Urban Athens: a cultural examination of the differing treatment towards stray dogs and immigrants When I first arrived in Athens one of the first things that struck me was the stray dogs that are everywhere in the city, lounging in the sun in Monastiraki square and at the foot of the acropolis, lying at the side of the road at Syntagma square and playing with each other in Exarchia. Of course the street dog “Loukanikos” is well known internationally but I hadn’t expected so many dogs on the street.
For me and for many others who have travelled from Western Europe/America this was something I had not come across before. In England you hardly ever see a dog off the lead unless it is in a designated dog park, and if a dog is seen wandering the streets on their own they will be taken to the dog pound and kept locked away until somebody comes and claims ownership and responsibility for them, having to pay a fine to take them home. Instead of a programme of accountability, responsibility and specific ownership of the dogs Athens has a programme which strives to care for the strays, they belong not to one person but to the City of Athens.
When I first found out about this I was shocked to say the least. Everyone is aware of Greece’s current economic situation and when I was told by a friend that the dogs are in fact taken care of by the City, the first question I asked was how is this seen as one of the top priorities of a state riddled with debt that it cannot manage, a state that has run out of money to pay teachers and municipal workers and yet finds the funds to care for thousands of dogs.
And in the following weeks the thing that bothered me the most was how a city that has such a humane programme for its stray dogs can have such a callous attitude towards the homeless, the immigrants and the junkies that are so common in certain areas of the city such as Omonia and neighbouring districts. If you take a walk through these parts you will see makeshift houses at the sides of streets or in parks, used needles littering the floor and people huddled around fires trying to keep warm, or helping each other to inject. And yet the city’s reaction to this obvious problem is not to offer a programme of care and support but instead to send the police to move these people on, even though they have nowhere to go.
Why is it that people in Greece see it as more important to care for the population of stray dogs than to spend money on caring for the population of immigrants and homeless people? Upon further investigation into the subject I discovered that the programme for stray dogs includes “collection, documentation, tagging, vaccination, sterilization, parasite control and veterinary care”1, and although there are numerous accounts of this programme being harsh to the dogs, leaving them vulnerable to poisoning which apparently is quite common in certain areas2 from what I could see all the dogs seemed reasonably healthy and very fat – in some cases when I offered them food they refused it.
Also all of the dogs seemed very friendly and calm, sometimes following you for a bit for some company and attention. Apparently this programme was set up due to a checkered history regarding animal shelters, which were exposed to be cruel and inhumane. As a result, almost every municipality in Greece dissolved their dog pounds and fired their dog catchers3. If this is to be the reasoning behind the dissolution of dogs pounds then what is the reasoning for setting up such a generous programme for the dogs today.
The most obvious explanation, and the one cited by city officials is that this programme exists due to the fact that euthanasia is not permitted in Greece. Anna Makri, head of the stray dogs department of Athens has stressed in interviews4 that euthanasia is against Greek culture therefore will not be permitted in regards to dogs. However I feel that this is not a deep enough explanation into the cultural aspects of the stray dog problem. Yes, Modern Greek culture does not permit euthanasia, but neither does British culture, yet this does not prevent dog pounds from putting unclaimed stray dogs to sleep.