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Radioactive Wildlife

Updated: May 31, 2019

Canids in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

By Jonathon Turnbull (@jonnyjjt ) and Thomas Hedley

The effects of human political and economic systems on ‘Nature’ continue to expand and intensify in the Anthropocene – the era in which humans have become a planet-changing force – causing spaces of contamination to proliferate. From plastic-polluted oceans to radioactive zones, human ecological disturbance has become the norm; this is an unavoidable consequence of human activity that humans and nonhumans must learn to live with.

As contamination becomes omnipresent and intergenerational, it can no longer be placed in conceptual opposition to a pristine ‘Nature’ free from human impact. This calls for a thorough rethinking of how we conceptualise contamination and care in the Anthropocene. We suggest the concept of the ‘toxic commons’ as a means of capturing our embroilment in an era where contamination and toxicity are the norm, rather than the exception.

The Anthropocene may therefore be characterised by the shifting ecological baselines that continue to emerge as a consequence of human activity. A key example of these shifting baselines is the global presence of radioactive material in all organisms since August 6th, 1945 – the day the Hiroshima bomb was detonated. This date has been proposed by many to mark the start of the Anthropocene era, but also marks a shift in the way that humans have conceived of their place and role in ‘Nature’. The devastating effects of the nuclear bomb and the ensuing radioactive fallout left a sense of mastery over nature and the fate of humanity (and the world) as a whole.

In this piece, we are concerned with the often forgotten about animals and other non-humans that continue to live amidst the spaces of contamination and ruination, left over after nuclear disasters and other anthropogenic contamination events. In particular, we turn to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 26th April 1986. In the wake of the disaster, residents were evacuated from a 30 km Exclusion Zone surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (CNPP). Evacuees were instructed to leave their pets behind and later, soldiers were sent to cull any remaining animals. Today, around 1,000 stray dogs and puppies – descendants of the original abandoned pets, and survivors of the cull – roam the CNPP.

Wolves have recolonised the Zone, having been absent from the area for decades. They have reestablished a population seven times greater than those in surrounding uncontaminated nature reserves. In the 32 years since the worst nuclear disaster in history, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has paradoxically emerged as one of Europe’s largest truly wild ‘sanctuaries’ at 1,600 square miles. Some scientists regard the Zone as a source of wildlife that will spread to other areas – a narrative that disturbs how we might usually regard a radioactively contaminated space.

Scientific debate regarding the effects of radiation on plants and animals, however, is ongoing. Scientists suggest that intense radiation exposure has ‘seriously harmed’ wildlife at Chernobyl. At its core, they argue, this conceptualisation of Chernobyl as a wildlife haven relies on an ignorance of the true health and experience of the wildlife that survives there. Instead, this narrative disrupts notions of what counts as flourishing ‘Nature’ and does not consider the actual lives of the animals themselves.

Our ceramic installations thus engage with the animals of Chernobyl themselves, asking what it might mean for nature to flourish amidst the radioactive ruins. They force the viewer to confront the idea of living in a contaminated landscape. The mutated skulls – or skullptures – draw attention to the impacts of radiation (and other forms of contamination) on life itself, including the human victims of Chernobyl, who through generations continue to experience the effects of the disaster today.

A range of groups are concerned with caring for the animals of Chernobyl. By entering the Zone to care for the animals that continue to reside there, humans must make themselves vulnerable to the radiation present in the landscape. Through rendering themselves vulnerable, they expose their own bodies to the forces of radioactivity and enter into a shared experience with the animals themselves. Here, the potential for anthropogenic ruins to foster multispecies compassion opens up.

In essence, we are asking what it means to be, and to care for, mutant forms of life in these spaces. Alongside this, by putting forward the concept of the ‘toxic commons’, we also disrupt the notion of what it means to be a mutant in the Anthropocene where everybody is contaminated and marked by radiation. Distinguishing between mutant and non-mutant becomes impossible as the relationship between contaminated and non-contaminated beings is flattened; a spectrum of contamination becomes more appropriate for capturing this Anthropocene state. In doing so, we aim to draw attention to the animals themselves that live amidst these spaces of contamination and encourage conservationists to think of these sites as spaces worthy of their consideration.

Moreover, we think these musings could begin a process of reorienting environmentalism towards ontologies of Nature more aptly aligned with the shifting ecological baselines that continue to emerge as a consequence of human activity. As a result, we aim to foster an approach to conservation that is more adaptable to the realities of the Anthropocene, and one that might be more compassionate towards the humans and animals that dwell within it today, and those that will inhabit the Anthropocene in the future.


Jonathon Turnbull (@jonnyjjt )is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge and is interested in the wildlife in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. In particular, he is interested in the human-animal interactions that take place between three members of the Canid family – dogs, foxes, and wolves – and the lives of the animals themselves. Jonathon is also interested in post-apocalyptic narratives in sci-fi and cli-fi, especially those concerning animals and mutants. He has previously worked on sacred cows in India, and the connections between meat and masculinity. Key themes in his work are animal(s’) geographies, post-humanisms, materiality, and biopolitics. Furthermore, Jonathon has collaborated on a number of occasions with Thomas Hedley (this issue) who uses clay and ceramics as a means to explore and represent geographical research and ideas.

Thomas Hedley, an artist and secondary school art, craft and design teacher, is best known for his hand-built ceramic slab forms. Studying a BA (hons) degree in Ceramics at Cardiff Metropolitan University, Thomas was particularly drawn towards the visual study of spatial forms, shapes, sizes, positions and patterns within ceramics. Geometry is what defines the world around us and everything in between and is his instrument of creation. He is both a constructor and composer exploring universal languages such as music and art to further inform his practice. Like notes to a song, each ceramic composition is made of individual notes, their organisation of mass and tension creating their own movement and rhythm. Furthermore as a secondary school teacher, Thomas hopes to pass on his knowledge and skills, encouraging all students to participate in, experiment with, to invent and create art.


This article appears in the print edition of Anthroposphere Issue III.

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