As we head towards the end of another extraordinary year, BBC Future is taking a look back at some of our favourite stories for our "Best of 2021" collection. Discover more of our picks here.
It wasn't long after he arrived in the irradiated landscape of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone that Bogdan realised his new job came with some unexpected companions. From his first days as a checkpoint guard in Chernobyl, he has shared the place with a pack of dogs.
Bogdan (not his real name) is now in his second year of working in the zone and has got to know the dogs well. Some have names, some don't. Some stay nearby, others remain detached – they come and go as they please. Bogdan and the other guards feed them, offer them shelter, and occasionally give them medical care. They bury them when they die.
All the dogs are, in a sense, refugees of the 1986 disaster in which Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. In the aftermath, tens of thousands of people were evacuated from the Ukrainian city of Pripyat. They were told to leave their pets behind. (Read more about the long-term toll of the Chernobyl disaster.)
Soviet soldiers shot many of the abandoned animals in an effort to prevent the spread of contamination. But, undoubtedly, some of the animals hid and survived. Thirty-five years later, hundreds of stray dogs now roam the 2,600km (1,000 sq mile) Exclusion Zone put in place to restrict human traffic in and out of the area. Nobody knows which of the dogs are directly descended from stranded pets, and which may have wandered into the zone from elsewhere. But they are all dogs of the zone now.
Their lives are perilous. They are at risk from radioactive contamination, wolf attacks, wildfires and starvation, among other threats. The dogs' average lifespan is just five years, according to the Clean Futures Fund, a non-governmental organisation that monitors and provides care for dogs living within the Exclusion Zone.
Some dogs living in the Exclusion Zone may be descendants of pets abandoned during the 1986 evacuation but others may have wandered in (Credit: Chernobyl Guards/Jonathon Turnbull)
That dogs inhabit this ruined place is well known – some of them have even become minor celebrities on social media. Clean Futures Fund co-founder Lucas Hixson, who gave up a research career to look after the animals, offers virtual tours of the Exclusion Zone featuring the dogs.
But less is known about the local workers who interact with these canines on a daily basis.
Jonathon Turnbull, a PhD candidate in geography at the University of Cambridge, realised it might be worth collecting these people's stories.
"If I wanted to know the dogs," he says, "I needed to go to the people who know them best – and that was the guards."
What he discovered is a heart-warming story of the guards' relationship with the animals they encounter in this abandoned environment – a tale that provides insights into the deep bond between humans and dogs.
The guards sometimes go to the trouble of helping the dogs by pulling out ticks embedded in their skin, or by giving them rabies injections
For instance, the guards have given several of the dogs nicknames. According to Turnbull, there's Alpha, whose name refers to a type of radiation, and Tarzan, a dog well-known to Chernobyl tourists, who can do tricks on command and who lives near the famous Duga radar installation built by the Soviets. Then there is Sausage – a short, fat dog that likes to warm herself in the winter by lying on heating pipes. These pipes serve one of the buildings used by workers in the Exclusion Zone who are part of ongoing efforts to decommission and decontaminate the ruined power plant.
Access to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone requires a permit, so guards are tasked with controlling checkpoints on roads in and out of the area. People who dodge these checkpoints to trespass in the Exclusion Zone are known as "stalkers". Guards report them to the police.
When Turnbull, who lives in Ukraine's capital Kyiv, started making regular visits to the zone, he met Bogdan, and other checkpoint guards. They were reluctant to talk at first so he had to win them over. Then he offered them to chance to take part in his research, which he says was a "turning point". His idea was to give the guards disposable cameras and ask them to take pictures of the dogs – not posed portraits but scenes of everyday life. The guards only had one other request - "please, please – bring food for the dogs". So Turnbull did.
The guards used disposable cameras to capture the dogs' daily behaviour in Pripyat amusement park near Chernobyl (Credit: Chernobyl Guards/Jonathon Turnbull)
The photos taken by the guards revealed how much they had developed companionships with the wandering dogs of the Exclusion Zone.
Turnbull published some of the resulting images and material from interviews with the guards in a paper in December. More recently, he interviewed one of the study participants again on behalf of BBC Future. The guard in question has asked not to be identified to avoid disciplinary action at work, so we refer to him here by the pseudonym "Bogdan".
When Bogdan walks around the abandoned streets of the zone to check for stalkers, the dogs happily accompany him, he says. They always appear eager to see whether he, or a passing tourist, might be carrying food. Should a companion dog get distracted or run off to chase an animal, it always eventually returns to Bogdan, he adds.
You might also like:
- The bold plan to give Chernobyl a new life
- How to calculate your dog's real age
- The true toll of the Chernobyl disaster
The loyalty goes both ways. Turnbull says the guards sometimes go to the trouble of helping the dogs by pulling out ticks embedded in their skin, or by giving them rabies injections.
