ATHENS – Now with us for over a year, the pandemic has vastly affected the economy and our way of life. And though luckily it is not transmittable to animals, our four-legged friends have not remained untouched by the effects of COVID. The stray animals of Greece have been significantly affected, said members of Nine Lives Greece, a volunteer organization that focuses on the welfare of wild homeless cats in Athens.
“Due to COVID-related restrictions, a lot of our volunteers living outside the municipality are not able to get into the Athens center to feed cat colonies,” said Nine Lives board member Zoey Chia, who noted, “we are trying to address the resulting lack of volunteers by urging those who can still feed to double or sometimes triple their volunteer hours.”
The lockdown periods that have shut down cafes and restaurants have added to the burden. As a result, undernourished, unneutered newcomer strays are now appearing at Nine Lives cat colonies searching desperately for food, Chia said, adding, “we try to provide food and care for those cats that otherwise rely on these businesses offering leftover food on a regular basis.”
In the 12 years since its launch, Nine Lives Greece has overseen the spaying and neutering of over 13,000 stray, abandoned, or rescued cats across Athens. In addition to that, they have provided veterinary care to countless sick or injured street cats, have found homes for more than 1,500 cats and kittens, and on a daily basis feed some 500 to 1,000 colony cats in Athens.
COVID restrictions banning events have halted the fundraising bazaars Nine Lives relies on to cover the cost of food and medical expenses for cats in collaboration with local vets. To complete the “perfect storm,” Chia said, “both overseas and local adoptions have been hit hard, thus depriving our efforts from the usual relief they bring by removing cats from the streets.” Nine Lives volunteers have shifted their focus to temporary fostering in order to balance the adoption drop effect, she said.
The National Herald spoke to volunteers and members of Nine Lives Greece about the situation.
TNH: Is there an estimate of how many stray animals and/or cats exist in Athens or Greece?
Cordelia Madden-Kanellopoulou, Nine Lives Greece Board Member: It is almost impossible to put a number on the stray cat population. A 2017 estimate by Elena Dedes of Dogs Voice in an interview with LIFO magazine put the number of stray cats across Greece at over two million. But our experience would indicate that the true population is far higher. It could be that number in greater Athens alone … it’s frustrating that the Greek government doesn’t take responsibility for animal welfare programs that would ensure the streets aren’t full of cats and dogs who struggle daily for survival. This is heartbreaking.
TNH: What challenges do stray cats and their human neighbors face on a daily basis?
Cordelia Madden-Kanellopoulou: The greatest dangers to street cats are dogs, cars and humans. Leashless dogs chase and kill or maim cats and kittens, often with their guardians oblivious to the carnage. Road traffic accidents are common. Poisoning, though illegal, is still common practice especially among older people, believing it a quick fix to ‘get rid of’ cats that they find annoying or unhygienic. They are heedless of the slow barbaric death these animals suffer, as well as to the fact that far from ‘solving’ the problem, studies show that more cats simply move in and breed to fill the gap left by the dead cats, as long as there is a food source (open rubbish bins, rats, insects).
TNH: Why is it important to neuter and spay strays and indoor animals?
Sonia Soldatou, Nine Lives Greece Board Member: Spaying and neutering is the only way to reduce the stray cat population and improve cats’ quality of life.
TNH: Are there any government-funded efforts focused on Greek stray cats?
Marialena Kyriakakou, Nine Lives Greece President: The Greek ministry of rural development has a budget for the management of stray animals. Mainly these funds are given to local municipalities (city councils) to organize neutering/vet care programs with veterinarians through an RFP (request for proposals) process.
Until recently, these funds were not as much used as they should be, and in the few municipalities where stray programs were implemented, the focus was almost exclusively on dogs. Fortunately, the Municipality of Athens has set up some neutering programs for stray cats. We must point out that these funds are only given to municipalities, not to NGOs or societies like Nine Lives.
TNH: Do you believe there is an opportunity for the government to do more for Greek strays?
Marialena Kyriakakou: On paper, Greece has good laws concerning animals and their welfare, including articles banning abandonment and poisoning. Alas, to date the laws have largely not been implemented. The Greek government must be advised by research and the experience of other countries to seriously and compassionately address this problem of stray animals and try to provide an ethical, lasting solution.
It’s important for a European country like Greece not to have this awful situation with hungry cats begging at tavernas and restaurants, the bodies of cats and dogs on every main road, people putting out poison to ‘clear up’ resorts ahead of or after the tourist season, and municipal dog pounds where dogs are sent to die. It is not an appropriate image for a European country in 2021.
TNH: Has the situation with poisoning changed at all in the last few years? What challenges do we still face?
Sonia Soldatou: Fortunately, poisonings have been given more publicity thanks to social media; it is normally condemned there, or people use media to communicate that there has been a poisoning attempt and that action should be taken (i.e. clearing up an area where poisoned food was scattered).
For more information on adoption and Nine Lives Greece, visit ninelivesgreece.com