After some early morning cross-island travel, we stopped for a pit stop and Coca-Cola in Santorini, Greece. Within minutes, we were surrounded. At least ten cats of all shapes, sizes, and colors swarmed our table looking for some food and love, which we happily supplied. It had been months since we had an animal to look after; the more cats the merrier. But where did they come from?
Greece is famous for its stray cats and dogs. Some have gone on to become social media gold mines, while others sunbathe waiting for the next tourist to play with. They travel in packs or alone and are equipped with more street smarts than most visitors have.
No one really knows exactly where they originated from. One theory has roots in Ancient Greek times. During those years, animals were necessary to survive. They were used for food, protection, transportation, harvesting, etc.; they were vital parts of society.
In the 1960s, it became popular in Greece to have dogs/cats as pets, but, this hadn't been a real concept prior to. Thus, thousands of animals were killed or abandoned once the Greeks realized it was more than just a trend; it was a responsibility. And, because of the previously mentioned innate Greek respect for animals, none were neutered. So those who survived abandonment reproduced.
In 2004, Athens hosted the Olympics. The Committee decided to round up all the stray dogs and transport them to a kennel/farm until the Games ended. This was all well and good until it was discovered 3,000 dogs were poisoned. It's unconfirmed whether the government was responsible, but animal rights groups pounced. Now, Athens rounds up about 10,000 strays every year to be neutered and vaccinated. The plan is to prevent the population from growing and wait for the current population to pass away.
I decided to spend part of my day in Athens on a walking tour of the city. While leaving the Acropolis, we picked up a friend, a stray dog named Gregory. Greg waits everyday for our guide's group to come around, and stumbles along happily panting behind us for the rest of the tour. By the looks of him, it's likely he goes by dozens of names to dozens of tourists, and he's well taken care of because of it.
Most of the strays are healthy, especially during tourist season. Chubby cats can be spotted lazing around the ruins any time of the day, and dogs can be seen playing tag with each other down the street. They've become a sort of communal pet for the city.
Now as lovely as this all is, there's a form of dark irony here that I can't leave unsaid. Greek's economy is so bad, it can't even really be called an economy. To say there are homeless on every block is an understatement. I saw children as younger than 10 struggling to play heavy accordions on the street for money, mothers clutching infants praying for help. Why are they starving while some strays are at the point of obesity? Where's their vaccinations, food, communal love?
After fifteen minutes of playing with our pit stop cat posse, the owner of the snack shack rang a bell and they took off for their daily feeding. In a remarkable act of compassion, she leaves food in the same spot at the same time everyday for the cats of Santorini. Nothing I say can ever undermine what a wonderfully good deed this is. But, we can recognize that maybe the human race needs to raise our good deed standards.