The Dark Side of Greece

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Cats in Greece
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During the heat of summer, many people head to the cool beaches of Europe. With its 8,500 miles (13,700 km) of coastline, Greece offers numerous sandy and crystal-clear seawater experiences under the scorching sun. This makes the country a top global holiday destination, with nearly three million holidaymakers expected this 2023 season. One-third of these vacationers will be visitors from the United States, as nearly 60 monthly direct flights operated by United Airlines, American Airlines, and Delta Airlines make Greece an easy-to-reach destination.

Linda Sandaklie-Nikolova was one of the many travelers from the U.S. who decided to make Greece a memorable experience. As a biotechnologist majoring in molecular biology, working at the University of Utah, she, like many others, fell in love with Greece’s Mediterranean climate and made it her go-to summer destination several times. However, on her last trip, she was appalled by the sight of colonies of cats on the streets, dozing off in the sun everywhere her eyes could see. “Sick, emaciated, and malnourished cats,” she shared. “The most tragic and sad place for cats was the island of Thassos. I’d never set foot there again.”

As a proud mom of three cats and a dog, and also involved in cat rescue and volunteering for a local cat shelter, Linda is part of a growing number of tourists who find the stray colonies of cats in Greece troubling. This issue is especially concerning for tourists like her who come from countries that monitor pet ownership and licensing, and have laws to impose legal responsibility for neglect or abuse of animals. Recent studies suggest that the stray cat population in Greece will reach over 4 million animals this year. This is, in fact, the dark side of Greece that few want to talk about.

Inhumane farming and slaughtering practices, abuse, neglect, abandonment, and hoarding of animals are problems in many countries around the world. However, the problem in Greece has grown to be out of proportion, with stray cats outnumbering the number of tourists. We have all seen photographs of cats resting on archaeological sites, in side street cafes, or peeking out of someone’s window. This is what the tourist industry marketing wants you to believe. But let’s not be fooled.

First-hand experience 

This summer, I visited the small but quiet touristic village of Nikiti. It is located 100 kilometers southeast of Thessaloniki on the Chalkidiki peninsula in Macedonia, Greece. I was quite excited to have a nice dinner after my first day of arrival. As every tourist’s dream, I decided to take a walk down the street from my hotel to the nearby local taverns and restaurants. Little did I know what I’d see.

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Passing by a few trash containers, I noticed quite a few felines peeking their heads out from inside to see who was passing by. As a cat rescuer, I had a trained eye and noticed many more cats near the containers, in the nearby bushes and shrubs. I forgot about my dinner and ran to the local store to buy whatever cat food I could find. When I went back to the trash containers and started to feed the cats, more and more of them showed up. I was in disbelief at what I was seeing. I saw starving animals of all ages running frantically for food. Many of them were skin and bone, and some were visibly sick. So, my evening walks turned into a futile attempt to feed as many cats as I could. But no matter how much food I bought, it was never enough as more and more cats would run for some scraps or whatever they could get a hold of after a few kerfuffles. This was a losing battle against time. 

During the tourist season, trash containers are constantly replenished with food scraps from many restaurants. As a result, cats residing near such areas are the lucky ones, as they get the chance to enjoy some food, though it may not be sufficient for all dumpster divers. However, the cats that live further away from tourist hotspots have a rough time. Their trash cans are probably not as plentiful, and many of these cats rely on tourists like me to feed them. But all this happens only during the tourist season.

Once the tourists are gone, the restaurants become empty, the trash containers become meager, and now the cats have the hardest time. Without tourists, cats are not valued and are even considered pests. They become prey for hungry stray dogs and other predators, or they get poisoned by people who view them as unwelcome intruders on their property. Even during the harshest days of summer, locals do not leave water for the animals. They might even scold you, despite the fact that being a tourist gives you an advantage in terms of restaurant access.

The Issue at Hand

In Greece, as pets, cats are allowed to roam freely. Spaying and neutering are considered unnatural, so cats are left to multiply without control. However, what people fail to realize is the staggering number of cats that can result from just one unspayed female cat in three years, with an average of four kittens per litter. The number can reach a shocking 72. Even if we assume that half of these cats are female, they can reproduce to nearly 2,600 cats within the average lifespan of three years on the streets. It’s no wonder Greece’s stray cat population is spiraling out of control, as little effort has been made to help curb the situation.

Government Response

After Greece joined the EU 42 years ago in 1981, the country was required to align its animal policies with those of the EU and enforce existing laws. Despite all efforts, in 2007, the European Commission had no other choice but to report the authorities in Greece to the European Court of Justice for their “continuing lack of action for animal welfare.”

The EU Commission stated, “The decision to take this action against Greece follows persistent shortcomings identified in the field of animal welfare over a number of years. The standard of animal welfare in Greece remains below par, and the necessary legislation has not been adequately implemented. Therefore, the commission has no alternative but to refer the case to the Court of Justice.”

Grassroots Efforts

In response to government inaction, many small shelters and welfare groups have emerged in Greece to aid the situation of animal welfare. These efforts are mainly initiated by groups from the UK, Germany, The Netherlands, other places in Europe, and even Canada. They focus on specific locations where they adopt feral cat colonies and implement trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs, providing treatment for sick animals and offering volunteer veterinary care. Local groups also strive to find permanent homes for kittens and tame cats that can be adopted. Feeding stations are established to sustain the cats and provide a means of monitoring their condition and numbers. Some hotels even allow feeding stations to be set up on their grounds. But in Nikitis I did not see any water bowls anywhere despite the hot and dry weather. 

In the end, I cut my vacation short this time as I couldn’t bear to witness the suffering of so many animals. For sure, will not be returning to Greece anytime soon. I reached out to the Ministry of Tourism in Greece for a comment on the situation of stray cats but to no avail.

What Linda and I experienced in Greece is similar to what many animal lovers who visit Greece encounter, making it their last visit. Or until Greece takes real measures to address this welfare crisis.

Follow Ivailo Ang:

Animal rights activist and founder of Jordan&Joy Cat Rescue.

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