If ever there was a tour to take you into the heart of darkness – and through it into the light – the Dogs of Chernobyl Virtual Tour is surely it. It allows you not only to meet the dogs who call the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone home, but to experience the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, that occurred 34 years ago, on Saturday 26 April 1986. 

Many family pets were left behind in the aftermath of the disaster, and today there are currently around 600 dogs that still live in the Exclusion Zone, thought to be descendants of pets left behind in Pripyat and the surrounding villages. Today, most of the dogs live in the semi-populated area of Chernobyl City. And while man’s best friend in the zone may be a little more aloof than the average family pet, coming face-to-virtual-face with these dogs is a must for animal lovers. 

The remains of a building at the Chernobyl nuclear
The Chernobyl nuclear explosion of 1986 in Ukraine leaves behind these reminders of lives destroyed ©Alex Skelly/Getty Images

Many visitors to the Exclusion Zone have been charmed by these four-legged friends by taking the ‘Dogs of Chernobyl’ tour offered by the Clean Futures Fund (CFF) and Airbnb Experiences, which has recently moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic. The CFF charity has been working in the zone since 2016, and in that time, has spayed, neutered and vaccinated over 1500 dogs whilst running a feeding programme for them. As well as that, they have rehomed over 40 puppies to the United States and Canada through an adoption programme.

Lucas Hixson, president and co-founder of the charity, says their work is having a positive effect. “We’re seeing healthier dogs who are living longer, which I attribute to less competition over food and shelter. With the feeding programme in place, they don’t have to go foraging for food as much, which is mainly where they come into contact with predators.” Despite the feeding programme, the dogs are currently getting less food than usual since Ukraine introduced restrictions on who can enter the zone amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s much harder for the dogs than normal, just because all of the traditional methods of them getting food are gone. [Powerplant] Workers and tourists really bridge the gap, so without that, the dogs are in a really difficult situation.”

Chernobyl has seen its popularity skyrocket since the HBO mini-series of the same name, with some tour operators reporting bookings up by 30-40% in 2019. Those who survived Chernobyl will find the COVID-19 pandemic not entirely dissimilar to the disaster, says Hixson.

“People around the world are feeling some of the same emotions and pressures that people in Chernobyl were feeling 34 years ago: there was a lack of information, a health threat, a lot of confusion about what to do and how to keep yourself safe.”

While the CFF tour is currently the only ‘live virtual experience’ within the exclusion zone, there are other ways to engage with Chernobyl during lockdown. Dr Nick Rush-Cooper, Lecturer in Digital Approaches to Media, Heritage and Cultural Studies at Newcastle University and former Chernobyl tour guide recommends The Babushkas of Chernobyl, a film documenting the lives of older people who refused to leave the Zone of Mandatory Resettlement.

Jonathon Turnbull, a geographer from the University of Cambridge, based in Kyiv, says, “learning about it as a technological, cultural and environmental event is a great way people can engage with its history.”

Abandoned ferris wheel in amusement park in Pripyat, Chernobyl
Abandoned ferris wheel in an amusement park in Pripyat, Chernobyl © Hellen Sergeyeva / Shutterstock

He continues: “You can look at the Wikipedia page and get facts and figures, but that tells you very little about how people experienced the disaster. Svetlana Alexievich’s book Chernobyl Prayer is the best way to transport yourself to Chernobyl, it tells the stories of local people directly after the event. The accounts are so powerful, and it really gets you to engage with those who were affected.”

So, whether you want the lovable shaggy face of one of the Exclusion Zone’s cute canines on your screen or you’d prefer to learn more by losing yourself in a book or film, you’ll still be able to mark the 34th anniversary of Chernobyl this weekend. The CFF virtual tours are currently available for online booking and take place every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday until 31 July.

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