December 19, 1986 The Lost Dogs of Chernobyl

The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”

It all began as a test.  A carefully planned series of events, intending to simulate a station blackout at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine.

This most titanic of disasters, began with a series of small mishaps. Safety systems intentionally turned off.  Inexperienced reactor operators, failing to follow checklists. Inherent design flaws in the reactor itself.

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On the night of April 25-26, 1986, a nuclear chain reaction expanded beyond control, flashing water to super-heated steam.  Violent explosions shattered reactor and building alike as reactor #4 belched massive amounts of nuclear material into the atmosphere.  For the next nine days, intense updrafts created by the open-air graphite fire spewed vast quantities of radiation into the air, raining radioactive  particles over large swaths of the western USSR and Europe.  Some 60 percent of the stuff came down in the Republic of Belarus.

It was the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history and yet, this was 1986.  The Soviet government didn’t tell its own people for days, what was going on.  In the West, the first alert came not from the USSR, but from Sweden.

images (56).jpgAn estimated 4,000 to 93,000 died in the aftermath of the accident, many of whom, were children.

The death toll could have been higher but for heroic self-sacrifice, by first responders.  Anatoli Zakharov, a fireman stationed in Chernobyl since 1980, replied to remarks that firefighters believed this to be an ordinary electrical fire:

Of course we knew! If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze“.

Work began within three weeks on the design and construction of a concrete sarcophagus, large enough to contain 200 tons of radioactive corium, 30 tons of contaminated dust and 16 tons of uranium and plutonium, trapped inside the twisted wreckage. It was the largest civil engineering project in history involving no fewer than a quarter-million construction workers, every one of whom received a lifetime maximum dose of radiation.  By this day in December, work was substantially complete.

A Chernobyl liquidator pushes a baby in a carriage who was found during the cleanup of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, 1986.jpgOfficials of the top-down Soviet state first downplayed the disaster.  Asked by one Ukrainian official, “How are the people?“, acting minister of Internal Affairs Vasyl Durdynets replied there was nothing to be concerned about: “Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River.

As the scale of the disaster became evident, civilians were at first ordered to shelter in place.  A 10-kilometer exclusion zone was enacted within the first 36 hours, resulting in the hurried evacuation of some 49,000.  The exclusion zone was tripled to 30-km within a week, leading to the evacuation of another 68,000.

Before it was over some 350,000 were moved away, never to return.

c3a6c209f69a1fe061fc35ef7d9e4e09.jpgThe chaos of these forced evacuations, can scarcely be imagined.  Confused adults.  Crying children.  Howling dogs.  Shouting soldiers, barking orders and herding now-homeless civilians onto waiting trains and vehicles by the tens of thousands.  Dogs and cats, beloved companion animals and lifelong family members, were abandoned to fend for themselves.

The government didn’t bother to explain.   There would be no return.

chernobyl-cleanup-crew.jpgThere were countless and heartbreaking scenes of final abandonment, of mewling cats, and whimpering dogs.  Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich compiled hundreds of interviews into a single monologue, an oral history of the forgotten.  The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” 0720-dogsfront.jpgThere was no mercy.  Squads of soldiers were sent to shoot the animals, left behind.   Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka.  She’s a good dog.”  Most of these abandoned pets, were shot.  Some escaped notice, and survived.

vegan-plant-based-news-dogs-livekindly-Cropped-1-1-1068x601 (1).jpgLater on, plant management hired someone, to kill the 1,000 or so dogs still remaining.  The story is, the worker refused.

