A 1.8-million-euro campaign for the sterilization, treatment and adoption of abandoned dogs in Athens, officially launched on Saturday by Mayor Dora Bakoyianni, aims to clear the capital’s streets of some 5,000 strays before next year’s Olympic Games while diffusing rumors of state officials ordering the extermination of thousands of animals. The primary aim of the scheme, which is being co-funded by the government and City Hall and is to be up and running next January, is to curb the growth of a huge population of stray dogs in Athens by collecting, sterilizing and innoculating thousands of animals; but its secondary aim is to find homes for the dogs. Unadopted animals will be released back into their original environment after having been sterilized and tagged and having received any necessary medical treatment, according to the program’s organizers. City Hall’s Voluntary Adoption Program will offer dog lovers the option of permanently adopting an animal or adopting one «for a limited time period.» Municipal authorities provided no further details about the latter option – which has provoked concern among some animal rights groups – in a press release outlining the program. However, detailed information was provided regarding how the program’s budget would be spent. A budget of 50,000 euros has been set aside for the electronic registering and tagging of 5,000 strays and the creation of a «data bank» containing the animals’ details. A total of 960,000 euros is to be spent on establishing two fully equipped veterinary clinics, whose aim will be to provide all necessary veterinary services for Athens strays, and on cooperating with two other independent clinics. Another 430,000 euros is to go toward renting a separate unit to accommodate 100 animals which have been injured or are recovering from surgery. All the above accounts for 1.4 million euros. It is unclear exactly where the remaining 360,000 euros are to be spent. However, the program also includes plans to mobilize special units, with specialist staff, to collect the strays from the streets. The launch of a program for training certain stray animals to assist the elderly or disabled is also on the cards. Meanwhile, program organizers are also planning to develop a network of volunteers whose task it will be to inform the public about the adoption program and to encourage them to take a dog into their home. The program has had a mixed reception from animal welfare groups, however. Although many applauded the state initiative, some organizations countered that the plan has not been thought through carefully enough and does not consider the long-term welfare of the animals. Last week, animal rights organizations alleged that state officials had been responsible for the disappearance of 3,000 stray dogs since December. Bakoyianni on Saturday refuted the allegations and condemned maltreatement of animals in general. «Anti-social behavior toward strays… ranging from abandonment to cruel and deliberate poisonings are offensive to us as citizens and embarrass Greece in the eyes of international public opinion,» she said at the launch of the «Adopt a Stray» program on World Animal Day. Officials of the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee – who have been discussing the capital’s stray problem with government officials, veterinarians and representatives of national animal welfare groups – have also refuted claims of a systematic campaign to rid the city of strays before the arrival of an anticipated one million visitors next August.