Tarzan loves to fetch sticks, run after snowballs, and is, per Julie McDowall, "a playful example of global kindness and cooperation." Writing for the Guardian, McDowall explains that Tarzan is one of hundreds of stray dogs living in the 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear plant, a native population to the devastated Ukrainian area for heartbreaking reasons: They're the descendants of pets abandoned by their owners in Pripyat and other neighboring villages in 1986 when the plant melted down, an exodus that left "dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. … They ran after the buses for ages." Squads were sent in to shoot the animals left behind, but some of the dogs survived, and now their progeny wander the area as "Chernobyl mascots," hanging out near the local cafe and eagerly greeting visitors.
McDowall concedes it's not the easiest life for the canines, who endure brutal winters and a life expectancy cut short by radiation—she says not many live past the age of 6. The Clean Futures Fund, a US nonprofit that's set up three veterinary clinics nearby, also notes the dogs are malnourished and exposed to rabies and vicious wolves, and that the plant "out of desperation, not desire" even hired a worker to come kill the dogs (he's now refusing to do so). But the fund, which so far has raised more than $46,000 to care for the pups, offers the dogs emergency medical care, as well as helps vaccinate and neuter them. "We want to get the population down to a manageable size so we can feed and provide long-term care for them," says one of the fund's co-founders. In the meantime, "some [tour] guides … try to avoid the dogs to stay on the safe side," one guide tells McDowall. "But I love them." (Read more Chernobyl stories.)