1424 (1)Today, untold numbers of stray dogs live in the towns of Chernobyl, Pripyat and surrounding villages.  Descendants of those left behind, back in 1986.  Ill equipped to survive in the wild and driven from forests by wolves and other predators, they forage as best they can among abandoned streets and buildings, of the 1,000-mile exclusion zone.  For some,  radiation can be found in their fur.  Few live beyond the age of six but, all is not bleak.

chernobyl-dogs-2Since September 2017, a partnership between the SPCA International and the US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit CleanFutures.org has worked to provide for the veterinary needs of these defenseless creatures.  Over 450 animals have been tested for radiation exposure, given medical care, vaccinations and spayed or neutered, to bring populations within manageable limits.  Most are released back to the “wild”.

ynimas0uSome have been successfully decontaminated and socialized for human interaction.  In 2018, the first batch became available for adoption into homes in Ukraine and North America, some forty puppies and dogs.

 

To this day, hundreds of dogs eke out a living, in the exclusion zone.  The work of rescue is ongoing.  A joint press release from the two organizations gives much-needed hope:  “This unprecedented event marks an important partnership with the Ukrainian government, which has been reluctant in the past 32 years to allow anything to be removed from the nuclear exclusion zone.”

Dogs of Chernobyl.jpgBelieve it or not there are visitors to the area.  People actually go on tours of the region but they’re strictly warned.  No matter how adorable, do not pet, cuddle nor even touch any puppy or dog who has not been through rigorous decontamination.

For those lucky few the search for good homes goes on, for the lost dogs of Chernobyl.2016_Chernobyl-NB-1-4.jpg

March 13, 1942 US Canine Corps

It’s K-9 Veteran’s Day. March 13, 2017. I could tell you no other story today, half as fitting as this.

The history of war dogs is as old as history itself.  The war-dogdogs of King Alyattes of Lydia killed some of his Cimmerian adversaries and routed the rest around 600BC, permanently driving the invader from Asia Minor in the earliest known use of war dogs in battle.

King Molossus of Epirus, grandson of the mighty Achilles, used a large, powerfully built breed specifically trained for battle. Today, “molosser” describes a body type more than any specific breed.  Modern molossers include the Mastiff, Bernese Mountain Dog, Newfoundland and Saint Bernard.

Ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians often used dogs as sentries or on patrol. In late antiquity, Xerxes I, the Persian King who faced the Spartan King Leonidas across the pass at Thermopylae, was accompanied by a pack of Indian hounds.

Attila the Hun went to war with a pack of hounds, as did the Spanish Conquistadors of the 1500s.

Sallie statue
Sallie’s likeness rests at the foot of a statue in Gettysburg, looking out for the spirits of “her boys” for all eternity

A Staffordshire Bull Terrier named Sallie “joined up” in 1861, serving the rest of the Civil War with the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.  At Cedar Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Spotsylvania, Sallie would take her position alongside the colors, barking ferociously at the adversary.

Abraham Lincoln spotted Sallie from a reviewing stand in 1863, and tipped his hat.

Sallie was killed at Hatcher’s Run in February 1865.  Several of “her” men laid down their arms then and there to bury her, despite being under Confederate fire.

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WWI Messenger Dog

Dogs performed a variety of roles in WWI, from ratters in the trenches, to sentries, scouts and runners. “Mercy” dogs were trained to seek out the wounded on the battlefield, carrying medical supplies with which the stricken could treat themselves.

Sometimes, these dogs simply provided the comfort of another living soul, so that the gravely wounded should not die alone.

By the end of the “Great War”, France, Great Britain and Belgium had at least 20,000 dogs on the battlefield, Imperial Germany over 30,000. Some sources report that over a million dogs served over the course of the war.

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Lee Duncan & Rin Tin Tin

The famous Rin Tin Tin canine movie star of the 1920s was rescued as a puppy, from the bombed out remains of a German Army kennel, in 1917. (Read more about him, Here).

GHQ of the American Expeditionary Force recommended using dogs as sentries, messengers and draft animals in the spring of 1918, however the war was over before US forces put together any kind of a War Dog program.

America’s first war dog, “Sgt. Stubby”, went “Over There” by accident, serving 18 months on the Western Front before coming home to a well-earned retirement.

