Dogs of Chernobyl ecological niche

Whereas multiple hypothesis related to Chernobyl wolves possible migrations are worldwide risen, Chernobyl dogs got a chance to be health - and radiation - monitored and breeding controlled anew.

Writing my previous article about Chernobyl wolves I found it very interesting that dogs abandoned by their evacuated owners, survived within the CEZ area coexisting there together with the wild Canis species (mostly by avoidance of them within the inhabited territory).
Among the rest of CEZ native fauna (like large predators or preyed ungulates) and animals introduced there (vide Przewalski's horse), domestic dog remains familiar with Chernobyl Zone itself (human presence related survival) however it is not predestined to entirely reside in wildlife.

Chernobyl dogs should be considered as not only stray - socialized to humans before and wandering around; but also as feral animals - being a running wild offspring of stray dogs or their offspring. 30 years after Chernobyl NPP disaster, their local population became free-ranging scavengers.

  • without food resources managed by a human (garbage at least)

It is not exactly true, considering their current status - descendants of pets which evaded soldiers ordered to cull them right after evacuation of people was finalised (making entire area depopulated). Circa 3500 volunteers/scientists/visitors/workers running through direct Chernobyl zone each day nowadays not only take out the trash (produce garbage) from scratch, but also adopted the local dog population randomly feeding its representatives with scraps of their own meals. Driven out of the forest distributed between hunting wolf packs, scavenging dogs instinctively look for support from nearby human activity evidences.

  • feeling unsafe everywhere and being dangerous simultaneously

Without any medical care, with a lack of shelter reachable to endure harsh winters/heavy rains/climate anomalies or just to hide from a potential intruder, usually malnourished Chernobyl dogs rarely live beyond the age of 6-8 years. They're exposed to rabies from one another and from wild animals (including wolves attacking them) as well as they spread rabies by interacting with one another and with wild animals (including mentioned wolves). Moreover, they're a hazard for humans touching them and their fur - still carrying increased levels of radiation.

  • with no reproduction control on relatively narrow area

Counting up to 250 CEZ dog population is unrestricted progeny of some scattered dogs left behind after 120000 people of 189 various locations were immediately evacuated, which were left out by soldiers dispatched to cull them. Presently, those dogs are poached similarly to wolves. However, if there's no place to migrate, inbreed hazard (in pair with genetic diseases heredity) increases. It would 'statistically' keep local dog population under control within the CEZ niche and ultimately make them extinct without human help with food resources and taking care about its representatives.

Ergo, whereas multiple hypothesis related to Chernobyl wolves possible migrations are worldwide risen, Chernobyl dogs got a chance to be health - and radiation - monitored, and breeding controlled anew. Dogs of Chernobyl program - in collaboration with Clean Futures Fund (US non-profit organisation) - started in 2017 involving 40-person team of professionals (researchers, veterinarians) and volunteers, coming from multiple countries (Ukraine, USA, UK, Japan, Canada, Norway, Austria, Germany, Portugal), under the keystone patronage of SSE Chernobyl NPP and SAUEZM. In 2018, Dogs of Chernobyl clinic was established, with partnership and sponsoring of many more like SPCA International and DT Worldwide among others.

  • short-term -> medical care

Every captured dog (or cat) is given its unique ID number, which data is collected every time it is inspected again. Radiation monitoring, rabies and complex vaccinating - are obligatory. When a bit of contamination is detected, a dog is washed and decontaminated with a special powder before it comes into the hospital. Basing on reports, none of the captured CEZ puppies were radioactive so far, some adults were.

  • middle-term -> population control

Reproduction-oriented behavior is typical for free-ranging canines. I don’t think we’ll ever get zero dogs in the exclusion zone but we want to get the population down to a manageable size so we can feed and provide long-term care for them - Lucas Hixson says, CFF co-founder. Adult animals and reproductive youngsters are spayed/neutered.

  • long-term -> preparing for potential adopters

Adult dogs became too wild to be adopted - they grew up not habituated to human presence during their sensitive period; their developmental part dedicated to socialization is over; they're not able to learn enough about human-dependent food resources management. Socialization and habituation to human custody is possible - and necessary at once - for feral offspring of stray/feral dogs, if properly proceeded. Selected ones are reared under a strict schedule - walked, nourished, groomed, optionally trained. At the same time, first prospective owners are interviewed.

Besides, the ongoing Dogs of Chernobyl project is the research initiative leaded by Dr. Timothy Mousseau, scientific research coordinator, who has studied Chernobyl zone wildlife for years in the context of biological consequences of radiation exposure. It was observed that CEZ dog population is unstable yearly - explodes up to 1000 in Summer months (because of the urgency to reproduce, especially in adult animals) and collapses during Winter time (because of the lack of food and care, especially in young ones). The goal is to study (by collected data analysis) the health effects of radiation and simultaneously help to provide essential animal welfare stabilizing population size. Basic methods would be DNA samples delivered to the laboratory after every dog is inspected; supported by results of their eyes examination for cataracts (early sign of significant radiation exposure). The proposed long-term research program will provide much needed scientific evidence as to the effects of radionuclides on animal health and longevity. The opportunity to study these dogs is unique and will generate novel insights that would not be possible for humans or most other animal species - stands in the prospect.

There's still less of data associated with how Canis familiaris survived so far on the limited territory which Canis lupus permanently inhabited. According to Nadezhda Appolonov - one of Ukrainian CFF volunteers - CEZ wolves have killed 30% of CEZ dog population for the last few years. Random CEZ dog matings with CEZ wolves were reported as well.
There are a lot of perceptions about Chernobyl that are not realities - Hixson concludes - People who have never been here expect to see something without ever coming and looking for themselves.
Chernobyl dogs study could be the answer for raising questions about remaining radiation's long-term influence on CEZ wildlife. It could be a trigger to complete the real Chernobyl Exclusion Zone state outside.

The Dogs of Chernobyl Research Initiative
Dogs of Chernobyl project
Biological consequences of Chernobyl: 20 years on (2006); study by Timothy A. Mousseau, Anders Pape Møller
Large Carnivores of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Exclusion Zone (2012); research by M. Shkvyria, D. Vishnevskiy
Analysis of Radioactivity in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Domestic Canine Population (2017); Interactive Qualifying Project Report by Taylor Trottier (Worcester Polytechnic Institute)