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Animal Groups Wants Athens to Show Homeless Dogs Some Olympic Spirit
Athens, Greece was awarded the Olympic Games in 1997, long before the dot.com bubble burst and terrorists began to trigger the world's fight-or-flight response on a daily basis.

But because of infighting and union troubles, Greek officials didn't start Olympic construction plans until after the turn of the century. With less than four years to not only modernize the ancient country's crumbling infrastructure but also to build whole new athletic facilities, the International Olympic Committee and sports fans across the globe chewed their collective nails waiting to see if the Greeks could actually deliver on their promises before the games officially opened on August 13.

Almost from the moment Athens, birthplace of both the modern and ancient Olympics, was awarded the games, animal activists seized the golden opportunity to work with Greek officials to address an old problem: the estimated 15,000 street dogs who roam the city. In fact, Humane Society International and other worldwide animal groups began talking to Greece more than three years ago in hopes of finding a holistic solution to the problem. But despite some promising early movement, little has been done to deal with Greece's homeless canine population, whose roots lie deep within the country's laissez-faire attitude about animal ownership.

It would seem that, in the end, Greece has thrown billions of dollars at completing the Olympic construction on time, but has provided only lip service in dealing with the dog problem.

"HSI and other animal organizations offered to implement a humane animal control program a long time ago, back when the Greeks still had plenty of lead time," said Neil Trent, executive director of Humane Society International. "If the Greeks had taken up these offers from the beginning, they could have had a program in place that would have substantially reduced the number of dogs on the streets. Not only that, but they would have shown the world that Greece had made progressive, humane strides in dealing with its homeless animals.

"But instead they procrastinated to the Nth degree," Trent added. "Now they find themselves in this glaring spotlight: Athens wants to prove it is a modern city ready to host one of the world's greatest events, but from our point of view, the city is still stuck in ancient times, when animals were seen as disposable."

Stuck in the Starting Blocks

With the opening of the games just days away, animal protectionists fear Greece's procrastination will lead to some unfortunate decisions for thousands of street dogs. There's already anecdotal evidence of this, although it's not exactly clear who in Greece is making such life-or-death decisions.

A source told HSI on August 4 that 22 dogs turned up dead near the Port of Piraeus, the largest and busiest port in Greece and the gateway to Athens. The pooches were allegedly poisoned, although no independent sources have verified this. Another 80 dogs were reportedly found dead in Saronida, a seaside community, not far from Athens, were some British athletes are staying. The cause of death is unknown.

If poison were involved in these cases, they would fit the pattern of how Greeks have traditionally dealt with their homeless animal problem; Greek and international media outlets have previously chronicled dogs and cats killed with so-called "poison balls," little strychnine-laced wads of meat known as fola.

Meanwhile, a Melbourne, Australia newspaper reported on August 4 that nearly 100 stray dogs were "trapped inside the athletes' village at the Athens Olympics, causing safety concerns for organizers and teams who have already arrived for the games." The paper reported that security officials may have inadvertently locked-in the pooches when they locked down the athletes' village in order to keep out potential terrorists. Greeks authorities have been notified to remove the animals.

But there's the rub: Where do you take these animals? Athens apparently has only one municipal shelter; the other three or four shelters in town are small, private operations, places so overrun with animals that they offer little comfort to the four-legged charges in them.

The mayor of Athens had earlier called for a program in which strays were rounded up, sterilized and then put up for adoption. There's scant evidence that the city has embraced the new policy. International animal protection groups were also looking at adopting dogs to willing people in other countries.

"The bottom line," says HSI's Trent, "is that time has run out for good, humane solutions. The best we can hope for now is that Greeks take the time and effort to humanely round-up these animals and find reliable shelters in nearby cities. Many animal lovers and activists around the world, however, worry that Greece will poison dogs on a massive scale, just to expediently rid the country of an eyesore and a potential public health problem."

Trent hopes that Greeks will actually embrace one of the "essential missions of the Olympic Movement": protecting the environment. According to its web site, the International Olympic Committee "sees to it that the Olympic Games are held in conditions which demonstrate a responsible concern for environmental issues and works to promote a policy of consciousness-raising among the members of the Olympic Movement in order that all sports events may take environmental considerations into account in a responsible way."

The way we see it, Trent says, the environment should include every one of those unfortunate dogs who roam the streets of Athens.