It’s easy to imagine that the overgrown forests around Chernobyl, abandoned by human beings, contain beasts more malformed and terrifying than anything Tolkien could come up with. That’s not quite how it’s turned out, though. Slate reports:

Actually, in the early years, when contaminated dust coated everything, researchers found countless examples of the monstrous mutations imagined in 1950s horror movies: malformations, dwarfism, gigantism, strange growths, and, yes, even some glowing.

But those effects were seen only in plants. While Attack of the Giant Leaves doesn’t seem as horrible as the Creature With the Atom Brain, no one has ever found seriously deformed wild animals (or zombies) after the Chernobyl accident.

That doesn’t mean mutant animals didn’t exist; just that we’ve never found them. We have found animals with ridiculously high levels of radiation in their bodies. But, according to Slate, these animals still look … totally normal. (Except for barn swallows, which aren’t always entirely normal-looking.) Without humans around, these populations are thriving, some scientists have found. Slate:

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And because the health of wild animal species is usually judged by their numbers rather than the conditions of individuals, Chernobyl wildlife is considered healthy. According to all the population counts performed by Ukraine and Belarus over the past 27 years, there is enormous animal diversity and abundance. The prevailing scientific view of the exclusion zone has become that it is an unintentional wildlife sanctuary. This conclusion rests on the premise that radiation is less harmful to wildlife populations than we are.

It’s never nice to hear that your species is more dangerous than a nuclear accident, but there you have it. Slate notes, though, that there are scientists who disagree with this read on the area and have found that not everything’s so hunky-dory. Still, imagine what would happen to places like this if we left them to their own devices and hadn’t spilled radioactive particles all over them first.

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