Leaving London at 11pm from Heathrow to arrive in Athens at 3am, we knew that we would find the first day challenging, not least because we would arrive in Lesvos at 6am after a second flight having had no sleep, but also because of the dire situation we would face.
We arrived to the welcoming home of Claire and Matthew – two good friends of our co-founder Nikki’s, who we already work with to rescue and rehome street dogs of Lesvos. A hearty Greek breakfast awaited us in their beautiful home, followed by a couple of hours sleep (to regain some energy and composure)… and then our reason for being here began.
Lesvos is the third largest Greek island with a population of 85,000 people. Much of the recent awareness of the island has centred around the incredibly sad situation of thousands of Syrian refugees making the life-threatening journey to look for a safe future. Over half a million of them have come to the shores of Lesvos. The people here have embraced this situation with love and compassion. They are the first island ever to have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize – what an achievement! … and great recognition for their efforts in a time when they themselves face hardships because of the impacts of the refugee situation and the economic crisis on their own tourism economy.
So we had high hopes for their approach to animal welfare, and we weren’t disappointed. We met various people during our visit – volunteers, vets, rescuers, shop owners who feed stray dogs, and of course many dogs themselves.
We have a slightly larger project team joining us on this project visit; Nadine our co-founder, has been joined by Eve Moore (our rehoming manager) who often liaises with our rescue/rehoming projects on the island and also three new volunteers, Pixie Geldof, Aimee Philips and Aidan O’Neil. All of our volunteers are new to the stray dog situation and this is an eye-opening experience for them. Pixie and Aimee have joined to help deliver our initiatives on the island and Aidan is a photographer who is documenting our progress.
Our first stop was a meeting with Tamsin, a Yorkshire lass, who has been coming to help with an annual neutering clinic every year since 2009. She raises money through the year and comes to Lesvos for two to three months during the summer season. Tamsin is part of an initiative called ‘Scala Women’s Rock Group’, who raise money to support neutering and feeding programmes throughout the year.
The neutering clinic has been set up by one of the projects we support ‘Camp Gaga’. In the current climate of austerity in Lesvos, there is no appetite for helping the stray dog situation on a wider scale, so people like Tamsin and Gerbien (the Dutch founder of Camp Gaga) use any means necessary to achieve their objectives. There is no permanent clinic for the neutering campaign each year, often they ask friends and family if they can borrow rooms, or empty homes to set up ‘pop-up’ clinics to get the job done. This year, they have been lent a home and have converted the kitchen into the surgery, with plastic sheets covering the worktops, stacked high with medication, pills, bandages and all manner of surgical utensils. The lounge out the back has been converted into a make shift recovery area, where animal crates are stacked high with dogs slowly waking from their anaesthetic.
We meet two vets, Anna-Marie and Eva from Vienna. Amazing women, who have been coming to Lesvos every year for over fifteen years, neutering over 150 dogs during each two week period they come. They are mid-surgery having just castrated two young male dogs, in fact the brothers of Leonard, a dog we recently rehomed to adopters in Saint Leonard (yes, the irony) on the south England coast.
Gerbien is the heart and soul of Camp Gaga – a rescue, rehoming and neutering initiative running for over fifteen years in Escala, Lesvos. Her physical appearance portrays her commitment to her cause. She looks thin, frail and weathered, but we find this to be an inaccurate portrayal of this strong, courageous and empowered women. She has changed the landscape of the stray dog situation in this part of the island, managing to rehome well over 500 dogs, and neutering thousands over the 17 years that she has been active in Lesvos.
A former writer and designer, Gerbien is in dire straits. She has well over 50 dogs, many of which are at risk of poisoning from locals who don’t approve of Gerbien’s rescue shelter. Her shelter is small and run down, near to other houses and families who complain about the noise. It is easy to access the dogs to throw poisoned meat over the fences, so she is forever anxious. Death from poisoning is one of the most painful and disturbing ways for an animal to die. We need to help her move! Where she is at the moment is ramshackled and unsafe. Only last year Gerbien fell in the dirt and mud, breaking her femur. She was treated in hospital with no anaesthetic but made a quick recovery, due to her dogged determination to continue her life-saving work. (CLICK TO SEE AN INTERVIEW WITH GERBIEN)
We also met Nikki, a shop owner, who regularly feeds stray dogs from her café ‘Hott Spott’ in Mytilene. (Read more about her great work here). She says the economic situation has never been worse – tourism has dropped so significantly that people have lost their homes and businesses – throwing their dogs out to the streets as they cannot afford to keep them. This obviously hasn’t helped the good work that Gerbien has achieved over the years reducing the stray dog population through neutering, as when more dogs are released to the streets the stray population will certainly grow. This is why we need to act now to ensure Gerbien’s good work isn’t undone in the current crisis in Lesvos.
The economic situation has also effected another of our projects, a wonderful lady called Vasillia who co-founded Kivotos, a Greek charity aiming to educate, neuter and rehome. In addition to the charity, Vasillia also had her own business for 15 years, but because of the economic crisis she sadly lost her business and is now unemployed. Not only this but the Greek government have significantly hiked up the tax on property (effectively council tax) to unmanageable amounts, with the threat of prison if people don’t pay. Poor Vasillia is understandably concerned – she has over thirty dogs to feed each day, with more being dropped at her doorstep daily. Just a recently two beautiful puppies were dumped in a village nearby, tied up in a plastic bag. Had she not spotted them so quickly they would have suffocated to death (they are up for adoption – Mr & Mrs Hugsy).
Our last meeting was with a vet, Giasemi Kerentzi, who is paid by the municipality to manage the stray dog population. She receives a small amount of money per year to neuter as many dogs as possible, but it is not enough to address the situation. That topped with the fact that they don’t have a proper clinic to work from, but are tasked with reducing the stray dog population for the entire island with less than 5000€. It just simply isn’t achievable, particularly when the average cost for neutering is €70 per dog – that pays for just 70 dogs per year which is completely insane as it doesn’t scratch the surface of the problem.
We need to help raise funds for Gerbien’s new shelter – she has found some land, safe, secure and free from onlookers, where she can build a clinic dedicated to neutering, kennels for more dogs and accommodation for volunteers.
We need to set up an island-wide neutering campaign that permanently reduces the stray dog population. We will work with various vets across the island, undertake a population survey and set up a strategic programme of neutering clinics.
And of course, we need to continue to help Matt, Claire and Vasillia with their fantastic rescue and rehoming projects.