Streets of shame
Saturday July 24, 2004
Forget the drama of next month's Olympics - the real Greek tragedy is the nation's appalling record on the welfare of animals, says Justine Hankins
I am completely indifferent to spectator sports, but the build-up to next month's Olympic games has been difficult to avoid. On top of months of press coverage about construction delays, my inbox has been jammed with outrage: "Greek tragedy over stray cats and dogs"; "Give the strays a sporting chance"; "The shame of Greece".
That gives you a flavour, but you need to see the photographs of poison-contorted canine corpses to get the full picture. Rumours are circulating about the possible fate of the 10,000-plus stray dogs currently living on the streets of Athens as the capital prepares to present a squeaky-clean face to the watching world.
The Olympic torch brings with it the gleam of publicity, but it's not always good news for the host nation. Dead dogs grab headlines as easily as gold-medal winners, and organisations from across the world plan to use the Olympics to highlight Greece's poor animal welfare record.
Greece has one of the highest populations of stray cats and dogs in the developed world, despite the efforts of animal welfare charities such as the RSPCA and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) to help fund and implement stray animal programmes. As a result, there are few well-run animal shelters in the country, no culture of adopting strays and the indiscriminate poisoning of unwanted colonies is not uncommon.
During the holiday season, strays are sustained by scraps from well-meaning but misguided visitors, who write "Greek cats are so friendly" on postcards with photos of charming cats posing next to chipped pots of geraniums or lounging in front of blue-painted doorways. What the tourists don't realise is that once the resorts shut up shop for the winter, the cats face a lingering death by poison or are simply left to starve.
Concerns about the state of Hellenic pets draw a hurt response from the Greek authorities, who rebut suggestions that they are not doing enough to tackle the problem. Dora Bakoyianni, the mayor of Athens, has gone so far as to set a new tone of compassion to curs by adopting two street mutts.
The Greek government recently agreed to release funds over a three-year period to welfare groups, and the Athens 2004 organising committee has joined up with the ministry of agriculture, municipal authorities and the PanHellenic Federation of Veterinarians to carry out a stray control scheme. Dogs will be collected, vaccinated and neutered, then - and here's the problem - released back on to the streets.
The current situation in Athens is both cruel (life expectancy for strays is about two years) and also a public health issue. Quite simply, bustling streets are not the natural environment for any dog. What happens if the dogs are ill or injured? No vaccination will stop a dog causing road accidents or biting people, and who's going to scoop the poop? Joy Leney, director of operations at WSPA, says, "Neuter-and-release programmes are not appropriate in modern European cities - a large, busy city like Athens shouldn't have dogs roaming around."
WSPA's stray animal programmes are modelled on World Health Organisation recommendations. "It's not just an animal welfare problem," says Leney. "It's a problem for society as a whole. The government has to take responsibility because the humane management of strays is part of social development and progress."
Athens 2004 hopes its stray initiative will help change attitudes towards, according to a spokesman, "a current problem that defames Greece". It remains to be seen whether a sporting event is enough to persuade Greeks to neuter their pets and put their dogs on a lead.