How I learnt to live with a dog

Dog out for a coffee after a walk

I’ve always been a cat person. People who know me were very surprised to see me walking around the village accompanied by a dog on a lead. But hey, this is the way things are around here. You cannot really have any connection with any place in Crete, without having some involvement with stray animals. And yes, Dog, as I got to call her, was a stray just like the ever changing number of cats that over the years found me, some sick, some injured, some retired from a life in the dustbins, some abandoned or abused.

And every day there is a new horror story reported in the local media about some case of animal abuse from somewhere in Crete. Stories of shootings of strays, unwanted puppies and kittens abandoned in dustbins to die, animals  tied up in refuse bags, kinds of abuse devised in the imagination of very sick minds, ranging from hangings and mutilations to  spray painting of unlucky strays and the regular pre-tourist season mass poisoning outbreaks. And that’s without including the number of accidentally injured and killed animals on the road.

The social media are full of appeals for help with adoption and fostering, a task that time after time falls on the shoulders of the same individuals, while the vast majority of animal friendly residents who are really concerned, keep their conscience clear by calling a stretched up to the limit charity – and there is only a few of them in Crete and only two in Apokoronas –  to do something about it. 

In many cases the inability to help is not just an excuse. Many people have already adopted or fostered several stray animals and they just have not got the space or the energy for one more – and it is never just one more.

Dog was one of many of these abused animals. When I first saw her, she was an emaciated, terrified young dog dodging traffic on the main road at the end of my drive. An ordinary Cretan brown dog that someone dumped and she ended up wandering the streets looking for scraps of food. 

As the locals got to know her felt sorry for her and some of them left food and water for the poor creature, perhaps hoping that someone would take her in or that she would just vanish like so many others.   

I too become one of the people feeding her, in the olive grove where I first saw her, a couple of hundred yards away from my house, as I did not wish to add a dog to the menagerie of cats and chickens that lived in my garden

In the following days however, Dog made her way to my yard and made friends with the cats who seemed happy to share their (cat) food with Dog. On her part, Dog did not bother the cats or the chickens that free-ranged in the garden at the time. 

‘Time to catch her and have her neutered or we’ll end up with a lot of puppies’.  But poor Dog was in such a state that she was difficult to approach, let alone catch her.

Now, people with links to the area will probably remember that it was just over four years ago, on 23 March 2015, that Apokoronas  council run its  first official free neutering session for strays. Apokoronas was the first municipality  in the prefecture of Chania – and possibly in the whole of Crete – to start a  municipal neutering programme for stray animals (and  persist with it despite fierce opposition from The Dark Powers), in partnership with the local vet and volunteers from the animal welfare charity Ache Noah Kreta. Through the tireless efforts of the then deputy mayor responsible for animal welfare, the unqualified support of the mayor and a growing number of volunteers whose work was coordinated by the council, the neutering sessions became a regular feature in Apokoronas, one of a handful of councils in Crete  to boast a municipal surgery facility exclusively for volunteer vets to  perform regular neutering operations.   

It was thanks to this programme  that Dog was neutered, chipped and tamed. Putting a collar on her was a process that took several days, with considerable help from my friends – Apokoronas council volunteers –  and after that she was neutered, vaccinated and micro chipped in the municipal surgery  by the German volunteer  vets and subsequently she was assessed and put up for adoption.

But even though she was by now socialised and friendly, nobody wanted to offer her a home.  She was neither a cute little puppy nor of a desirable pedigree and so the months went by and she was still homeless in what looked like permanent fostering with me as she became an honorary member of the cat gang. 

Dog was not the only stray that benefited from the council’s stray management programme. In  the years since the programme started, several hundred stray cats and dogs were neutered, treated and re-homed with the help of European animal welfare organisations reducing the number of potential strays being born by several thousand.

All this work however, has not solved the serious problem of strays. For every stray animal neutered several more are  abandoned, like Dog was.  And this abundance of strays leads to more cases like those regularly reported in the local press, stories of extraordinarily cruel ways of causing death to unwanted animals  – something which  I mostly find too unpleasant to reproduce.

In any case, the neutering programme alone is not enough to prevent many cases of animal cruelty and abandonment that has become the trademark of Crete and a real turn off for a large number of visitors, some of whom in their short stay on the island  feed, care and often rescue and adopt with the help of the aforementioned charities, some of the lucky strays.

