When I first visited Greece two in 2008, I noticed immediately stray dogs in public places. On dirt roads in small villages, or in public squares in the heart of Athens, there they were: dogs, tame but clearly dispossessed, and some in need of medical attention.
Greece has a chequered history regarding dog welfare. Dog-pounds were exposed as “inhuman” a couple of decades back, so many closed down, exacerbating the stray problem.
I took to them immediately, with an innate sense of empathy and inquiry – where did this dog come from? how is it feeling? One “humanises” dogs they encounters, or, at the very least, gives it its due as a living being, one with essential desires.
On first glance, it seems like they are leading a good enough life: they lounge about, in the sun and in the sea, they go for walks and runs, chasing motorbikes, and sometimes they gather in groups, barking and howling, much like humans in fact. They interact with people at times, and there is even the case of Kanellos, the Athenian “riot dog”, who joins in when protestors have skirmishes with police – a politically-active dog!
Tourists love the strays. They stop and take photographs with them. They even adopt them sometimes – yes, there is a process in place where you can take your desired pooch back to Australia or America with you.
But, for most of the strays in Greece, they are clearly loveless – no-one loves them, and, more importantly, they also don’t love anyone. A pet’s love for his/her owner is an extraordinary thing, and not to be taken lightly or for granted.
Just as there are different levels of human existence there are also different levels of doggy existence. When I look at the strays, I see blank looks, I see souls that have not been stimulated. Dogs as pets in homes are given attention and this develops certain capacities in the animals: they learn how to interact with the humans, how to help the humans, how to indeed love them.
Of course, some owners take their relationships with their pets to extremes – the pets in fact become surrogate humans, giving the owners what no human can give them. When I was at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival a few months back, I noticed that many dogs were officially accredited, having their own festival passes. Czech people love their dogs! Last time I looked, there were no dogs lining up to get into the Athens Film Festival!
Which is the main problem of course. As my friend George Manolis points out, there are animal rights issues here, issues that the Greek government is fumbling over. At a time of crisis where we are actually seeing humans as strays on the streets, animal welfare is hardly a priority. Greece has a chequered history regarding dog welfare. Dog-pounds were exposed as “inhuman” a couple of decades back, so many closed down, exacerbating the stray problem.
Recently, there were suggestions that local government officers were intentionally denying fresh water to the strays and there have always been suspicions that many dogs are simply poisoned off. There are also reports about how the government rounded up thousands of dogs just prior to the Olympics in 2004, gave them a “holiday” in some country fields, and then dropped them back in the cities they came from.
For the average Greek person, they simply live with the dogs, stepping over them, avoiding them, but also sometimes showing kindness to them. What else can they possibly do? Not much.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen some strays with visible sores, and others that seem delirious emotionally, psychologically. Many of the strays that seem relaxed, sleeping away are in reality actually dying away …
Man’s best friend? Sometimes, it’s just a dog of a life.