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Help rescue those who help us

Penny Marathon, founded by Eleftheria Prodromou, has now expanded outside of Greece to help stray animals around the world

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16 June 2017

I have only ever owned rescue dogs and each came in a variety of colours and breeds. While all four had a mysterious past, they turned out to be beautiful companions. With each I would ask myself, "Why would anyone give them up"?

We all know, and research shows, that domesticated animals not only help people with physical disabilities, they also do wonders for our psychology and emotional wellbeing. Yet the world is full of homeless dogs and cats and if that's not bad enough, many are mistreated and abused.

Penny Marathon is a charity that has its origin in Greece. It was founded by Eleftheria Prodromou, a Greek Australian who was living in Greece while working as a journalist. Eleftheria witnessed many cruel scenes of neglected dogs and the name 'Penny' refers to one of the strays she came to know.

Penny would meet Eleftheria at the bus stop on her way to work but one day, Penny didn't show up. Eleftheria was told by a local security guard that Penny's corpse was found by the road. She had either been run over or poisoned. This had a profound effect on Eleftheria.

"I didn't give Penny a home and I should have. In her honour, and learning from the mistake I had made, I have named my charity after her."

There are many sad and tragic stories such as Penny's and Eleftheria has made a passionate commitment to not only save strays, but to raise awareness.

While it started off as an event based in Athens, Penny Marathon has now expanded to marathons elsewhere in the world. It has also expanded to include unique pets fashion accessories and an annual children's illustration competition.

I asked Eleftheria a series of questions about her charity and the tireless work so many people around the world put into raising money for the Penny Marathon.

When you say marathon, you actually mean the full 42-kilometre marathon?
That's right. We started in Athens in 2012 with a few runners and cyclists and were privileged enough to finish at Panathenaic Stadium. It was only ever expected to be a one-off event. Not [one] that would become a registered, international charity! Next year we launch our first Penny Marathon in the US. Last year, roughly 500 people participated. We're expecting the same, if not more, on Sunday 16 July when we host simultaneously in Sydney, Athens, Salamina, and Kalamata.

How has the Penny Marathon assisted in saving strays and abandoned animals so far?
We do our best and I'm proud of how we make our funds stretch. We're small and our fundraising is modest but we have big hearts and big dreams. One thing we find is that people don't realise we support Australian-based charities as well as Greek ones. A lot of our funds go to emergency cases as a result of neglect, abuse, and road accidents. But we support all stages of the rescue to rehome process. That means medical costs, food, spay and neuter, boarding, and so forth.

On the island of Salamina in Greece, for example, money raised goes into a spay and neuter initiative we run with local rescues and vets. We expect to have spayed close to 200 cats and dogs there alone by the end of this year. In Australia this year we [have] supported the work of many greyhound rescue organisations who try to rescue the lives of as many dogs as they can that have been discarded by the racing industry.

We have helped get many animals adopted into good homes. There was a recent case in Monemvasia, Greece, in which a tourist found a plastic bag of pups floating in the water. Most had drowned but two had survived. One was adopted locally and the other (who was named after me!) now lives with a loving family in the Netherlands. And then there's the case of Oliver, one of the most horrific cases of neglect we had ever seen. He was rescued in Athens in 2014 and, three years later, was adopted by a lady in the UK.

Why do you think the problem is so big in Greece?
A few years ago, the BBC reported that there were one million stray companion animals in Greece but I think that is a conservative figure. In Australia, tens of thousands of healthy companion animals are euthanised every year because they cannot find homes. The situation toggles between these two extremes around the world. Can you say one is better than the other? I don't think so.

The situation in Greece is the way it is because of irresponsible, cruel people who don't respect life or the law and don't think it's their problem to fix.
It's also irresponsible local councils and politicians that turn a blind eye to the situation or redirect funds specifically allocated to address the stray issue to unrelated programs.

There are regions in Greece, such as Nafpaktos in western Greece, where people think they are above the law. [They think] that it's acceptable to poison, drown, shoot, and hang animals.

The laws are there in Greece and they are strict. They need to be enforced. Authorities need to take reports of abuse seriously. Greeks also need to speak up and report abuse but there is fear, apathy, and ambivalence.

