What do Korea’s demilitarized zone and Chernobyl, Ukraine have in common? It may sound like the beginning to a poorly chosen joke, but it’s a sincere question with an unexpected answer. Both areas have become nature sanctuaries. Both regions are undisturbed by human activity and construction, allowing animals to flourish and plant life to return unmitigated by industry or landscaping. After the destruction of war and nuclear catastrophe in 1986, Chernobyl’s exclusion zone has seen the return of a number of species to the area, including the intentional introduction of one species.
It’s a Hard Life for a Dog – But Not so Bad for Fish and Horses!
There are stray dogs wandering through the zone. Most are a bit scruffy, dusty, but friendly enough, likely socialized by the soldiers and personnel working within the zone. They sometimes feed them scraps, or stop to pet their heads. According to those familiar with the area, the dogs live difficult lives. Because of the return of wolves and other predators, the animals are often killed and at night it’s not unusual to hear fighting or hunting taking place. Visitors should also be careful when interacting with the dogs, because while friendly, inhaling the their dust coated fur can be hazardous to your health. Radioactive elements are often in the soil, and while an area you are visiting might have low readings, the soil on the dogs’ fur might be from a different, more volatile region.
Dogs are a concern for the same reason that high winds and weather that might disturb or overturn soil and dust is of concern for workers in the zone. There’s also no knowing how much radiation the animals have picked up over time and breathing in even a single hair could result in major health problems years later. So, petting the dogs may be tempting but potentially lethal. This has been commented on and documented across the Internet, from Petguide to YouTube’s “nerd alert” all cautioning visitors on repeat: do not pet the puppies (confession: I may have petted the puppies).
Though dogs live difficult lives in Chernobyl, many other animal populations have flourished, including the enormous carp and catfish. Visitors can see them in the cooling ponds. It’s tempting to say that radiation has made these enormous fish supersized, but in reality these fish grow to be quite large if left to their own devices and unbothered by fishing and pollutants.
Another animal that has benefited from life in the exclusion zone is the Przewalski horse. They are a subspecies of wild horses that are currently endangered. They were nearly extinct not so long ago. A reservation in another region of Ukraine sent a number of horses to the exclusion zone, where they were meant to be enclosed in areas with low radiation. “Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl” by Mary Mycio summarizes the politics and nature of Chernobyl’s exclusion zone. The author included an entire chapter on the Przewalski horses and how they came to Chernobyl. Though, I never managed to catch sight of the horses while in the exclusion zone.
Power of Root and Vines
When people talk about the power of nature, they’re often referencing natural disasters; typhoons, hurricanes, the crashing waves of the ocean in a storm. However, as anyone that’s been to the Grand Canyon can attest, sometimes it’s the slow but steady pressure of nature, like the never ending drip of water, or curve of a river that can carve away at stone. In the same way, you see the activity of roots, trees, vines, acidity from lichen and pine needles, oxidation and rusting of metals from moisture and the air. All of these things break down what we think of as permanent metal, plastic, and cement making up the cities of Chernobyl in Pripyat. The plant life is overwhelming, both emotionally and literally: the different parts of both cities as they once were, have become almost unrecognizable. There were moments during our time there that I stood in the middle of what was once a road, or part of a neighborhood, and didn’t realize it wasn’t an abandoned forest.