This story is adapted fromAnimal Revolution, by Ron Broglio.

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 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 Mothra, which, 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 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.

Other nuclear disaster movies followed the Japanese franchise. In the 1954 Hollywood monster film Them!, an early atomic bomb test in New Mexico mutates common ants into giant, human-killing beasts. As the wise character Dr. Harold Medford (played by the Miracle on 34th Street Santa Edmund Gwenn) observes: “We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true: ‘And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation and the beast shall reign over the earth.’” Mystery and ominousness ruled the day. “If these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb in 1945,” Gunsmoke cowboy actor James Arness asks of Gwenn’s Medford at the film’s conclusion, “what about all the others that have been exploded since then?” To which Medford replies: “Nobody knows. When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.”

But as the proliferation of weapons gave way to the less immediately threatening use of nuclear energy for power, the peril of radiation diminished in human consciousness. It became an inhuman force under control as culture triumphed over nature. Even when disasters strike—like at Chernobyl and then later Fukushima, where radioactive boar have also been reported—humanity tends to forget.

Human control comes with a dose of repression. We bury the unwanted. We look away from the hideous progeny of our disasters. If we keep busy enough and avoid looking at minor changes, everything is fine. But the doses of repression build up; the minor starts to grow into something major. We convince ourselves that this must be a once-in-a-hundred-year sort of event. Until the once-in-a-hundred-year perfect storm seems to happen more and more often, until despite our best efforts the cancerous growth cannot be ignored.

People want to move forward from calamities like Chernobyl and Fukushima into a more hopeful, optimistic future. Our machines will carry us into brighter worlds. “We were promised flying cars!” we cry. We who feel a technocultural imperative want to forget our vulnerability as bodies on earth and get on with our cultural lives. There are quips to tweet, dinners to serve, and a veneer of stability and progress to maintain. But recall the exploit—that humans and animals may live in different perceptual worlds but corporeally share the same earth—which the revolution leverages as an opening to rupture culture. The animals won’t let us forget our disasters or the earth we share. They carry our past along with them. In eastern Germany, the radioactive cesium-137 levels in wild boar are six times the European Union limits for safe hunting and consumption of game. Geiger counter stations stand sentinel to remind citizens of an invisible toxicity. Hunters can haul their game to check for radiation levels and the machines read the toxicity in flesh and fur. There is nowhere to run from the geological time of radiation and the evolutionary time of animals carrying the disaster’s ongoing effects back to us. They are the return of the repressed!

These unpaid actors of ecological remembering are not tricked out in Japanese monster costumes. There is no man in a latex suit, no puppetry, no scale models. The Exclusion Zone and sanctuary around Chernobyl is also known by the almost existential title “Zone of Alienation.” Who is alienated if not we humans? First from a time outside of human time—the half-life of radioactive elements—and then from physical bodies that do not conform to planned technological progress. Even though these beasts seem more modest than our fictions imagined, creatures like the boar have become the real Godzillas and Bagans, invading our cities tusk and snout to remind us of the (breached) boundaries of human control.

Americans are not immune to the invasions found in Europe and Asia. In November 2010, a small brown rabbit nibbles his way to the border of the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state—the largest nuclear site in the Western Hemisphere. There in a grassy plain are some tasty morsels in a small enclosure. Tentatively, with whiskers twitching, he enters the opening and snap, the rabbit is trapped in a cage. Hopping and pushing frantically against the shut metal door, the coney looks to make an escape. After what seems like hours, the animal gives up and awaits his fate. Humans in white suits come and pick up the box. The rabbit, now weary and wary, is hauled from the confines and “inspections” begin. Later, a report emerges from the lab. The animal is highly contaminated with radioactive cesium.

Hanford is the site of the first nuclear reactor and the facility that fed plutonium to the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The bunny seems innocuous enough, until one realizes that it, being a rabbit, breeds. There must be more out there inadvertently foraging for radiation from the site and adding more potential carriers of radioactivity. And why stop at rabbits, since there are myriad animals across the Hanford site? How many? As the movie character Dr. Medford says, nobody knows.

The Hanford reactor was put out of service in 1988 but left behind millions of tons of solid waste and hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid waste from its decades of producing plutonium. The radioactive material is buried underground in dark pits and holding ponds where—like the repression of a bad memory—it has been forgotten. As the US Department of Energy explains: “Depending on when the waste was buried, records about what was buried and where it was buried can be either very good, or in some cases, very bad.” As inhuman time moves onward, liquid waste continues to soak into the soil. The membranes designed to separate nature and culture have worn down, and radioactive rabbits are the result. The bad memories return.

A decade after Fukushima, three decades after Chernobyl, and seven after the Manhattan Project, the boar and bunnies wandering in the wake of disaster continue to bring us a gift. It is the same lesson we began to explore with Godzilla but quickly relegated only to fiction: the human trajectory of technological and social progress has produced by-products that linger on a scale of time and space far larger than humanity can easily understand. The Chernobyl boar are not just visitors from the past, it turns out. Thanks to the longevity of radiation, they are also visitors from the future, a future of continued radioactivity and leaking between the membranes of culture and nature. To take their gift seriously would require accepting the repressed detritus of human progress and incorporating that aftermath into the idea of progress, rather than believing that it remains safely buried, cordoned off, and forgotten. Are we willing to accept such a gift?

It would mean looking steadfastly at a lengthy catalog of cultures’ mishaps written across the earth and in the bodies of animals. We would not be able to script a Mothra to save us. And we may have to abandon all hope of flying cars and other optimistic technocapitalist promises at the expense of other life on earth. Instead, it would be a hospitality to what revolutionary animals are telling us, bringing to us time and again. It would be fashioning our technologies to accommodate them and their messages. World-famous biologist E. O. Wilson has proposed a half-earth plan. We live in cities and make use of strategically planned areas over half of the earth and leave the rest for all other beings. Perhaps it seems impossible with the messy intermingling of humans and animals, but Wilson is opening himself to the message brought by the return of the repressed. He has created a speculative proposition and is asking us to make room for animals other than ourselves.


Excerpted from Animal Revolution by Ron Broglio. Published by the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2022 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota.