One shy but adorable mutt will spend Christmas with her new family in the U.S. rather than roaming a semi-radioactive wasteland in Ukraine, as she had previously been destined.
This year, stray dogs that had been living in the Chernobyl disaster zone have been deemed safe for adoption for the first time and are coming to the United States. A total of 20 pups headed here in two batches earlier this year, and now the final two dogs of 2018 have arrived.
One landed in Florida earlier this month, and the other is settling into her El Dorado County home after meeting her new owner Dec. 14 at San Francisco International Airport.
The most catastrophic nuclear accident in history, the 1986 explosion inside the Chernobyl reactor in then-Soviet Ukraine has grim implications: By many scientists’ estimates, it will be 20,000 years until radiation clears out sufficiently from the so-called “exclusion zone,” where long-term habitation is illegal.
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And then there’s Persik. She’s not radioactive. She has the normal number of heads, paws and tails. At roughly 7 months old, she hasn’t yet experienced a harsh Chernobyl winter and will never have to.
Persik reached California with the help of the Dogs of Chernobyl project, a joint effort that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International joined last year.
Christine Anderson, born in Sacramento but now living an hour away in Cool, rescued Persik after reaching out to SPCAI via email. She received a response quickly and was considered a prime candidate.
“We can usually tell by the way somebody talks about wanting a dog on their application” if they’ll be suitable to adopt one from overseas, SPCAI Executive Director Meredith Ayan said.
Anderson and her fiancé live on a quiet, hilly street with a large yard, plenty of space for Persik to roam. The couple work a weekend-only schedule, leaving lots of time to train and care for their new pup and their older one.
Their other dog, a 2-year-old brown shepherd named Daisy with too much “puppy energy,” was part of the reason the couple decided to get a second dog.
A week after picking up her new pup, and four days before Christmas, Anderson sat in her living room with overalls on and the fireplace lit. Persik curled up in the corner of the couch on a throw pillow, bone nearby, wearing a concerned look.
“She pretzels herself,” Anderson explained as Persik tucked her legs in tight.
Persik is a shy dog with unique quirks.
“She mostly likes to eat grass shoots – like the new grass,” Anderson laughed. “I actually, legitimately think that because that’s what she did before (in Chernobyl), she thinks that’s food and I’m like, ‘It’s really not.’ ”
Persik also hides behind furniture and doesn’t like going to the bathroom during walks because “she doesn’t like to be exposed,” Anderson said.
“The first night we got her, we woke up in the morning and she had shoes and clothes and towels and all kinds of things in a circle around her,” Anderson said.
Daisy is much more outgoing, but the two get along.
So, why adopt a dog from Chernobyl?
“I, like many people, saw it – it was a big story going around, the Dogs of Chernobyl,” she said. “I wasn’t even sure I was ready for a second dog, but I emailed them and I got a response right away. ... Part of it is just, it’s such a cool idea of something to be a part of. And we’re both fairly impulsive in that way. We weren’t really considering the difficulty or the expense.”
“Persyk,” as her SFO crate reads, means “Peach” in Ukrainian, and she’s as pretty as one. Persik has big “bat ears” as her owner calls them, and boasts shepherd and lab features – a short, dark snout, a tan body and deep brown eyes – as well as a red bandana.
Chernobyl dogs are essentially breedless after three decades of virtually no human intervention, Ayan explained.
Anderson demonstrating her determination to adopt Persik by mentioning to SPCAI that she’d be willing to drive to and from Chicago, a 2,000-mile trip, to pick up the dog from the organization’s shelter there.
Instead, the mutt was flown, but not without complications. Multiple delays put off the flight nearly three weeks, also moving the pickup destination from Sacramento International Airport to SFO.
The target date to get Persik was Nov. 25, but cold weather in Chicago and Ukraine set things back.
“Instead it ended up being Thursday (Dec. 13), at midnight, three days away,” Anderson said. “... I think it was six delays total before she finally made it to San Francisco.”
The Clean Futures Fund, an organization that assists human victims of industrial accidents, first reached out to SPCAI about the issue, according to Ayan.
“What they found is that when they went over to Chernobyl, a lot of these people they were helping talked about these stray dogs in the exclusion zone,” Ayan said.
The exclusion zone is a roughly 1,000-square-mile area in which public access is restricted. Now, 32 years after the disaster, the Chernobyl plant privately contracts workers for the ongoing effort of decommissioning the nuclear reactor and confining hazardous materials.
Those workers, Ayan said, are the ones who called the dogs friendly and in need of rescuing.
That’s when SPCAI stepped in, joining Clean Futures’ Dogs of Chernobyl project. But adoption was not the main goal.
“We started with spay and neuter,” Ayan said, so that the pet population does not “explode over time.”
“People thought that they were leaving for 24 to 48 hours” when the reactor failed, Ayan said. “There was not a lot of transparency in the Soviet government at that time. So they were told leave some food and water for your dog for two days. And now most people haven’t gone back 32 years later.”
The average lifespan for a stray Chernobyl dog is about four or five years, Ayan said.
“That is not due to any kind of radiation poisoning as people might think,” the SPCAI director explained. “’Oh, you must have, like, two-headed dogs or other deformities.’ It’s not like that at all. It’s an otherwise hostile environment.”
Those elements include harsh winters, natural predators and power plant work.
Ayan claims the conditions near Chernobyl make the dogs very intelligent via natural selection.
“She’s definitely also a little bit sneaky. Kind of sly,” Anderson said. “We kind of like that. We think she’s gonna be a really clever dog.”
Dogs of Chernobyl puppies are all less than 1 year old. As such, Ayan points out that they haven’t experienced the hardship of a full Ukrainian winter.
It’s no simple task to get a dog from a nuclear disaster site to the U.S.
First, the dogs are scanned to ensure they don’t have radiation “hotspots” anywhere on their bodies, Ayan said. They’re then transported by train to a quarantine facility. If they’re old enough, 4 months or more, they spend a month getting ready for their first rabies vaccination.
“That starts the waiting period to get into the U.S.,” Ayan said.
During that wait, SPCAI makes sure the animals have proper nutrition. They’re given a full health checkup and are trained to be around humans.
Stacks of paperwork later, with authorization by the Ukraine government, the dogs are cleared for export. The SPCAI must communicate continuously with the Ukrainian government and involved airports.
Upon arrival in the U.S., they get a domestic health certificate from SPCAI’s Chicago shelter.
It sounds like a logistical nightmare, even without the foundational step of convincing the Chernobyl plant to let any of it happen.
“Anything that is in the exclusion zone, living or dead, is strictly forbidden to ever come out,” Ayan said.
In order to allow for this recent exception, the SPCAI needed to prove the dogs did not pose a risk. The dogs had dosimeters to track radiation levels. Test dogs were scanned to show plant leaders there was no threat.
Radiation aside, the strays posed a hazard and distraction to power plant workers, which is one reason the Ukraine government and plant leaders eventually agreed to give SPCAI permission to help manage the dog population.
The first round of 15 dogs came to the U.S. in July, and five more came later before the latest duo was sent to Chicago.
“The plan is working,” Ayan said.
As Ayan says, spaying and neutering is the main priority in Clean Futures’ three-year plan, while shipping dogs to the U.S. is secondary.
Persik’s presence in Anderson’s family is permanent, though.
“I suspect that she was a little older when she came out than some of the dogs because she’s really weird,” Anderson said. “But she’s awesome.”