Around Athens, strays can't stay

Dogs: Hounded by animal rights activists, the Greek government adjusted a policy devised to keep strays away from Olympic venues.

Athens 2004

Athens Olympics

August 14, 2004|By Dan Mihalopoulos | Dan Mihalopoulos,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

KOROPI, Greece - The Olympics are being contested in baking Mediterranean sunlight, but don't call these the dog days of the Greek summer.

Fearful that packs of stray mutts would tarnish the country's image and threaten Olympic visitors, Greek authorities declared the dogs must disappear from the neighborhoods around the sports facilities.

That elicited furious howls from many animal rights activists abroad. They complained the order was tantamount to death sentences for hordes of homeless dogs that prowled the streets, alleys and public squares of the Greek capital.

So, at the 11th hour, Greek officials announced a plan to create summer camps for underprivileged dogs.

From Aug. 1 to Sept. 15, many dogs that usually feed on scraps from garbage piles or handouts from Athenian tavern tables are being kept in shelters, kennels and private homes well away from the Olympic flame.

The 1,500 dogs taken to shelters under the Greek government's program are supposed to be sterilized and vaccinated before being returned to their old haunts after the Olympic flame is extinguished.

The Hellenic Animal Welfare Society has captured about 150 dogs in three Athens suburbs that are host to Olympic events and installed them at its shelter in Koropi, near the city's international airport.

In the surgery room at the shelter, a veterinarian performed the neutering procedure on a sedated male dog.

"One pair of dogs who are not neutered can turn into 250 dogs on the street within 2 1/2 years," the veterinarian said.

Two vans owned by the animal welfare group roam the streets of Palio Faliro, Galatsi and Markopoulo each day, rounding up dogs and taking them to the shelter here.

The three municipalities agreed to pay the society nine euros (about $11) a day to keep the dogs from prowling near the Olympic venues for soccer, shooting, team handball, taekwondo and weightlifting.

Road signs for the shelter direct visitors to the Philozoiki, from the Greek words "philos," for friend, and "zoa," or animals.

But critics say Greece's philozoic record is for the dogs.

Owners rarely sterilized their pets in the past, said Liani Alexandri, the Philozoiki group's director.

"They believed doing so was against nature," she said.

Greeks traditionally would not bring dogs into their homes and responded with disgust at stories of western Europeans or North Americans who slept with dogs and let animals slobber in their faces.

Attitudes changed in the past decade or so as Greeks increasingly began keeping dogs as pets, even in small apartments in densely urbanized neighborhoods of Athens and other cities.

When those dogs reproduced, many of the pups eventually were abandoned in the streets.

Philozoiki president Costis Zois said it's common to find the corpses of poisoned dogs on Greek streets.

"They mix poison in with meatballs that they toss on the streets at night, when nobody can see what they are doing," Zois said.

The leader of a New York-based group called Welfare for Animals in Greece organized a protest this month at the Greek consulate in Manhattan. Other activists abroad have called on foreign dog lovers to adopt and repatriate Greek dogs.

Even Greek animal activists say claims of an officially sanctioned extermination campaign are overblown.

The mayor of Athens and the president of the Olympic organizing committee are said to have adopted strays, apparently in response to negative media coverage.

Many Greeks see the complaints about animal rights as another insidious foreign plot to defame their country.

"They say we are barbarous murderers," said Theodoros Ananiades, a veterinarian and an adviser to the Greek government program for dealing with strays. "They say the government gives its blessing to those who poison the dogs, but it's not so."

Greece will spend nearly $5 million a year to sterilize the nation's entire stray population within three years, he said.

Despite the government's efforts to corral them, a few strays have managed to wander into the Olympic action.

One dog with a tan coat lived undisturbed for days during the past week at the Irini train station, closest to the main Olympic Stadium. It often lounged in the middle of the platform, paying no heed to the journalists and volunteers who hustled on and off the train cars.

The dog could not be found Thursday.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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