When my daughter and I visited Greece last year, we were excited to see the fingerprints of ancient civilization in all the historic sites and buildings, and to enjoy Greek food we both love so much. And we were indeed wowed by the architecture, the history, the incredible cuisine. But we toured with heavy hearts because everywhere we went, there were stray dogs.
The dogs had incredibly appealing personalities. All the homeless dogs we encountered were friendly and gentle and had the most tender expressions. It slayed us to see their pleading eyes at every turn. These are very good dogs. They are generally medium-sized, or even large. Apparently most were once pets. But owners tired of them for whatever reason and let them out to fend on their own. This itself is not a new phenomenon, Greek animal rescuers tell me. It’s apparently part of the culture, although of course plenty of families value their pets as family members.
But with the terrible economic crisis the country is mired in, the situation is worse, and even those whose pets are beloved are often finding it impossible to keep their dogs when they themselves are uprooted. (Sound familiar? Yes, it’s happening in too many places, although perhaps not to this extent.)
We arrived in Athens, and were prepared for the pollution and the pickpockets we’d heard about, but nothing prepared us for the dogs. Or the bad apartment we’d rented online. The dogs were at every turn, lying alone and tired, playing in groups in a park, or crossing extremely busy streets. Most were not too gaunt, though they were clearly hungry.
There are many struggling animal rescue groups in Greece. They try to feed the strays. If possible, they have the dogs spayed and neutered and then send them back to the streets. It’s all most groups can do, although some do have facilities for the most hard-up.
The strays who have been helped by these organizations wear collars with plastic keychains tagged with a little information. That’s how you can tell if their tummies are occasionally getting retanked. We did our best to feed them, ordering extra food in restaurants and bringing it to them. But it was futile. There were too many, and they were too hungry.
On our last night in Athens, we made friends with a very matted, somewhat fluffy, large tawny dog, clearly old and/or hurting, lying next to a liquor store. (Not the photo above, although in a similar position.) He was curled up tight to the building. A man who worked there came out and saw us petting the dog and told us the dog was his. Oh what a relief. Finally, a dog with a home. The man proceeded to call the dog by a name and then lifted its head up abruptly. The dog put its head back down on the ground, not looking at the man. Then the man said “Come on, dog!” and lifted this poor creature’s entire body all the way up by the scruff of its neck and the base of its tail. He held him about a foot off the ground, with the dog’s head way backward. The dog did not struggle in the least. He appeared to be too weak.
I said in alarm, “Put him down, please!” The man dropped the dog hard and laughed, and the dog lay in the position in which he had been dropped. I felt a combination of fury and nausea. I realized the dog was homeless. The man was having fun with the tourists, seeing the reaction of the aghast Americans. I could barely talk, I was so horrified, and I stammered out “Why did you do that?!” but it was dark, we were on a somewhat desolate street, and my 14-year-old daughter was frightened and shaken and kept saying “Let’s just get out of here. Let’s go, please!”
I gave the dog one more pet and looked in his eyes, vowing to return to help him. We went back to our tiny, dingy apartment and tried to find information on how to call animal authorities, but it seemed to be after hours everywhere and I doubt anyone would have cared.
We took some of the food we’d saved from dinner and braved it back to the street where we’d found the dog, but he was gone. I still cannot get that scene out of my head. (I subsequently found a website with helpful information for dealing with this kind of situation, and with very useful advice for tourists who care about helping the homeless dogs.)
We left Athens the next day because of our unfortunate apartment and our desire to get out of the land of sad strays and away from the nightmare of that poor dog. We boarded a ferry on the Aegean Sea and headed to the island of Santorini, eight hours away. Santorini is famous for its whitewashed houses and blue-domed churches. It’s a brilliant jewel set in the middle of the bright blue sea. And it’s popular with tourists. We figured surely there couldn’t be a problem with homeless dogs there.
Wrong. Homeless dogs were part of the island’s tapestry. They were just as friendly and sweet, and it was still heartbreaking to see them lying everywhere with asphalt and concrete as their beds. But they seemed a little healthier than the dogs of Athens, perhaps even a little happier. Maybe it was the fresh air, or the killer views, or the tourists offering their leftovers.
Or maybe it was the woman in the photo below. Meet Christina Kaloudi, the smart, determined, super-hardworking woman who heads the island’s animal rescue organization, the Santorini Animal Welfare Association (SAWA). Kaloudi devotes her life to helping the dogs, cats, and donkeys of Santorini. She heads a group of volunteers many visiting from other countries as tourists who want to do good while on vacation who keep these animals alive and in as good condition as possible. Every day these volunteers go to places on the island where the strays are and pour out dog food and cat food en masse. It gets devoured eagerly, gratefully, quickly.