Wolves, dogs and other animals could in theory carry radioactive contamination, or genetic mutations potentially passed on by breeding, to places outside the Exclusion Zone
Monitoring who comes and goes from the Exclusion Zone sometimes makes for a dull occupation. But there are always dogs nearby.
At some checkpoints, the guards have more or less adopted some of the animals. They feed them and give them shelter. But not all are so tame. During his research, one guard told Turnbull, "We can't inject Arka because she bites."
Another participant spoke of one dog that was even more difficult to approach. It refuses to be touched at all. "You should just give her a pan [of food] and go. She waits until you leave and then she eats," the guard explained.
The dogs often hang around near the checkpoints where the guards are stationed (Credit: Chernobyl Guards/Jonathon Turnbull)
The dogs sometimes bark at strangers on first sight, that's their nature, says Bogdan. But so long as they don't feel threatened, they sometimes calm down and wag their tails. Occasionally it even seems as though they're smiling, he adds.
Generally, visitors to Chernobyl are advised not to touch the dogs, for fear that the animals may be carrying radioactive dust. It's impossible to know where the dogs roam and some parts of the Exclusion Zone are more contaminated than others.
There is wildlife living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone besides dogs. In 2016, Sarah Webster, a US government wildlife biologist who was working at the University of Georgia at the time, and colleagues published a paper in which they revealed how mammals, from wolves to boars and red foxes, had colonised the Exclusion Zone. Camera trap data showed that the animals' numbers were not noticeably lower in those areas where radioactive contamination is higher.
Animals living in the Exclusion Zone are not necessarily confined there. A later study by Webster and colleagues, published in 2018, detailed the movements of a wolf tagged with a GPS device. It travelled 369km (229 miles) from its home range in the zone, taking a long arc to the south-east, then north-east again, eventually entering Russia.
The guards in the Exclusion Zone feed and care for the stray dogs – and some say they help to alert them to trespassers (Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Wolves, dogs and other animals could in theory carry radioactive contamination, or genetic mutations potentially passed on by breeding, to places outside the Exclusion Zone.
"We know it's happening but we don't understand the extent or the magnitude," says Webster.
Turnbull says the guards do not generally worry about radiation, though they might occasionally use dosimeters to check a dog over.
It actually seems as though the dogs, through the companionship they offer, end up reassuring those who interact with them regularly, says Greger Larson, an archaeologist who studies animal domestication at the University of Oxford and who was not involved in Turnbull's research.
"They're kind of putting themselves in the shoes of the dogs," he suggests, referring to the guards. "If the dog is fine, that means you're fine."
Despite living in an area where humans are still largely excluded from for safety, the dogs around Chernobyl are thriving (Credit: Chernobyl Guards/Jonathon Turnbull)
But in truth, this may only be a false sense of security.
"It's an uncanny environment," notes Turnbull. "You can't see the danger. You're constantly aware that it might be there but everything looks normal."
Despite the fact that the dogs could pose a risk in terms of radioactivity, guards like Bogdan instead emphasise the benefits of having them around. For example, he claims to know dogs that bark in noticeably different ways depending on what they have spotted in the distance – a human stranger, a vehicle, a wild animal. Because of these helpful warning signals, Bogdan thinks of the dogs as "assistants".
The dogs around Chernobyl have become almost as famous as the iconic ferris wheel at Pripyat amusement park (Credit: Maxym Marusenko/Getty Images)
What's happening in the Exclusion Zone is an echo of interactions with dogs that are known to have occurred within human civilisations for thousands of years, says Larson.
"We find this for the last 15,000 years or more, this is what people do, they make very close associations with not just dogs but a lot of domestic animals […] to sort of say, 'this is our attachment to the landscape'," he explains.
All over the world, there are dogs that inhabit a similar, in-between state – not quite fully domesticated, not quite fully wild. These are the feral dogs that roam cities and industrial areas looking for food, the ones that may become to some extent adopted by people but still wouldn't be considered pets.
One of the dogs named Sausage keeps warm in the winter by lying on heating pipes that serve buildings used by workers (Credit: Chernobyl Guards/Jonathon Turnbull)
Chernobyl's dogs also live in this sort of space, on the edge of domestication, but there is a difference argues Webster, who has participated in a separate study of Turnbull’s in the past.
"The Exclusion Zone is very different in that it's abandoned by humans," she says. "The only people in that landscape on a day-to-day basis, really, are the guards." As such, the dogs' opportunities for befriending humans are very limited.
While the outside world remains fascinated by the dogs, and their story, for many guards the connection runs much deeper. Bogdan says he is often asked why the dogs ought to be allowed to stay in the Exclusion Zone. "They give us joy," he replies. "For me personally, this is a kind of symbol of the continuation of life in this radioactive, post-apocalyptic world."
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called "The Essential List". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.