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The BBC's Andrew Burroughs
"The Greek government has discussed the dog problem with the police"
 real 56k

Saturday, 31 March, 2001, 15:26 GMT 16:26 UK
Greek dogs find Olympic hero
Rebeca Papadopoulou and her dogs
Riding to the rescue: Rebeca Papadopoulou and her dogs
By Andrew Burroughs

Rebeca Papadopoulou had no pedigree as a dog fanatic or animal rights activist - but since she returned to her homeland of Greece from Germany, where her parents had run a Greek restaurant, she has surrounded herself with 40 dogs and puppies.

It was her spontaneous reaction to an extraordinary spate of poisonings, in many parts of Greece, of the country's large population of street dogs.

Five puppies had been abandoned in a plastic bag to starve to death

Rebeca Papadopoulou
Now, patrolling the Halkidiki coastline in north-eastern Greece on her beaten-up moped, Rebeca runs a one-woman rescue operation, sheltering stray and unwanted dogs which have survived attempts to kill them by shooting, by running-over in cars, or poisoning. Abandoned puppies left to die of starvation also find a home with her.

She has created a dog sanctuary on the edge of a farm where her animals can run and play and feed, safe from townsfolk with their violent resentment of the motley crew of strays frequently to be seen roaming the streets.

"The worst incident was when I was walking by the sea and I heard the sound of puppies crying from inside a rubbish bin," Rebeca says.

"Five puppies, so young their eyes were still closed, had been abandoned there in a plastic bag to starve to death."

The bodies of poisoned dogs are left by the roadside
In a recent incident, filmed by local television, five dogs were found by the roadside one morning with unmistakeable signs of death by poisoning - the poison left out at the stray dogs' favourite haunts.

Local vet Costas Vanheers says the most common poisons used are rat poison and weedkiller.

"Some take a week to die," says Costas, who is shocked at the treatment of dogs in Greece, after working in France, Belgium and Holland.

Local vet Costas Vanheers
Costas Vanheers: Most killers use rat poison or weedkiller
"Many people who've worked for the local authorities here tell me they were ordered to put out poison, to clear the streets before the tourist season.

There even used to be official announcements warning pet owners to keep their dogs in. Now, of course, it's illegal but the evidence of my surgery is that the practice is continuing."

The local authorities deny involvement in the poisonings, pointing out that the killing of dogs is against Greek and European law.

But animal rights groups protested when a recent newspaper article revealed something of official attitudes to stray dogs. Elestherotipia reported that the deputy mayor of Naflion, George Iannakkos, had written to the Agriculture Ministry for permission, with the help of vets, to kill stray dogs, using humane methods.

George Iannakkos
George Iannakkos: Wanted permission to kill dogs
Mr Iannakkos said later: "I wanted to test the dogs for disease and ask the vets if they should be killed or not. But the vets said they couldn't authorise killings. That's why I wrote to the government for guidance."

The Greek Government is aware that strays are a national problem, one they are determined to tackle in the run up to the 2004 Olympics, when modern Greece will be on show to the world as never before.

Poisonings of street dogs in Athens last year brought highly unwelcome publicity, as animal-loving Greek celebrities made television appeals for a halt to the cruelty.

Journalist Panagiotis Diamandis says there have been high-level meetings between the Health Ministry, the Greek police and the Athens city authorities to discuss the dogs crisis.

Sterilisation has terrible associations in Greece - of the Nazis sterilising Jews, which is an abomination, and of the Ottoman occupiers who castrated young men to be eunuchs

Professor George Moustakis
"I'm confident there will be a humane solution, the building of dog homes," he says. "Animal rights groups in Greece are very strong now and will be sure to protest loudly if anyone proposes killing the dogs."

Dog homes may be an expensive temporary solution, but the root problem is a national reluctance to neuter animals.

Pet owners feel dogs have been denied a proper life they don't breed, but are then are unable to cope with the resulting puppies.

Rebeca Papadopoulou
Rebeca Papadopoulou: Shocked at the treatment of stray dogs
"Sterilisation has terrible associations in Greece - of the Nazis sterilising Jews, which is an abomination, and of the Ottoman occupiers who castrated young men to be eunuchs," says Professor George Moustakis of the Orthodox Church explains.

"We feel the same with our dogs - it's against nature, a denial of life."

The controversy over the treatment of today's dogs comes as more has been uncovered of the veneration of dogs in Ancient Greece.

The Athens Museum of Cycladic Art is displaying the recently-excavated grave -skeleton intact - of a third century dog, buried with full honours, perfume and a bronze-studded collar.

And Greek dog lovers point out that in Homer's Odyssey, when a bedraggled Odysseus returns from his wanderings, it is his faithful dog Argus, alone, who recognises his master.

Andrew Burroughs' feature will be broadcast on the BBC's monthly Europe Direct programme, on Saturday 30 March, on BBC World at 0530GMT and 2230GMT; and on BBC News 24 at 1130GMT.

The programme can also be seen on Sunday 31 March on BBC World at 1130 and 1830GMT; and on BBC News 24 at 1330GMT and 2330 GMT.

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See also:

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Scotland 'worst' for strays
24 Aug 99 | Northern Ireland
It's a dog's life in Northern Ireland
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