We Need to Talk About THAT Chernobyl Episode

Last night my husband and I finished the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s nothing short of a masterpiece. In fact, it’s the most highly reviewed show in the network’s history. If you haven’t already, you should definitely watch it.

The fourth episode of the five-part miniseries though has some of the toughest and most haunting scenes, portraying a part of the disaster that’s rarely discussed or even thought about. This episode depicted what happened to the companion animals of people who were evacuated from surrounding communities of the Chernobyl disaster site. Told they would be brought home and reunited with their animals after just a day or two, these people left their animals behind with extra food and water.

But the story about returning was a lie.

The communities closest to Chernobyl were known to be so badly contaminated by fallout that no one could return. Ever. Thousands were forced to relocate and abandon their homes and animals. Teams of men, called “liquidators,” were then sent into these towns, where they shot thousands of dogs and cats on sight to prevent them from spreading radiation. Like I said, the episode is devastating.

Some dogs chased after their owners to follow them onto evacuation buses, but soldiers pushed them away. Dog owners also reportedly left notes on their doors, begging the government to spare their pets’ lives, but that didn’t stop officials from trying to kill as many of the remaining animals as possible. In the years since, however, the descendants of these dogs have bred and multiplied.

SPCA International

This got me thinking about more recent disasters right here in the United States and how they’ve affected animals under our care. Some of us will remember the harrowing scenes of people being forced to abandon their companion animals during Hurricane Katrina. A 2006 poll found that 44 percent of people who refused to evacuate did so because they would not leave their animals. Thousands of animals and humans perished because no laws were in place to protect them.

A dog waiting for his family to come home after Katrina
Image source: Carol Guzy/The Washington Post

The year after Katrina, the PETS Act was passed. This federal law made it a requirement for cities and states to include companion and service animals in disaster plans if they are to receive funding from the government. Though far from perfect, it was a step in the right direction for sure.

But as I write this, there are billions more animals who are severely at risk.

On America’s factory farms, countless birds, pigs, cows, and other animals exploited for food are afforded no protection or consideration when disasters strike. They are left in overcrowded sheds or in cages as flood waters slowly drown them or fires burn them alive.

Just this past fall, Hurricane Florence ravaged North Carolina, a state with one of the highest concentrations of pig farms in the country. Countless pigs were left in gestation crates and sheds as factory farmers fled and abandoned them. The animals had no way to even try to escape as the hurricane raged. It is estimated that over 5,000 pigs and over three MILLION turkeys and chickens perished because of the storm. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey flooded Texas leaving millions of cows stranded. Many drowned.

A pig farm is flooded during Hurricane Florence
Image source: Rick Dove/Waterkeeper Alliance
Pigs clinging to life after flooding from Hurricane Floyd, 1999

Barn fires are another grave concern. Literally dozens of factory farms catch fire each year, leaving animals completely vulnerable. With no laws requiring sprinkler or other safety systems, thousands of animals remain trapped and burn alive.

A barn fire rages in Lafayette, PA killing more than 19,000 chickens

Zoos also leave animals at risk. While animals in the wild would instinctively seek higher ground or at least have a chance to outrun a catastrophe, animals in zoos are stuck. Unlike factory farms, some zoos do have a disaster/emergency plan but let’s be real – it’s bullshit. Animals shouldn’t be in zoos to begin with. In 2018, a bear was shot after he escaped his enclosure at a German zoo when it was besieged by flood waters. The year before, Hurricane Irma claimed the lives of multiple fish and birds at the zoo in Miami, Florida.

Until the day animals stop being seen as “things” that are just here for us to eat or to entertain us, people will continue exploit and confine them. And even with disaster plans, this leaves countless animals in danger. Simply put, we must stop supporting industries that do this. It’s plain wrong.

For those of us who live with companion animals, make a plan: Have animal carriers at the ready, find out if your local disaster shelter allows companion animals; same for local hotels/motels. Make sure that if you have to evacuate, your animals are coming with you.