SAWA has arrangements with some locals to let the dogs sleep in their courtyards, but generally the dogs live on the streets and sidewalks. When Kaloudi or volunteers first encounter a stray, they take the dog to the vet to be neutered or spayed, and release it back to the streets as soon as the dog has healed far too soon, as far as Kaloudi is concerned, but the veterinarian they work with in the city of Thira cannot keep them for long and there is nowhere else.
Kaloudi is one of the Earth angels walking among us.. She helped create a refuge on fenced acreage where dogs can run free among trees, and where they have shelter however rudimentary at night. The previous winter, too many of their dogs had died because there was no place for them to be inside. But dedicated volunteers generally from other countries erected a building and some boxy kennels outside, so the dogs could come and go as they please. There was no heat, but it was better than nothing. (Donkeys who were overworked in tourist operations going up and down hundreds of stairs on a steep mountainside also call this place home. The animals are often abandoned when they can no longer work.)
The dogs at the refuge are the ones who did not do well with street life: the ill, the scared, the pups, the seniors. Sometimes dogs end up there because they have been selected for adoption off the streets by a tourist, so Kaloudi gets the dogs ready for their trip. It is not uncommon for visitors to fall in love with a stray and want to take him home.
Kaloudi is very upset about what she calls “the typical Greek attitude” about dogs. “Dogs are disposable. For instance, they buy them for hunting, and they don’t train them, and then they say the dog is a bad hunter, and they abandon him.” Again, this is not to slur all Greeks, because many don’t have this attitude. But Kaloudi has seen far too much pain and suffering and death, and she is sick of it.
Here is what Kaloudi recently wrote about what life is like for homeless Greek dogs even on this most beautiful island:
A Greek stray dogs life in the streets is nothing more than a slow and agonizing sentence to suffering. With the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, my country realized that it is facing an uncontrollable stray population problem that had to be swept clean in order not to disgrace its image. A population control program commenced and as the law states stray dogs will be sterilized and then released back to their natural environment.” In which civilized part of the world are the streets considered as the natural environment of a dog????
A Greek stray dogs average lifespan is two years. Two years of survival, not living. Conventional shelters exist, they all suffer from great lack of funds and volunteers, and are all outnumbered from the dogs in need. The few left with the will to sustain such shelters are acting way beyond their limits in order to make ends meet. Enthusiastic volunteers come but mostly leave as this psychological trip is overwhelming. A dogs place is in a home, not in the streets nor in a shelter. The shelter is just a click better than the streets; it offers the dogs a safe haven.
I see this every day in the eyes of the dogs I leave behind me when I close the shelter doors. They are all longing to follow me, and they are devastated that the few humans they interact with have to go. Next time you see a dog lying by the street dont just walk away. Remind yourself that you can make the difference, DONT BUY a dog, ADOPT a shelter dog, SUPPORT an animal welfare association, SPREAD the word, they will be waiting patiently. There is no wonder that they are considered the most loyal and unconditional loving creatures of all.
Check out some of the dogs available for adoption at SAWA right now by clicking here. (They are the most beautiful creatures!) Of course, you likely have a shelter in your town that’s overburdened with dogs, so that’s the place to adopt. But if you ever find yourself on vacation in Santorini, I’m just sayin’ it’s doable, although harder to get dogs back to the U.S. than it is to get them to other European countries.
The SAWA website also has information about how to donate. It’s very worthwhile, believe me. The number of animals they take care of on a shoestring budget is nothing short of a miracle. (The donations link is currently a little funky. I waited to write this post until it was fixed, and it was for a while, but it seems to be problematic again. You might be better off e-mailing Kaloudi directly to find out the best way to donate. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I plan to return to Santorini in the not-too-distant future, and when I do, I will spend a few days helping SAWA. The group welcomes visiting volunteers. There are many other Greek animal rescue organizations with the same mission, so if you visit elsewhere in Greeceyour help will most likely be appreciated at those places, too.
I like the idea of combining a vacation and volunteering. Greece is not the only country that can use help with its terrible homeless dog situation. If you’re so inclined, you might want to plan ahead and build a little volunteer time into your next vacation. It may take a little research, and you may end up with fur all over your luggage, but I can pretty much guarantee that you will return home feeling even better than if you’d kicked up your feet and stayed poolside the whole time.