When Timothy Mousseau, a researcher with the University of South Carolina, started visiting Ukraine nearly 20 years ago, he studied birds, insects and plants, “basically anything we could catch.” It was an excuse to go somewhere unusual and study something unconventional: How creatures large and small deal with exposure to nuclear radiation.
Though there are few people in the area, dogs left behind after the disaster bred, and today there are about 250 strays roaming the area, according to the Clean Futures Fund, a nonprofit aid group that is working to bring veterinarians to the site to vaccinate the dogs for rabies, as well as to spay and neuter them.
The USC team is also partnering with the Clean Futures Fund in their research.
The researchers, led by Mousseau, will be examining the animals for signs of tumors. The animals will be sedated, Mousseau said. They also will look for signs of eye cataracts, another sign of radiation poisoning, he said.
The students will be tasked with looking for changes in the animals’ genetics and microbiome. The dogs will also be outfitted with meters.
“What we’re really hoping to get at is a better idea of how much radiation it takes to cause significant genetic damage,” Mousseau said.
All “nuclear materials” in medicine are regulated. But Mousseau said more research needs to be done to understand the body’s response to even tiny amounts of radiation. He thinks the dogs, with their naturally shorter life spans, will make for good test subjects.
“You can see the effects in a shorter period of time,” Mousseau said. “We can look at consequences much more quickly.”
The canines, with their lifetime exposure to radiation, make for desirable research subjects. But the researchers plan to help take care of the dogs, too, by monitoring their health.
Courtney Rulison, 21, said she found out about the opportunity when fliers were passed around to USC biology students.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take for this volunteer organization not to be needed anymore,” she said. “Or if these dogs can ever be adopted or leave Chernobyl. For right now, they have to stay there because they’re contaminated.”