Greece’s perennial problem of stray cats and dogs has been brought into sharp focus by outrage from vets and breeders over proposed legislation that seeks to make animal neutering mandatory.
The country has one of the largest stray feline and canine populations in the world, with the problem becoming ever more acute during the country’s prolonged debt crisis. Animal rights activists estimate that Athens alone may have as many as 2 million street cats and dogs. Management of strays falls to local municipalities.
The proposed law is under public consultation until it is put to a vote in June, but has already seen coordinated opposition from vets, who went on strike last week.
“Studies in the US and Australia have proved that compulsory sterilisation simply doesn’t work,” said Manos Vorrisis, who runs a low-cost neutering clinic on the Aegean island of Syros. Breeders say the law, aimed at expressly tackling the problem of strays, could bring about the end of pedigrees that have existed in Greece since ancient times.
“It’s not just compulsory sterilisations,” said Theodosis Papandreou, who heads the country’s only club representing amateur breeders. “The law also cuts back on the ability of owners to have litters, which ultimately would mean the end of pedigrees that are unique here.”
As home to Europe’s oldest dog, the Cretan hound, and other canines immortalised in ancient wall paintings, statues and vases, it was incumbent on authorities to ensure they survived, he said.
“We should be doing everything to preserve these rare breeds not make them extinct at a time when we want to enter dog shows like Crufts [held in the UK]. This new law will be a fatal mistake if it has such an effect on purebreds.”
Across the eastern Mediterranean, moves are afoot to raise awareness of animal rights in nations that all too often have depended on networks of volunteers to rescue abandoned pets.
The Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, recently adopted a rescue puppy, Peanut, in the hope of highlighting the issue, as did the president of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, before him. Like Cyprus, Greece has a powerful hunting lobby often blamed for the inhumane treatment of dogs no longer deemed useful. In both countries, tales of cruelty towards animals are common.
The proposed law was compiled in the hope of convincing Greeks not only about the need to sterilise cats and dogs but to treat them humanely.
“It is time for Greece to go forward with courageous steps for the protection of our little friends,” Mitsotakis tweeted alongside a video about the bill. “Animal protection is a matter of civilisation,” he said, noting that the legislation also sought to protect animals from abuse by facilitating adoption processes.
Opposition to neutering is a cultural issue in Greece. “Men in this country are especially opposed because they equate sterilisation with denuding animals of their manhood,” said Efi Tsekmesoglou at the Chania branch of the Association of Animal Protection in Crete. “Every day we find boxes and bags of kittens and puppies in rubbish bins, with most dumped by hunters and shepherds. Of course there should be compulsory neutering.”
In a break with the past, prison sentences and hefty fines are foreseen in the bill for offences ranging from illegal trafficking of animals to the theft of pets.
Penalties of up to €50,000 are stipulated in the case of torture and abuse, including “poisoning, hanging, drowning, crushing and mutilation” of animals, all regularly witnessed in rural areas.
The Greek Animal Welfare Fund, a UK-based charity that has advocated for the protection of animals for decades, views the bill as long overdue. Speaking form London, Paul McGlone, the charity’s director, welcomed its scope and provisions that include obligatory micro-chipping and the creation of a national register to record ownership of animals. “It is clearly very ambitious and will require a lot of change in attitudes and behaviour,” he said.
“But it clearly intends to get a grip on the huge numbers of stray cats and dogs in the country and, gradually but humanely, reduce them through promoting and enforcing sterilisation. We welcome the broad intention behind this new legislation.”