Rescue Group Elpida Shelter of Hope is Trying to Save Greece’s “Ghost Dogs”

"Everywhere, in all Greek cities, you see dogs, like ghosts, just a shadow of what a dog should be."

Crystal Gibson  |  Oct 4th 2013

Dogster took a look at the harsh living conditions for Greece’s homeless dogs in a special report by Maria Goodavage back in January 2012. Unfortunately, since then, the economic situation in Greece hasn’t improved much, and the number of abandoned and stray dogs continues to rise.

Despite efforts by animal rescue groups and shelters in Greece such as Santorini Animal Welfare Association, the homeless dog population far exceeds the number of volunteers and resources available to care for them. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t kindhearted animal-loving people trying to do whatever they can to make these dogs’ lives a little better.

People such as Stavroula.

Stavroula, who asked only to be identified by her first name, lives in Lividia, Greece, and has been taking care of 40 to 80 sick, injured and stray dogs in her makeshift shelter since 2009. Up until about two years ago, Stavroula was running her unnamed, unofficial rescue all alone, while continuing to work full-time and never knowing if she’d have enough money to cover food for the dogs or any kind of veterinary care from one month to the next. But she made it her mission to at least try, believing she has no other choice but to help these animals.

Stavroula did her best to care for the dogs and pay for all their expenses out of her own pocket, but the situation was becoming dire. When she wasn’t bringing food to feed the stray dogs in town (many of which are regularly poisoned to control their numbers), Stavroula was fighting to keep up with the daily care of her large pack of dogs, running back and forth to the vet, as well as trying to save the puppies, which are often thrown over the fence of the shelter or left in boxes outside the gates — puppies often just days old, sometimes already dead.

Thankfully, some help finally arrived for this selfless and courageous woman.

Malin Lindstrand, a Swedish expatriate living in the Netherlands, found out about Stavroula and her shelter while volunteering with another Greek rescue group. Lindstrand reached out to Stavroula and asked if she could set up a Facebook page to help bring in some much-needed donations and raise awareness about the cause. Stavroula agreed, and Lindstrand set up the page, finally giving the shelter a real name: Elpida Shelter of Hope. “Elpida” — fittingly — means “hope” in Greek.

Shortly after its creation, Elpida added a few more members to the team; today, there are 12 hard-working ladies in the UK, Norway and the Netherlands coordinating adoptions, fostering, transports and fundraising, while Stavroula is back in Lividia caring for the dogs. Lindstrand and the other volunteers travel to Greece a few times per year to help Stavroula with cleaning and caring for the animals, and to prepare some of the healthy and adoptable dogs for trips to their new temporary and permanent homes outside of Greece. Since 2011, more than 200 homeless and abandoned Greek dogs have been taken in and cared for, and 115 have left the country for a better life. Lindstrand and the other Elpida ladies are currently working on getting another group of dogs out of Greece before the winter.

Most of the dogs fit to leave Greece will be sent to the UK for fostering and adoption, but Lindstrand adds that they have also been able to send dogs to Norway, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States. “We’ve fundraised and spent €58,000 ($78,000 USD) in the last two years getting dogs to their forever homes,” she says.

Thanks to the dedicated Elpida team and its supporters, the conditions for the dogs at the shelter have improved, but trying to keep the dogs healthy and safe is a constant struggle. Many of the dogs arrive as starving strays full of fleas and ticks, mange, heartworm and, at times, testing positive for leishmaniasis — a blood parasite that is lethal if left untreated. Without help, the average lifespan of a stray Greek dog is two years, though Lindstrand says that the prognosis for former family pets is even worse. “These dogs are abandoned by their owners who can no longer care for them, left chained up or dumped in the wild to fend for themselves. 80 percent of them die within months,” she says. “They do not have the street smarts of a stray dog and will die from starvation, cars, abuse or poison.”

And throughout Greece, dogs of all sizes and ages rummage through garbage bins or wait outside restaurants looking for food, but “nobody sees them; they are nothing but a ghost,” says Lindstrand. “Most of these dogs will live a short life being chased away or killed, never knowing love or security, a soft touch. They will fight for survival and die alone.”

Elpida Shelter of Hope may not be able to save all of Greece’s ghost dogs, but Stavroula and her dedicated team of volunteers, all driven by a deep love for these dogs and a desire to help them, are trying to look past the immense suffering and focus on the dogs they can help. “The shelter was originally set up by one person,” Lindstrand says, “but our strength is in the team.”

Fotis, which means “light” in Greek, is one of the dogs who found hope for a better life thanks to Elpida’s tireless efforts.

The long-legged dog was found in the middle of the road on a cold January day, hiding under a bush in an attempt to stay warm and dry. He’d been there for days, ignored by all passersby as though he were a piece of garbage. Stavroula was able to coax him out and brought him to the shelter where she discovered that among many other awful ailments and injuries, Fotis also had leishmaniasis. Fotis’s outlook was grim, but Stavroula fought to save him, and when Lindstrand saw photos of the sick dog shortly before a trip to Lividia, she was particularly touched by his sad story and vowed to help.

When Lindstrand arrived, Fotis was in a small room by himself with just some food and water and a blanket to lie on. “There was just something so moving and heartbreaking about this dog, being a real mess, but clearly accepting his fate and gratefully accepting the little he could get,” she remembers.

Fotis did get better and Lindstrand kept her promise to help him. The dog with a limp after being hit by a car and left on the road, and with a disease that cannot be cured, eventually got to leave Greece. “In October 2012, Fotis flew to his forever home in the Netherlands,” she told us. “He is, as I write this, sleeping next to me on the couch.”

The future is grim for the hundreds of thousands of stray and abandoned dogs in Greece, but for Stavroula, Lindstrand and the small team behind Elpida Shelter of Hope, giving up on these animals is not an option.

“It doesn’t always feel like there is hope, but in the times of hardship, we try and remember all that we have achieved so far,” Lindstrand says. “We remember our motto: When the world says give up, hope whispers, try it one more time.”

Elpida Shelter of Hope is in constant need of donations to help cover their vet bills, medication, supplies and transport for the animals. If you’d like to help, please check out its website and Facebook page for more information.

Lindstrand also asked to make an appeal to vets in the UK who would be willing to offer their services for free or at a reduced cost. She explains that many of the dogs being fostered in the UK need surgery for severe hip dysplasia and dislocation (poor bone structure as the result of growing up severely malnourished), but that Elpida does not have the financial means to pay for such veterinary intervention. If you can help, please contact Elpida through its website.

All photos used with permission via Elpida Shelter of Hope’s Facebook page.

About Crystal Gibson: A child-sized Canadian expat in France who is fluent in French and sarcasm. Owned by a neurotic Doxie mix, a Garfield look-alike, and two needy Sphynx cats. An aspiring writer and pet photographer with a love of coffee and distaste for French administration, she can be found blogging over at Crystal Goes to Europe.

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