SOCIETY

GAR, helping strays in Greece since 1989

To recognize the magnitude of animal neglect and abuse in Greece, all one needs to do is to spend a day walking through any city or village and witness the sheer number of stray cats and dogs or animals kept in inhumane conditions.

That isn?t to say there aren?t many Greeks who love and care for their animals and for strays; on the contrary, on any given street there will be residents who have made it their duty to feed the stray cats and dogs in the neighborhood every day. But the poor treatment of animals has been so commonplace for so long that much of Greek society has become desensitized to the severity of the problem.

In a recent interview with Kathimerini English Edition, Vesna Jones spoke about the UK-based charity Greek Animal Rescue (GAR) and what it does to help reverse the plight of animals in Greece.

When and how was GAR established? What were the main reasons your organization was set up?

Greek Animal Rescue was founded in 1989. It was after a holiday in Greece, a holiday that my husband I had been waiting a long time to take — in fact our first holiday in 15 years. Little did we realize when we set out that driving through Greece would be a life-changing experience.

We encountered the first stray dogs as we crossed the border from then Yugoslavia and over the next few weeks we saw hundreds more starving animals — dogs and cats begging for scraps, ?guard dogs? chained to rusty oil drums or to a tree — more often than not guarding nothing — not to mention numerous dead dogs and cats lying by the roadside, donkeys and mules left tied in barren fields with no food or water in sight, often hobbled and barely able to move.

We were horrified by the terrible sights, but worse still, we were unable to help the poor animals, or at least we didn?t know how we could help them. Nobody seemed interested in listening to our complaints and we were even laughed at.

The last few days of our so-called holiday found us helping at an animal shelter near Athens and it was there we realized that sterilizing dogs and cats wasn?t a common practice in Greece, but abandonment of unwanted litters of puppies and kittens was.

That was the beginning of Greek Animal Rescue and the beginning of a new life devoted to helping animals in Greece.

How many members does your organization have and what are their backgrounds?

We currently have around 1,300 members; not a huge number but the majority are very loyal and generous too. They come from all backgrounds, age groups and walks of life. What unites them is their love for animals and the fact that they have visited Greece and been moved by the tragic situation animals find themselves in all over the country. Most say they expected to find animal welfare standards in Greece on a par with other EU countries and were shocked to discover the reality. Almost all vow never to visit Greece again. Many of our members have spent inordinate amounts of time and money adopting a stray animal they have seen in Greece.

On average we spend around 150,000 euros per year on supporting rescue work, sterilizations, helping small and well-run shelters, and individual animal rescue volunteers, to take care of, treat the injuries of or fund operations on stray animals they find. We also help to find homes for a lucky few cats and dogs.

How do you raise awareness of your organization?s activities? What channels do you use to accomplish this and how effective do you find them?

For many years our newsletters have been the major communication with our members. The newsletter is published twice a year and is a full record of the work we do, the animals rescued and the work undertaken by the animal welfare workers and shelters we support. Two years ago I gave a lengthy interview to Zougla online and a year earlier a four-part interview to ?Paratrixa? (Skai TV).

Moving with the times, we also have a very active Facebook page and a website.

People seem to have no trouble finding us, particularly over the summer months when I am inundated by e-mails calling for help for Greek animals. In the past most such requests were from tourists visiting Greece, wanting help for injured or neglected animals. Over recent years more and more requests are coming from Greeks themselves, which is heartening as it shows that not only foreigners but many, many Greeks are concerned by the animal situation in their own country. It is sad, however, that instead of turning to their own authorities, they are forced to ask for assistance from a foreign charity. Many have tried every avenue in Greece, to no avail.

Looking forward

What is your advice for people who want to contribute to the humane treatment of animals?

GAR deals mainly with companion animals and the humane treatment of companion animals is linked to responsible pet ownership. Unfortunately too many animals in Greece are treated as chattels — tied up, neglected and completely devoid of company. Dogs are pack animals. They undergo indescribable suffering when left alone for days on end. A companion animal is a responsibility and if you take on this responsibility you need to be aware that you are responsible for the physical and medical care of the animal for up to 20 years. Don?t acquire a companion animal if you are not prepared for this undertaking. There are too many unwanted animals, so it is imperative that companion animals are sterilized to prevent further unwanted puppies and kittens being born and then discarded.

In Greece even food, water and shelter, the basic needs of every animal, are ignored in too many cases. Every one of us can help Greek animals in this respect and ensure that local strays receive water and food. Water is especially essential during the hot summer months.

And finally, if you feel you have the means to provide a good home to a companion animal, then don?t buy a dog or cat, adopt a stray! Greece has hundreds of thousands of stray animals which are desperate for a home. Our motto is ?Don’t breed or buy while homeless animals die.?

Does your organization have any special plans for the future?

GAR has always played a large role in sterilizing Greek animals in order to prevent unwanted litters being born and inevitably being thrown into rubbish bins and abandoned.

Over the years we have assisted many companion animal owners to sterilize their animals and we hope we can continue to do so. It is worth mentioning that if local councils undertook some very simple measures, like running sterilization campaigns of their own, in conjunction with local vets, and animal owners could get their dogs and cats sterilized at reduced cost, this, together with enforcing the law requiring owners to microchip their animals, would drastically reduce the stray population.

Most strays were not born on the streets but ended up there after being abandoned by people whose female dogs gave birth to unwanted litters. Sterilizing owned dogs would clearly reduce the number of strays, but usually their owners don’t want to pay the cost or they see sterilization as unnatural interference with nature. However, adult dogs are also abandoned for reasons as trivial as going on holiday but not wanting to pay for kenneling.

We have also just completed a very successful sterilization project in Megara and Nea Peramo, where 240 animals (231 dogs and nine cats) were sterilized over a period of just four-and-a-half days.

This was a program that was organized and run jointly by the mayor of Megara and Nea Peramo, Yiannis Marinakis, the Megara Animal Welfare Society, a number of very hardworking volunteers and our charity. The local vets approved the project taking place and the municipal veterinary clinic was used for this purpose.

It is worth pointing out that of the 145 females spayed, 60 were pregnant. At least 400 puppies were prevented from being born, only to face a very uncertain future and a premature death.

Those interested in finding out more about Greek Animal Rescue can visit them on the Web at http://greekanimalrescue.com or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=33911998809.