Chernobyl’s Radioactive Wolves

While procrastinating on other work this week, I watched a documentary that was posted on Reddit that I thought might be of some relevance to our class (and could extend the examination of the social media site I started with my Haunted Media project). Thinking back to some of the concepts we looked at in early April, I was mainly drawn to the Reddit post by a title that, at best could be described as clear hyperbole and at worst, as an outright attempt at clickbait–“Radioactive Wolves Of Chernobyl Scary Mutations (2013).” Meanwhile, the documentary in question is simply entitled Radioactive Wolves and aired in 2011 as part of PBS’s Nature documentary series.

Radioactive Wolves via PBS

Although the Reddit post exaggerates certain aspects of the hour-long documentary, it channels the spirit that the documentary invokes to hook viewers into watching what is essentially the first episode of the twenty-ninth season of a nature TV show on PBS. Necessarily, under the guise of providing background information, the documentary taps into the same human fascination with disaster that the dark and toxic tours capitalized on in the Yankovska and Hannam article. There is even a segment that indulges in our morbid fascination with kenopsia as it explores the abandoned cityscape of Pripyat (complete with shots of the abandoned amusement park, forgotten children’s toys, and disturbing graffiti to drive the creepiness home).

These small segments of the hour-long episode certainly tap into the fascinations of popular culture; however, they take a backseat to the main focus of the documentary–the wolves of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The documentary actually follows the research of biologists and ecologists who are curious about the long-term effects of radiation on the local gray wolf population. They encounter rumors fed by popular opinion that say the area is home to over three hundred wolves of abnormal size (which would make it the biggest population of gray wolves in the world). Eventually, they find that the rumors, much like the clickbaity title, are wrong and that their numbers and size are fairly normal. What the scientists were surprised about was how well the surrounding area seemed to be doing despite the long-term radiation exposure. In the absence of humankind, the local animals and plant species all thrived and showed no signs of the adverse effects of the radiation. 

Of course, such an end could seem like a disappointment compared to the “Scary Mutations” we were led to expect. The comments on both the Youtube video and the Reddit post mimic each other in tone and spirit. Ranging from issues with the title to jokes about Russia, the Fallout franchise, cute animals, and Trump, the most popular comments seem to want to talk about anything else besides the phenomenon observed with Chernobyl’s ecosystem, the wolves’ well-being, or even the disaster itself. Digging deeper within the comments yields some better fruits and gets at the greater significance of the documentary. With this film, viewers confront the uncomfortable truth that humans could prove to be a more dangerous ecological threat than even nuclear catastrophe.

 Nature: Season 29 Episode 1 “Radioactive Wolves” (2011) via PBS