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Sgt. Stubby

On March 13, 1942, the Quartermaster Corps began training dogs for the US Army “K-9 Corps.” In the beginning, the owners of healthy dogs were encouraged to “loan” their dogs to the Quartermaster Corps, where they were trained for service with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

The program initially accepted over 30 breeds of dog, but the list soon narrowed to German Shepherds, Belgian Sheep Dogs, Doberman Pinschers, Collies, Siberian Huskies, Malamutes and Eskimo Dogs.

WWII-era Military Working Dogs (MWDs) served on sentry, scout and patrol missions, in addition to performing messenger and mine-detection work. The keen senses of scout dogs saved countless lives, by alerting to the approach of enemy forces, incoming fire, and hidden booby traps & mines.

ChipsThe most famous MWD of WWII was “Chips”, a German Shepherd assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division in Italy. Trained as a sentry dog, Chips broke away from his handler and attacked an enemy machine gun nest. Wounded in the process, his singed fur demonstrated the point-blank fire with which the enemy fought back.  To no avail.  Chips single-handedly forced the surrender of the entire gun crew.

Chips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and Purple Heart, the honors later revoked due to an Army policy against the commendation of animals. It makes me wonder if the author of such a policy ever saw service beyond his own desk.

Of the 549 dogs who returned from service in WWII, all but four were able to return to civilian life.

Over 500 dogs died on the battlefields of Vietnam, of injuries, illnesses, and combat wounds. 10,000 servicemen served as dog handlers during the war, with an estimated 4,000 Military Working Dogs.  261 handlers paid the ultimate price.  K9 units are estimated to have saved over 10,000 human lives.

War dog memorial Univ. Tenn.
War dog memorial, University of Tennessee

It’s only a guess, but, having an MWD handler in the family, I believe I’m right:  hell would freeze before any handler walked away from his dog. The military bureaucracy, is another matter. The vast majority of MWDs were left behind during the Vietnam era. Only about 200 dogs survived the war to be assigned to other bases. The remaining dogs were either euthanized or left behind as “surplus equipment”.

In 2011, a Belgian Malinois named “Cairo” accompanied the Navy SEAL “Neptune Spear” operation that took out Osama bin Laden.

Today there are about 2,500 dogs in active service.  Approximately 700 deployed overseas. The American Humane Association estimates that each MWD saves an average 150-200 human lives over the course of its career.

Nate & Zino
Nate & Zino

NPR’s “Here & Now” broadcast an excellent segment out of their Boston affiliate WBUR in 2014, when our son-in-law Nate was reunited with “Zino”, the Tactical Explosives Detection Dog (TEDD) with whom he served in Afghanistan.

Their story ends well, but that isn’t always the case. Many have been left behind, no longer qualified to travel on military transport after being “retired” on foreign soil.

In 2015, Congressman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced language in their respective bodies, mandating that MWDs be returned to American soil upon retirement, and that their handlers and/or handlers’ families be given first right of adoption.

LoBiondo’s & McCaskill’s language became law on November 25, when the President signed the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It’s a small step in recognizing what we owe to those who have stepped up in defense of our nation, both two legged and four.

Boston’s NPR Station WBUR broadcast a segment on Nate & Zino’s reunion, if you’re interested in listening to it.  It’s a great story.

 http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2014/03/21/soldier-dog-reunion 

February 8, 1960 Rin Tin Tin

There’s a Hollywood legend that may or may not be true, that Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for Best Actor at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929

paris-gunAt 256 tons with a barrel of 111′ 7″, the “Paris Gun” hurled 38″ shells into the city from a range of 75 miles. If you were in Paris in 1918, you may never have heard of the German “super gun”. You’d have been well acquainted with the damage it caused. You never knew you were under attack until the explosion. The lucky ones were those who lived to see the 4’ deep, 10’-12’ wide crater.paris-gun-crater

Parisian children made little good luck charms, as “protection” from the Paris gun. They were tiny pairs of handmade dolls, joined together by scraps of yarn. They were said to provide protection for their owners, but only under certain circumstances. You couldn’t make or buy your own, they had to be presented to you. They also had to remain attached, or else the little dolls would lose their protective powers.

nenetteetrintintinThese little yarn dolls had names. They were Nénette and Rintintin.

