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Photo: Julia Oldham

In this forbidden corner of the Ukraine, you will find hundreds of strays like Tarzan, Samantha, Mr. Aoo and a pup whose name means “Meat Pie” in Ukrainian

Mashka is unaware of the dangers.

Tail wagging, ears flopping, she bounds down dirt paths, through tall grass, past rubble to cooling tower number five.

An unofficial tour guide, the stray dog leads artist Julia Oldham into the enormous structure. Then Mashka, glossy black and spry, lies down on the moss-covered concrete floor of the soaring cylindrical tower and happily chews on some elk bones, blissfully oblivious to the radioactive isotopic dust that blankets her world.

Mashka is one of the hundreds of stray dogs that live around Chernobyl, the site of the largest nuclear disaster in the history of world. In this forbidden corner of the Ukraine, you will also find Tarzan and Samantha and Cupboard, Mr. Aoo and a pup whose name means “Meat Pie” in Ukrainian.

They are the subjects of Oldham’s next project, a video piece called “Fallout Dogs.”

“They’re just going around in this crazy place without all of the baggage that we have about Chernobyl,” Oldham says from her home in the leafy hills of Eugene, Oregon, where her chihuahua mix Gooseberry sits at attention on her lap. “There’s an innocence about them.”

Oldham and her husband traveled to Chernobyl in May, spending five days documenting the dogs and meeting the community that cares for them, from tour guides to security workers to self-settlers—a few hundred civilians who, shortly after the 1986 reactor explosion, returned to their homes in the Exclusion Zone, a 1,000-square-mile area around the nuclear power plant where people are still officially banned from living because of toxic levels of radiation.

Lazy days in front of the trumpeting angel. Julia Oldham

Now back in Eugene, Oldham is in the thick of creating “Fallout Dogs,” what she predicts will be a 20- to 30-minute experimental portrait of this dangerous place through the eyes of creatures who just see it as home. For the project, the Oregon Arts Commission and the Northwest Film Center awarded Oldham a 2018 Oregon Arts Media Fellowship. The video should be completed by January, Oldham says.

WIth this project, she has also made it to the second round of consideration for the prestigious and highly competitive Creative Capital Grant. If she nabs that, she will develop a virtual reality component—an exploration video game of Chernobyl where “you’re the dog.”

As you may have gathered, Oldham is an artist in the renaissance meaning of the word, specializing in video, animation, performance, photography and photo illustration, drawings, and music. A storyteller passionate about science and “raised by a physicist, a rock hound and a pack of dogs in rural Maryland,” Oldham has long been fascinated by the Canidae family. Wolves, coyotes, dogs (or, as she lovingly calls them, “doggies”)—they are her muses.

This love is illustrated in her animated and live-action 2015 video “Laika’s Lullaby,” a sort of precursor to her current project. A stray plucked off the streets of Moscow and trained by Soviet scientists to occupy Sputnik 2 as it orbited the earth in 1957, Laika was the first dog launched into space. Hours into flight, Laika died from overheating.

“It’s a horribly sad story,” Oldham says. “I got really interested in this idea of the effects of human technology on animals, whether it’s sending animals to space, animal testing or, in the case of Chernobyl, the aftereffects of a scientific disaster that renders the land unlivable, and what happens to the animals who are there.”

I'm radioactive, radioactive: A self-settler and a chihuahua bust out a tune inside the Exclusion Zone. Julia Oldham

Oldham grew interested in the stray dogs of Chernobyl after discovering stories of the flora and fauna that have returned to the Exclusion Zone (including wild boars and horses, foxes, elk and moose) and watching Radioactive Wolves, the PBS documentary showing that the animals seem to be thriving in what it described as a “post-nuclear Eden.”

“To me, that sort of suggested that humans are worse than a nuclear explosion, which is a very disquieting thought,” Oldham says. “But there’s also something a little bit hopeful and beautiful about the idea of this zone that’s no longer habitable by humans that’s just turning into this lush forest that’s full of life.”

She contacted a Chernobyl tour company that paired her with the guide Ludmilla Juraschko, who also happened to be the de facto dog caregiver, giving the pups tick medication and soothing their ailments.

“I don’t think anyone had ever asked her for a dog tour before. Actually, she had mostly quit doing tours, but she decided to do this one with us because it was about the dogs,” Oldham recalls. “Ludmilla basically brought us on all of her rounds to feed all the doggies and meet all the doggies.”

Oldham says the dogs appear happy and healthy, but typically live to only 4 or 5 due to extremely cold winters, Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever spread by ticks, and hungry wolves; so far, no study has concluded that radiation shortens their lifespan.

And the dogs are wherever the people are—living solo or in packs at cantines, dormitories or security checkpoints, as many people still work in Chernobyl to manage the containment of radiation. The dogs also help give tours, because, as Oldham says, tourists bring snacks.

Research is scant, so it’s unclear whether the canine population are descendants of pets  that citizens abandoned in the rush to flee their homes, or if they come from another source, like the self-settlers.

Regardless of how they got there, Chernobyl and the Exclusion Zone are their home, and people are taking care of them.

“I felt really inspired by this place that has such a tragic and horrifying history in that there is still beauty and compassion and life,” Oldham says.

You can follow Mashka on a mini tour, too, in the preview for “Fallout Dogs” here.

To follow Julia Oldham’s work, visit juliaoldham.com.

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