at the hospital in Slavutych estimated it currently receives about $17 per patient from the government, down from $50–$70 a few years ago. That’s not enough to cover medication, food, and supplies, and he said they frequently have to ask patients to bring their own.
Hixson and Kambarian launched CFF in November 2016 after sitting on a train heading to the exclusion zone and seeing an envelope being passed around to collect money for a plant employee unable to pay for cancer treatment from her small pension.
“We felt like we could do more,” Hixson said. “We wanted a better future than the one we’re living in.”
A lot of their funds go toward health care, and Hixson, who was adopted, takes extra care to visit the local orphanage and bring kids toys like basketballs and water guns. CFF has provided 85 grants to power plant workers for medicine and health care, and helped 12 families with money for surgeries. It’s also financed the purchase of a van that kids can take when they need to go to the neighboring town for treatment. The hospital in Slavutich is so strapped for cash it can’t accommodate specialized needs. The hospital is clean and neat, but the machines used by doctors look like they’re from another era, made from colorful plastic, and some are more than a decade old, according to deputy director Elena Suganiaka.
“We dream of machines like the ones we see in American TV shows,” she said. “Ones with monitors.”
CFF helped the hospital buy some equipment, but issues remain. Victor Shilenko, the director of the Slavutych hospital who has since left his position, said the tuberculosis rates in the city have grown by 10%.
“People don’t prioritize health — they prioritize survival,” he said.
Two months after being captured, 14 puppies arrived at JFK International Airport in New York. Hixson said the trip involved a three-hour drive from Slavutych to Kiev, then onto a plane that had a layover in Amsterdam.
“These things are messy,” he said. “What it really is is cleaning up poopy kennels.”
Some of the puppies stayed at the airport pet transport shelter, later being picked up by their owners. The rest went to Manhattan on a tour of media outlets in New York, including BuzzFeed News.
“People would comment on how beautiful they were and how big their ears were,” Hixson said. “The puppies would stop and bark at their own reflections in the door.”
After the trip, Hixson decided to permanently relocate to Ukraine. In a phone call, he talked about future ambitions like helping to clean up the trash left by tourists in Chernobyl and helping more people who live in the area get health care. With excitement, he said no dogs have had to be rehomed and showed a video of two puppies from the same litter reuniting in Ohio. Then he launched into a story about a 13-year-old boy who took his first steps after getting surgeries and mobility equipment financed by CFF.
“It was just incredible,” he said.
But that accomplishment — unlike the puppies’ journey — is unlikely to make international news. ●