This is a difficult post to write, but one that I’ve been wanting/meaning to write for a long time. Tackling a topic like this in a blog that is normally upbeat and full of fun stories and exciting pictures is a challenge, particularly when trying to keep the reader’s interest. So, I will do my best: for those who can’t bring themselves to read, please at least jump to the bottom of the page, where you can learn how to help. Because, at the end of the day, we can all help.
Strays in Athens
Stray dogs are a huge problem in Greece. If you’re a stray dog here, you better hope that you’re lucky enough to live in the centre of Athens, where chances are you will have plenty to eat and drink (provided by the many good samaritans of this city). You’ll probably be part of a pack, and maybe even get to call the Acropolis your home. These two dogs were a regular part of our Acropolis trips: they would meet us at the entrance at 8 am, and usually tag along all morning, taking advantage of the access into the Parthenon and other buildings so they could brag later to their other Acropolis pals.
Cute, right? And I have seen some of the Acropolis employees bring bags of food each morning to feed these guys. Sounds like it’s not too bad for them. But then there was one day, our last day on the Acropolis in fact, when the dogs didn’t let us go. They followed us through Plaka, across the heavily-trafficked Vasilissis Sofias road, and all the way up to Kolonaki. They stood, confused, outside of Loring Hall as one by one, we stepped into our gated compound and patted them on the heads ‘goodbye’. They were brought water, and later that day one of the Blegen library guards fed them some bread. By the end of the day they were gone, and yes, they made it back to the Acropolis, crossing busy Athenian streets and weaving their way through rival dog packs to their home. Why tell this story at all? I think the point is to try to refute the common argument that these dogs can be just as happy living on the streets as being someone’s ‘pet’. In my (humble and admittedly very biased) opinion, dogs want to be around people, with people; dogs and people belong together.
Here’s another Athenian stray. This is Rex (no, I don’t just name all dogs Rex, he does have a tag that says ‘ΡΕΞ’, I swear); I don’t know who gave him that name or when, but he knows it and comes when he is called. Rex lives at the Library of Hadrian, and in the summertime he is a faithful ASCSA Agora Excavations volunteer. He follows the diggers down in the morning, climbs down into the trenches, and is the first to lead the pack whenever John Camp gives a tour of the (appropriately-themed) Royal Stoa. Rex is one of my very favourite Athenian strays. He’s sweet and patient and again, just loves to be around people.
What I worry about when it comes to Rex and the other ‘pets’ of the Agora (Fatty Meatball, Snow/Ghost Dog, to name the favourites) is what will happen to them when they get too old to climb down into the trenches or wander around Syntagma Square? What is the fate of an aged stray? Another unpleasant reminder that even though they look fat and happy (and they ARE that!), what inevitably becomes of them?
Why all the strays?
So how did all these strays get here? I’ve heard various theories…some say that there was a dog catcher/dog pound program in Athens that would round up strays, keep them for 90 days, and then euthanize them, but that this system was halted after some undercover investigations revealed the inhumane conditions these animals suffered. Several were put on trial, jailed, and fined, which resulted in the dissolution of the system entirely rather than the improvement of conditions. Yes, you read that right: the dog-pounds were SHUT DOWN because the employees/administrations did not want to be jailed and fined, instead of actually improving the conditions in which the animals were kept! Another theory I’ve heard is that the ‘pet fad’ spread through Greece and people were buying animals without really comprehending the decade+ long commitment (not to mention the training and financial commitments as well) that is a cat/dog as a pet. Basically, people buy a cute puppy, cute puppy grows up, has some attitude problems, maybe still pees in the house, barks sometimes, and costs a lot of money. The dog formerly known as cute puppy is turned loose on the streets. “People will take care of them, and this way he/she will have more room to roam”, they say. Oh, and did I mention that the dog formerly known as cute puppy was definitely not spayed or neutered? Because he/she wasn’t. No way. Why shoulder the extra cost and take away your dog’s manhood? Nah, best to let him/her loose on the city and really contribute to the increasingly overwhelming number of strays. The city will take care of that, won’t they? Well, they’ll try. There are spay/neuter and release programs out there, but these are largely unfunded, unsupported programs that are constantly trying to stay above the enormous number of animals and costs of such a program. And this is just Athens centre, proper. Once you are out of Athens centre, it is every municipality for itself. Enter our case study, Zografou, a municipality in the heart of Athens.
