In Episode 4, there was an upsetting scene that documented the mass killings of animals throughout the city, including a handful of innocent dogs. Given your own involvement documenting the enduring dog population in Chernobyl and the surrounding area, what is your reaction to this depiction?
Hixson: When locals were evacuated, they were told that they would only be gone for a few days. Soviet officials knew that the evacuated would not return and that it would be unsafe for them to take their own possessions and animals with them. They needed to evacuate over 200,000 residents and it would have been impossible to take all of their possessions with them. The Soviet military was sent in to cull the animals -- cats, dogs, livestock, etc. -- that were left behind, but this was very difficult, psychologically.
Many of the animals escaped into the woods and surrounding areas. We have historical photos that show some puppies and dogs made their way to the power plant just a few weeks after the evacuations. They were looking for food and for people, and that was the only place that they could be found. Over the years, these dogs that were left behind continued to breed and live as wild animals. When I first came to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, I was surprised to see hundreds of wild dogs living in nearly all areas of the facility -- even in some of the most contaminated areas.
These animals suffer from a lack of food, water and shelter, and are also heavily predated by wolves and other predators in the zone. They have a very short lifespan because of predation and the lack of food, water and shelter during the winter. If we see a dog over 4 or 5 years old, we call them "Grandpa" or "Grandma."
Holy hell, that's profoundly sad.
Hixson: Well, our program is providing humane management of these abandoned animals through spay, neuter, and vaccination. We have also worked to adopt out some of the young puppies as we are able. We provide medical care and want to provide them with the best quality of life possible.
The HBO miniseries really brought to light a lot of unknown details about the Chernobyl disaster. What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about the power plant, and what would you like the rest of the world to know about Chernobyl in 2019?
Hixson: Many people are confused by the geographical location of the plant. I constantly hear comments saying, "This is Putin's problem," and that "the Russians should take care of it." The Russians don't have any interest in Chernobyl. This is a Ukrainian problem, and Ukrainians are the ones doing most of the work.
I want people to understand this is not a theme park, this is not a canvas for artistic expression. This is a sacred place, this is a memorial, this is a warning.
We spend our whole lives building for the future, but it can be taken away from us in just a few moments. It is important to remember what is the most important in life: our families, our loved ones and those that we carry with us in our minds and our hearts. Chernobyl will teach you about life and about the things that you are blessed to have -- all you have to do is be willing to open your eyes and to listen.