The number of strays is too high, the resources to help too low, and the apathy too ingrained to make immediate change.

We here in Australia are still obsessed with buying a puppy bred specifically for its breed.
People around the world still buy from breeders rather than adopt an animal from the street or a shelter. I always find it odd when people ask about the breed of my dogs. As human beings, how many of can say we know about our own lineage? And yet, we're quick to let people know the lineage of our pets; it's strange. Many of these 'puppy farms' are cruel. Dogs are bred repeatedly to cater for the whims of urban trends. I don't get it. If you could save a life by adopting an animal, why wouldn't you?

Fortunately, we have a few more animal charities in comparison to Greece.
There's a reason for our clean streets. And that dirty reason is that they get put in a pound and, if they don't find a home quick enough, they get put to sleep. Years ago, the figure of those euthanised was around 250,000 per year in this country. That's dropped significantly but the fact is that healthy animals are killed because no one offered them a home. And, let's face it, we still revel in using animals as entertainment in this country. The Melbourne Cup, for example. The race that stops the nation! And we dress up, bet, drink, and celebrate while horses suffer mentally and physically, often fatally, for our amusement.

We remain one of the few countries in the world that has legalised greyhound racing; a cruel and barbaric sport in which 20,000 pups are bred annually in the hope of being race winners. The industry admits to killing up to 17,000 dogs each year that are deemed not good enough.

Yes, like Greece, there are exceptional groups and people in animal welfare responsible for saving lives.
The tide is turning. Attitudes towards animals are changing. Around the world, we are more aware than ever before of the cruelty of animal slaughter for consumption. Attitudes towards animals as sentient beings are changing, whether they're cows and chickens or cats and dogs. We will be long gone, but there will come a time when humans on this planet will look back on this treatment of animals and see it as genocide.

The Penny Marathon has recently branched out to other activities. Tell us about the children's drawing prize. How did this come about?
Last year, we started a children's drawing competition in which the winning design would become our t-shirt for the year. Children are encouraged to express their views about animals and consider concepts such as compassion and kindness.

We received close to 250 entries this year from Greece, Hungary, and the Netherlands. I can genuinely say that each one was special and touching. Children are far more enlightened than we give them credit [for] and it's beautiful to witness that clarity of sentiment before they develop that emotional immunity that we have as adults.

How did you get Greek actor Joyce Evidi involved in the charity?
Joyce is not only a well-known actor in Greece, she's an animal lover and activist. When we made contact she immediately said yes to judging the illustrations and was honoured to be asked. She told me that the illustration project "revealed the clarity of a child's soul; the selfless love towards animals and their sensitivity towards stray animals . . . the three specific ones I chose touched me a little more than the others . . . I went crazy for [the] orange cat, created by quite a talented and sweet little artist with a bright future . . . I adore the drawing with the big hug and went crazy for the cat drawn by Faouzi, a young refugee, whose drawing spoke to my soul."

I spoke to Faouzi's teacher Christina Lousta about the children's involvement:
"I work as a teacher at the Refugee Education Coordinator in Lagadikia Camp, next to Thessaloniki.
At the camp there are many stray dogs and I had noticed that not all of the children treat the strays in the same way. While many are friendly and play with the strays, others are more cautious and fearful of them.

After speaking to my colleagues from the public primary schools I proposed we introduce an educational program on stray animals. I suggested Penny Marathon and the other teachers agreed.

It was a really interesting activity for the children who became very engaged and, with the teacher's assistance, we were able to meet the program's target.

They had fun and learnt a lot of things about strays in an artistic way.

Eleftheria, what are your plans for the artworks?
The winning design becomes our t-shirt for the year. Down the track, we hope to include these drawings as part of a travelling exhibition.

How can someone rescue a pet for themselves?
There are so many rescue shelters around Australia. It is simply a matter of doing a bit of research.

Rescued animals make wonderful members of the family. I implore people to adopt an animal and save a life.

I encourage everyone to support Eleftheria and this special charity. These neglected animals are deserving of a home and all of us should experience the special love these animals are willing to give.

If you would like to support Penny Marathon you can do so here.

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