The Zografou Dog Shelter
The Zografou dog shelter is an entirely volunteer-based organization that permanently houses around 30 dogs. The shelter was built prior to the 2004 Olympics in order to protect the dogs from mass extermination. A few have been adopted, but the majority have lived their entire lives in the shelter: the older a dog gets, the less likely it will be adopted. Unfortunately, people typically do not like to commit to a senior pet, since they will have less time with it and may incur more veterinary bills – I don’t need to go into all of the reasons here why adopting a senior dog is often more rewarding than adopting a puppy…maybe I’ll save that for another post. Oh yes, and most of the dogs are large, black dogs. Haven’t heard about Black Dog Syndrome/Black Dog Bias? Well, it basically means that darker-coloured animals are often the last to be adopted from shelters. So, the Zografou shelter essentially has 30 permanent residents with little to no hope of adoption. These dogs are sweet, happy, and loving and are extremely well-cared for by the volunteers of the shelter, who house, feed, and vaccinate these dogs at their own expense. The shelter has recently started a virtual adoption program, in hopes of creating a way for people to help these strays if they are not in a position to adopt. Here are a few of the shelter’s residents (all photos taken from the ‘Adopt a Former Stray’ Facebook group):
To illustrate the magnitude of the problems that the shelter faces, last week a beautiful Springer spaniel was left at the shelter. Actually, she was thrown over the fence into a cage with two other dogs; somehow, this lucky girl survived both the fall and the attack she suffered from the two dogs who were very territorial (remember, they’ve lived in this space their entire lives) and confused at the sudden addition. This girl clearly had a home once but her owners gave her up, and although she is now in foster care, she loves being with people and in desperate need of a home. (Photos courtesy of Christina Makri and Maria Mirla, Facebook)
Okay, this is all very sad and touching, but how can anyone help, really?
I understand this question and all the heavy implications behind it. The stray animal problem is overwhelming and scary and I’m not going to tell you to adopt a Greek stray (but…if you’re interested…) or tell you to donate all your hard-earned money to a random shelter (but…if you’re interested…) – what I’m going to do is make a simple list of things that can and do actually help, and which are within the abilities of (probably) anyone reading this blog post.
1) Read this blog post. See? You’ve already done one! Are you thinking to yourself ‘How can this girl possibly think that reading this post is helping or making any sort of difference?’ If you are thinking that, don’t worry, I have an answer for you! See, awareness is key. Many issues that we are faced with in this world, in our own countries, in the countries we call our second homes (Greece, etc.) are, unfortunately, unpleasant. That is reality. It’s a cruel world and the worst thing anyone can do is turn their head and pretend these issues don’t exist. So, maybe you knew about these problems before, but if you didn’t now you do. So, retain this knowledge. Hey, feel free to pass it along, tell people, share this, whatever! Be it this issue or any issue you feel passionately about, talk about it; never worry whether you’re ‘bothering’ people. Bother away! Just. Don’t. Stay. Silent.
2) Donate old, ready-to-be discarded clothes. You know those old clothes, towels, dishrags, etc. that are in your closet/cupboards? You know the ones….those rags that aren’t ‘good enough’ to go to the second-hand-store? Give them to your local shelter. Anything cloth. Seriously. Most shelters in the US and Canada have small animals too, so even dishrags and socks (clean, please oh please wash ya damn socks) are much appreciated. This literally costs you nothing and is something that can be done with minimal effort!
3) Buy some dog food, or a flea collar, or a cat toy, or anything! Chances are, if you’re reading this, you are a middle to upper-middle class citizen of the western world. Which means you probably regularly shop at a grocery store or a dollar store or convenience store. Why not throw a cheap toy or food into your cart whenever you remember? This is also a wonderful idea for regular (you know, human!) food as well, and most grocery stores have eagerly receptacles awaiting.
4) Walk a dog. Love dogs (or cats!) but can’t foster or adopt a dog and don’t have the extra cash to donate? Go find a shelter near you and volunteer your time. Walk a dog. Pet a dog. Cuddle a cat. They usually don’t get enough of this. The shelter I currently volunteer with doesn’t have enough volunteers and the dogs don’t get walked on a daily basis. The best part about this is that if you’re an expat reading this, volunteering is usually easier abroad than in North America, where you need to go through piles and piles of paperwork and a long process – seriously, it’s tough to GIVE your TIME away! That’s insane. I have literally walked into places in India, Tanzania, and Greece and been able to volunteer on the spot. Try it out!
5) Virtually adopt a dog. Albeit a more expensive option, it is very rewarding and somehow makes your donation to a shelter seem more ‘real’ – you have a face to your money, if you will. You know the dog that you are helping and can see his/her picture and get updates. An incredibly attractive (in opinion) alternative for those who can’t or don’t want their own pet (or have too many!) but still want to help. Here is that link to the shelter at which I currently volunteer if you are interested in this option.
That’s all, folks!
I want to sincerely thank everyone for taking the time to read this post. This issue is obviously very close to my heart and was a difficult post to write. I very much would like feedback or suggestions or any comments whatsoever regarding the issue of stray animals in Greece.
Thank you all, again and always.