The great bulk of visitors  are however sheltered from the everyday realities of animal welfare and see only the fluffy side of holiday cats and buy the occasional Cretan cute kitten calendar not being  aware that in their absence these animals will starve, will suffer from infections, will be injured or abused, and left in the hands of some narrow-minded locals who act with impunity culling the surviving winter population of strays using bates laced with banned insecticides,  before the tourist season begins, protected by the silence of a vaguely disapproving but silent majority who see this annual ritual as an alternative to neutering and part of the culture and traditions of the island[1].

It took  a  mayor with guts and determination in Apokoronas  to stand up and publicly defend the volunteer vet neutering programme and had  the strength to stand up to challenges, threats and accusations,  and an extraordinarily hard working and dedicated former deputy mayor to develop a successful  programme in Apokoronas. Had the neighbouring authorities, where a number of abandoned animals come from, done the same there would not be as much pressure on the limited number of people and resources dedicated to animal welfare in the whole of the prefecture of Chania.

Regardless of the reasons the municipal surgeries have run into problems elsewhere, the residents of Apokoronas have been very appreciative of the efforts of all involved in the surgeries so far: the council officers, the local vet, Arche Noah  and the volunteers who help in organising the sessions

As pre-election fever is about to grip local councils it is worth remembering that the management of stray animals can become relevant in the pre election programme of those who vie for office in local councils, where only a handful of votes can decide the election outcome.

Animal welfare organisations are asking questions of the mayoral candidates across in Crete and across the country and advise voters to do the same. But I believe a lot more than a vague commitment is needed here – as indeed for many other areas of pre election promises.

The council’s commitment should include, among other actions, the setting up and maintaining of a municipal surgery, a secure legal short term shelter to house a limited number animals at risk or those waiting adoption, collaboration and links with at least one local vet, establishing and maintaining strong links with local and European animal charities that can rehome strays, supporting residents with filing animal abuse reports and giving evidence to the police, a dedicated worker sensitive to the needs of the strays who can respond responsibly to public requests for help, the recruitment and coordination of volunteers, to avoid well-meaning individuals reinventing the wheel at regular intervals, and of course good communications with the local residents. Ideally, all that wrapped up in an action plan where voters can tick off achievements and future actions before they cast their vote.

Animal welfare is definitely not one of the easiest  aspects in a municipality’s daily routine; it involves thankless, frustrating  and often heartbreaking work that takes a lot of effort and enormous amounts of energy and dedication to see results. Tenacity, dedication, energy and the determination to stand up to the dark powers that periodically crawl from under some rock, as well the obstinacy of individuals set in their own ways who see no need to change their ‘traditional’ attitudes to animals and have no time or compassion for animals stray or otherwise..

In Apokoronas, a lot has been achieved in the last four years, something that is also reflected in the changing attitudes about neutering dogs and cats with a lot more local Greeks won over to the idea of sterilisation of strays –dogs mainly –  as a better solution than shooting them when the worry their sheep. This change towards a more positive attitude towards animal welfare has not however improved the position of ‘barrel dogs’ or prevented the annual mass poisonings in several villages around Apokoronas.  

So, clearly, there is still a long way to go. And the last thing the animal charities, volunteers and above all the large number of strays need is for the council officers with responsibility for animal welfare and the management of strays to take their eye off the ball and turn their attention to other pre-election issues.

While the immediate priority has to be the continuation of the neutering programme to deal with the growing numbers of strays, the other aspects of the work involved in the management of strays cannot be neglected.

My foster Dog was lucky she was found at a time when some provision for strays was set up and a system support for strays was just starting. Some were luckier and found better permanent homes than Dog, some others maybe were not.

And  just in case  there is a rush of offers for a home for Dog, let me make it clear that now, after all this time, I will not easily part with her. Sure there are still a lot of things I have to learn about dogs and she could do with more individual attention, but on the whole she is quite happy with her life as a cat, and I’m happy to have her. 

Let us hope that for the sake of  many others like Dog, Apokoronas council will continue on the same direction it started four years ago and that will continue to build on the progress made over the last four years, with the same commitment demonstrated in the past.

[1] Despite several bouts of public outrage in western Europe about similar practices  taking  place in countries like India, Egypt or Cuba, our all-encompassing benevolent  lords in  the EU institutions have not got a policy on the management of stray animals, a serious problem in many member states in the south and eastern Europe. Instead, the welfare and management of stray animal populations remains under the sole responsibility of the Member States. I believe this may have something to do with Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which does not provide a legal base permitting all animal welfare issues to be addressed.