The island of Lesvos (or Lesbos) has been in the headlines for its humanitarian crisis caused by the mass arrival of families fleeing the violence in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. Although their numbers vary from week to week, at any point thousands of migrants live on the island in ill-equipped, overcrowded camps, waiting for a boat to Athens. Less known is that in the backdrop of this human tragedy, thousands of non-human animals suffer without the ability to ask for help, many facing dire conditions: abandonment, a life of isolation tied to a chain, hunger, beatings, hit-and-runs and murder by poison or shotgun. This Greek island may be short on supplies and facilities necessary to address both the human and the animal situations, but it‘s certainly not short on kind individuals making a difference. We meet the animal advocates who give a voice to the island strays.
The current situation—difficult but not impossible
In 2015 alone, Lesvos, with an indigenous population of only about 90,000, saw the arrival of over 186,000 refugees from the Middle East. The humanitarian crisis has moved people all over the world to help in whatever way they can. Among them, actress/activist Susan Sarandon, who has temporarily relocated to the island.
It’s much harder to estimate the nonhuman at-risk population of Lesvos. According to animal population specialists, they number in the thousands, though it’s impossible to know whether the number is closer to 5,000 or 10,000. Many are abandoned in the trash or in deserted places, some even buried alive. The majority are not, by definition, strays, born in the wild, but animals who were disposed of as garbage. “Barrel dogs”—chaining a guard dog to a barrel in a remote area where sheep or goats are herded—are an age-old cruelty particular to the Aegean islands. These dogs, who suffer from isolation, lack of exercise, food, water and protection from extreme heat and cold, live only 18 months on average.
And these human and animal tragedies often intersect: The Lesvos animal advocates we spoke to say that many of their volunteers care for humans as much as they care for animals. Most are helping the refugees to the best of their abilities, including providing clothes, food, transportation and medical assistance. Their advice to tourists visiting Lesvos and interested in helping: For the refugees, bring as many giveaway clothes as you can carry. Once on the island, if you can afford it, buy baby diapers, small bottles of water and formula. For the strays: Donate to local rescue organizations or volunteer your time. If you see animals in distress, contact a local veterinarian, who will know how to get in touch with the proper care facility.
This article, divided into two parts, looks at some of the advocates who give a voice to the voiceless in Lesvos. Click on the links below to access each section.
- First, we’ll introduce you to a Greek university professor who dedicates most of his free time to improving the lives of animals. Iosif Botetzagias belongs to two Greek animal welfare organizations: Kivotos, Mytilene, a local group, and PFPO, a national umbrella federation. We asked him about his endeavors, the stray issue, island culture, the economic situation and his collaboration with Dutch organization Canilos.
- Then we’ll meet Dutch, German and British nationals who came to the island as tourists and decided to make a difference. They’ve either created associations in their home countries to help with the adoption of Greek strays, or actually dropped everything to move to the island and dedicate their entire life to saving animals. Two important names on Lesvos are the Atlas Animal Project (we spoke with representative Astrid Hartman) and Eresos for Animals (we spoke with vice-president Anja Hagemann).
They’ve all proven we don’t need endless funds or the perfect solution to begin acting for animals. There’s no ideal time to get started, and conditions are never ideal. We realize a vegetarian, let alone vegan, message might be lost on most islanders and probably reduce the little receptivity that exists to animal welfare issues. How can you teach empathy for farmed animals to those who have not yet learned to apply it to companion animals? Bottom line: These advocates dedicate considerable time and energy to save hundreds of animal lives every year. We believe their efforts to spread the truth that nonhuman animals are sentient beings are paving the way for an empathetic wave that could lead to a veg future.