Helping the dogs of Chernobyl
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps. Stephen Quandt is an animal welfare worker in New York City.
STEPHEN QUANDT: When I was a gay teenager in the '70s, I had no vision of a future - no picket fence, no house, no romantic life, nothing. And I realized that what I'm doing with these animals is trying to find them their future.
INSKEEP: You see, Stephen Quandt cares for abandoned animals in disaster zones around the world. At StoryCorps, he recalled a 2019 trip to Ukraine and the site of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.
QUANDT: At the time of the accident, which was in 1986, there was an order to evacuate the people. They had less than an hour to get ready to go, and they had to leave their animals behind. And then the military was directed to kill the dogs, but many of them lived. And for 35 years, they've been breeding, living and dying in the forests around Chernobyl. So we went there and provided care for the dogs. Every single night, a huge group of dogs would come out of the forest. They would gather in the town square and howl collectively. And in this immense radioactive forest, it turns out there are squatters. At the time of the accident, they were evacuated. But they moved back in and wouldn't leave.
On the last day that I was there, our translator comes up to me. And she points at this old man, and she says, did you give him a fridge magnet and a bottle opener yesterday? And I was like, yeah. I did. I brought them specifically to give out. We were told we could give out little gifts - nice, you know, I heart New York bottle opener. And she motioned me over, and he started talking. And she started translating. He said that he was what was called a Chernobyl liquidator - one of the guys who fought the fire in the core at the time of the accident. And then he pulled out this old, worn medal commemorating his valor. He wanted to give me his medal for helping the dogs. I said, no. I can't accept it. And she said, you have to. He will be insulted if you don't. So I had to take it. And I'm holding his medal that I don't deserve, knowing full well the measure of his sacrifice. But I never learned his name, and I never saw him again. I think about him. And for all I know, he's still there in that radioactive forest with the dogs.
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INSKEEP: Stephen Quandt in New York City. The interview is archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.