A dog's life in Greece

Observations on Hellenic slaughter

Germany may just have voted to give constitutional rights to its animals; Britain may have proposed to protect them with a Bill of Rights; and in America, a clan of Harvard professors may have launched a campaign to extend legal rights to all creatures. But in Greece, it is countdown to what animal welfare groups are calling "judgement day" for anything stray and four-legged. Pity the abandoned puss and feral dog. All the signs are that they're about to get the chop, thanks to Athens's determination to put on a "clean" 2004 Olympic Games.

"We need to clean up our act," said the deputy agriculture minister Fotis Hatzimichalis recently, when asked about the capital's staggering 50,000-strong canine population and their droppings. "There will have to be effective collection of all these strays." Decoded, that means a mass, state-sponsored poisoning campaign against the furry ones.

Forget about any moral debate. In the birthplace of democracy, the notion of pets being guaranteed a minimum quality of life is about as alien as the idea that a dog is a friend. For years, the Greeks have routinely killed off unwanted cats and dogs by lacing food with a lethal cocktail of pesticides and herbicides. I often see dead cats dumped in municipal rubbish cans outside my home. Hellenes, I am told, are vigorously opposed to neutering, on the grounds that it might offend an animal's machismo. A pet may end up drowned or poisoned, but it must be allowed to have a sex life, said one of my neighbours, explaining the feline carnage.

In rural areas, where attitudes to animals are tougher still, hunting dogs are often found hanging from trees and telegraph polls. In mountainous regions, donkeys deemed too elderly or infirm are frequently thrown off cliffs. Greek Orthodox priests bent on exorcising evil spirits are not beyond exhorting their parishioners to poison cats.

Irate tourists, enraged by the sight of local authorities culling stray cats and dogs, have besieged the Greek foreign ministry with letters of complaint. As concern grows over the fate of the country's stray population - estimated at around 200,000 nationwide - animal protection agencies in Europe and the US have begun urging the Greek government to implement legislation that would force owners to register their animals and tag them with electronic microchips, and to penalise those who abandon pets.

"Greece has drafted legislation, but it's very thin on specifics," said Joy Leney, who recently travelled with a WSPA team to the capital. "What we have proposed is that trained animal wardens be employed by municipalities who could also talk about the problem in schools - education is as important as sterilisation is vital."

The situation is not much better in Cyprus. The locals' penchant for abandoning and killing pets has prompted growing numbers of British tourists to boycott the island. Local animal welfare societies estimate that an astounding 3,000 animals - from domestic pets to foxes and endangered birds - are poisoned in Cyprus every week.

"In Cyprus, we're not so touchy about animals because we have seen worse things happen to people," says Lellos Dimitriades, until recently the longtime mayor of Nicosia.

"But I have to say," he adds, "that the spectacle of seeing all these dead animals on Aphrodite's isle, the island of love, is a little embarrassing. We do hope you won't be writing about it."