Radioactive Beasts Are Invading Our Cities

Radioactive wild boar are invading towns in southern Germany. They take out a man in a wheelchair; they break through fences and roam the roads, shutting down highway traffic; they travel in packs scavenging for food. Police scramble to restore order in urban centers. The radioactive boar are armed with a postapocalyptic payload; they live in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. By foraging on radioactive plants, the animals embody the return of a disaster many seek to repress. Following the collapse and meltdown of a reactor at Chernobyl, more than 100,000 people were evacuated from the 20-mile Exclusion Zone around the nuclear power plant. Residents exposed to the radiation suffered from radiation poisoning, leukemia, and thyroid cancer. Estimates are that some 4,000 people could die from illnesses related to the accident.

Now in the Exclusion Zone, amid cracked streets overgrown with weeds, a bear paws its way across a decaying town. Markers of human habitation are slowly faltering into dilapidated ruin. Paint peels from buildings and windows have lost their glass. Signs stand askew, signaling to no one their formerly relevant information about a street name, a grocery store, café service hours. In abandoned pastures there are only sparse indications of the former crops, while native grasses convert the space into a meadow. There, short stocky horses — the only subspecies never domesticated — run wild where humans will never plant again. Thick-haired bison roam woods and fields that they have not known for centuries. Without fear of being hunted, the animals flourish in an eerily mutant, post-human wildlife sanctuary where radiation remains 10 to 100 times higher than is safe for occupancy. Rare species not seen in the region for hundreds of years have returned, including the Przewalski’s horse, the European bison, the lynx, and the Eurasian brown bear.

As for the radioactive boar several hundred miles away in Germany, with an omnivorous appetite and sturdy snouts for rooting out food, they consume their landscape. They eat acorns, nuts, and insects but also unearth truffles, tubers, and mushrooms, which absorb high degrees of radioactive waste that, decades ago, drifted downwind from the power plant meltdown. In droves, the boar make their way into the nearby towns intent upon a density of food in trash cans, park bins, and alleys. Weighing in at some 400 pounds each and with tusks and unpredictable temperaments, they are given right of way in urban areas. A coarse-haired wildness stands at odds with the orderly small-town environments in which they find themselves.

Decades hence, Chernobyl fades from memory. Generations have passed for humans. But for the radioactive elements that the disaster unleashed, life has just begun. The nuclear reactor core fire lives on, but invisibly. And the boar carry it with them. They bear the materiality of our failed technology and the indifference to the life of a radioactive isotope.

Perhaps we should pay more heed to our fictions. Godzilla, a fabricated prehistoric marine reptile monster empowered by nuclear radiation, reminded Japan and the rest of the world that radioactive material is a beast more forceful and longer living than humans can imagine. Godzilla makes the otherwise invisible nuclear threat visible. His overall indifference to humans makes him a fitting avatar for radioactive material.

The Godzilla films spawned other notable monsters, including the massive radiant moth creature Mothra, accompanied by small humanoid twins who speak on the creature’s behalf. Mothra appeared in 16 movies, including Godzilla vs. Mothra in 1964 and its remake in 1992 and Rebirth of Mothrawhich, like the Rocky series, had a number of unfortunate sequels. Of the many Japanese monster films, Mothra vs. Bagan never made it past a screenplay, but it should have. Bagan is a massive multihorned rhino with wings, who, thousands of years ago, protected the earth from threats. Cut to the present as Bagan is released from captivity in a glacier that melts because of global warming. As a protector of nature, the monster sets out to destroy humanity, which is destroying the earth. Throngs of people meet their doom while the rest plead for help. Mothra hears their cries and flies to their aid. But help is short-lived as Bagan soundly savages Mothra in what would be an epic scene for an actor wearing a latex costume and a puppet moth with cardboard wings. With the monster moth defeated, all seems lost. But on a remote island, one of the moth monster’s eggs hatches and a new Mothra is born. After various plot twists and suspense, the young Mothra defeats Bagan, protector of the earth. While it is clear the earth needs saving, we have a problem scripting ourselves out of existence for the betterment of the nonhuman world. It is as though Mothra vs. Bagan replays itself over and over again. While Bagan returns time and again, one day there may not be a Mothra spawn to save humanity.

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