Army Air Service Corporal Lee Duncan was in Paris at this time, with the 135th Aero Squadron. He was aware of the custom, possibly having been given such a talisman himself. In the wake of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, Corporal Duncan was sent forward to the small village of Flirey, to check out it’s suitability for an airfield. The place was heavily damaged by shellfire, and Duncan came upon the shattered remains of a dog pound. Once, this kennel had provided Alsatians (German Shepherd Dogs) to the Imperial German Army. Now, the only dogs left alive were a starving mother and five nursing puppies, so young that their eyes were still closed.135th_aero_squadron_group

Corporal Duncan cared for them, selling several once the puppies were weaned. He sold the mother to an officer and three puppies to fellow soldiers, keeping two for himself. Like those little yarn dolls that French children gave to American soldiers, Duncan felt these two puppies were his good luck charms. He called them Nanette and Rin Tin Tin.

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Playwright Jane Murfin with Strongheart

Returning home after the war, Duncan placed the dogs with a police dog breeder and trainer in Long Island. Nanette contracted pneumonia and died, the breeder giving Duncan a female puppy, “Nanette II”, to replace her.

Etzel von Oeringen was born on October 1, 1917 in Germany, coming to America after the Great War and becoming a movie star in the ‘20s. Better known as “Strongheart”, Etzel was a German Shepherd Dog, whose appearance in silent films enormously increased the popularity of the breed.

A friend of silent film actor Eugene Pallete, Duncan became convinced that Rin Tin Tin could become the next canine film star. He later wrote, “I was so excited over the motion-picture idea that I found myself thinking of it night and day.”

where-the-north-begins-rin-tin-tin-1923Walking the dog on “Poverty Row”, 1920s slang for B movie studios, did the trick. Rin Tin Tin got his first film break in 1922, replacing a camera shy wolf in “The Man from Hell’s River”. His first starring role in the 1923 “Where the North begins”, is credited with saving Warner Brothers Studios from bankruptcy.

Between-the-scenes silent film “intertitles” were easily changed from one language to another, and Rin Tin Tin films enjoyed international distribution. In 1927, Berlin movie audiences voted him Most Popular Actor.

There’s a Hollywood legend that may or may not be true, that Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for Best Actor at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929. Wishing to appear oh-so serious and wanting a human actor, the Academy threw out the ballots. German actor Emil Jannings got Best Actor on the 2nd ballot.

rin-tin-tin-signed-photoRin Tin Tin appeared in 27 feature length silent films, 4 “talkies”, and countless commercials and short films. Regular programming was interrupted to announce his passing on August 10, 1932, at the age of 13. An hour-long program about his life was broadcast the following day.

Suffering from the Great Depression like so many others, Duncan couldn’t afford a fancy funeral. By this time he couldn’t afford the house he lived in. Duncan sold the house and returned the body of his beloved German Shepherd to the country of his birth, where Rin Tin Tin was buried in the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques, in the Parisian suburb of Asnières-sur-Seine.

Duncan continued breeding the line, careful to preserve the physical qualities and intelligence of the original, avoiding the less desirable traits that crept into other GSD rin-tin-tinbloodlines. Rin Tin Tin and Nanette II produced at least 48 puppies. Duncan may have been obsessive about it, at least according to Mrs. Duncan. When she filed for divorce, she named Rin Tin Tin as co-respondent.

Rin Tin Tin was awarded his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960. Lee Duncan passed away later that same year.  At some point, Duncan had written a poem, a tribute to the companion animal who was no more.  If you’ve ever loved a dog, I need not explain his final stanza.

“…A real unselfish love like yours, old pal,
Is something I shall never know again;
And I must always be a better man,
Because you loved me greatly, Rin Tin Tin”.