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Greek Tragedy
Jess Wynne

Question: how long is it physically possible for a dog to bark or howl before it loses its voice? Will the morning greet me with a collection of miserable canines clutching their throats and sucking cough lozenges? And to add to this cacophony outside, the rats above my ceiling are holding an all night rave. In fairytales the heroine is made aware of rodents by the pitter-patter of their tiny feet. The rats in Greece are either genetically modified Super-rats or they are wearing bloody big boots.

Yes that's right, here I am in the land of the Gods sharing my room with rats of god-like proportions. Greece is an understandably popular destination. It is a nation imbued with ancient history and myth spanning many millennia. With its 169 inhabited islands it offers a huge diversity of travel experiences – something for everyone. Its heady mix of a vibrant and fascinating culture and a glorious climate, set within a landscape of varied and colourful flora and serene blue seas is plenty enough to tempt the most discerning of travellers. However, not being particularly discerning, I chose to travel to Greece to get filthy, exhausted, disillusioned and depressed working in an animal shelter funded by the charity Greek Animal Rescue (G.A.R).

Greece is a nation renowned for its influence on civilisation: a country of ideals encompassing the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and the invention of democracy. It is ironic then, that the Greeks are also notable in the area of animal neglect and abuse. A family trip to the island of Zakynthos alerted me to the problem of abandoned dogs and cats and to the disregard shown towards them by the locals.

When my mother made the decision to bring a young stray back to England, we were given the number of a rescue centre near Athens where the dog could stay before its flight to London. In November of last year I found myself at a loose end and decided to do something worthwhile and escape rainy Cornwall by volunteering to help out at the sanctuary. I soon found myself in "modest accommodation" in the middle of nowhere an hour or so from Athens surrounded by howling beasts.

It was difficult not to feel homesick and scared in such an isolated location. I'm not sadistic enough to describe the toilet and its tendency to overflow in any detail. The flies were everywhere and eventually you learn to live with them – occasionally poisoning yourself and other volunteers with unhinged insect spray attacks, laughing demonically as the pests hit the floor. Also the atmosphere was uneasy due to the presence of several Albanians working for the Greek landlord – Nicolai – from whom G.A.R rented the site. The animosity between the Greeks and the Albanians soon became apparent. We were warned not too communicate with them as "when they see a woman their eyes pop out like fish". They in turn had been banned from fraternising with us – apparently some of the Albanians had ideas of what should be permitted in a friendship that clashed with those of a former female volunteer. Nevertheless they would watch us in silence as we went about our work in a way which became increasingly unnerving. We had no locks on our doors but, in a testament to how badly the Greeks treat their animals, we had several dogs in the yard who would attack Greek-looking men on sight. Nicolai himself was overly friendly – bringing us chocolate and patting our bottoms. The other locals we encountered were deeply suspicious of us and obviously thought we were loony in our desire to help their animals. When we got lost one night on the dusty roads in the volunteers' car (tiny, no insurance or windows) we stopped and asked the way to the shelter. Every local we met denied any knowledge of the shelter – although they seemed able to find it when they had puppies to dump.

It was not until I met the residents of the shelter that I realised the full extent of the problem in Greece. Most of the dogs had been starved in their lives and therefore needed to be fed with care. It was often a case of kicking the feed bowl as close to the chained dog as possible – if it was not within their reach you could not go back to the bowl for fear of bites. Several dogs had legs or bits of ears missing. One dog, now in England, had its tendons in his back legs deliberately severed which leaving him crippled and in constant pain. An appeal by G.A.R has allowed this dog the treatment necessary for him to lead a fulfilling life. I also heard many tales of foreigners feeding strays or trying to rescue dogs that were consequently poisoned or hanged by locals annoyed at the intrusion. Cruelty is certainly rife but it appears to have its basis in ignorance.

Greeks are deeply superstitious of animals and dogs in particular. If for instance a woman in the household becomes pregnant any dogs will be removed, often just abandoned in the streets. One dog had been brought to the sanctuary because her owner, an old woman, had noticed her howling at night – this she saw as a portent of her death. Unfortunately the government makes no attempt to educate its people. In many areas of Greece strays have been simply rounded up and killed. Certainly the government does not like the presence of strays – it has begun to affect tourism – but its solutions are not humane. Recently in Athens it was decided that strays should all be spayed; a plan of action with which GAR agrees. However, the bitches were operated on then dumped in the streets with no aftercare. The shelter soon received a spate of ill and badly infected animals.

The most amazing thing about working in the shelter was how loving and desperate for human companionship these dogs were. When I returned home I was underweight and overtired. But I also felt oddly alone – I missed the camaraderie that evolved between the other two volunteers and myself. I also discovered that volunteering allows the traveller a different perspective of a country. In a sense it was an easier and more compelling way to observe a culture. I was clearly not a tourist and living out of season in an area where presumably few tourists would venture. Our nearest town was Markopoulo, a slightly dilapidated town with a population of roughly 10,000. It made no allowances for foreigners and was incredibly difficult to navigate. It contained a bewildering mixture of signs – some written in standard Greek and others in Katharevousa, a language with its basis in Ancient Greek that is favoured by nationalists.

Businesses all have a very different convention for opening; they open in the morning then close from 2pm to 5pm and are then open until late in the evening. All necessities can be found in Markopoulo – it also contains a few bars, restaurants and even an Internet café. The volunteers (Pip and Lorraine) and myself were frequently too exhausted to discover the delights of this fairly unremarkable town but the Internet café proved useful – providing an easy way to keep in touch with friends and relatives. A warning however, the drinks served were triple the price of those in other establishments – Greece is ever evolving and is certainly no longer as cheap as people assume.

Eating well in Greece, however, is possible for those with even the smallest of budgets. Food was simply fuel for three volunteers responsible for the care of 200 dogs and 50 cats. This was fortunate – as a vegetarian I found I was not really catered for and mostly had to stick to the ubiquitous Greek salad. Most Greek dishes contain rabbit or lamb; a popular example being moussaka (aubergines and minced lamb). I am informed that cheap snacks such as giro pittas (kebabs) are very tasty and always available. The distinctive taste of Ouzo (an aniseed-flavoured spirit) is now fairly familiar to most travellers and is definitely worth sampling – but beware the consequences.
Voluntary work is an experience that everyone should be encouraged to try. Having to interact with the locals certainly improved my miming skills. My Greek has been extended to the point where I can communicate effectively with dogs and shout oki electrica in panic at every power cut. G.A.R are always looking for volunteers – a love of animals is essential, however, otherwise the barking will drive you insane.

For more information contact Greek Animal Rescue:

For general information concerning travel in Greece:

Flights to Athens can cost from as little as £40 for a single fare. Shop around and try Sta Travel and Easyjet for cheap fares:

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