Chernobyl’s Strays and the Guards Who Care for Them

A place thoroughly haunted by the past has since given way to a strange and resilient ecosystem. We’re talking about the Chernobyl disaster and, specifically, the remnant ghost town of Pripyat, which has become a home for the descendants of former pets who essentially became refugees after the 1986 disaster. In the years since, hundreds of strays have come to make the area their home – in fact, it’s possible that some even came to reside there from elsewhere – and the guards who protect the area from intruders have been caring for and living alongside them through long hours their posts.

Much of this information is sourced from PhD candidate Jonathon Turnbull of the University of Cambridge, who sought interviews with the Exclusion Zone guards to learn more about their relationships with the dogs. He learned that many of the strays have been given nicknames by the guards, who do their best to feed them and heed their differing behaviors. In the process of winning the guards over, Turnbull even gave them disposable cameras, with which they delivered absolutely incredible images of the daily life of a Chernobyl dog.

The guards were reluctant to share their real names to the research project for fear of any official reprisal, but did make a very specific request, which was promptly satisfied: “Please, please – bring food for the dogs.” One of the guards who goes by the pseudonym “Bogdan” described that, when patrolling the Zone, the strays regularly accompany him on the journey. The guards even provide rabies injections for the dogs or help remove ticks from their skin.

Certain checkpoints even have “pets,” with dogs in residence who guards have essentially adopted. Some dogs aren’t so easily domesticated, so the guards will keep their distance, or perhaps leave a plate of food and walk away. Others become something like “assistants” to the guards, and Bogdan explains that they will bark differently depending on what they see in the distance.

Since it’s against the law to travel through the Zone without proper authority, these guards are often the only humans these dogs will interact with, and it seems like they’ve become a loose family of sorts. Or, as Bogdan says: “They give us joy.”

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