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Moving to Crete: Something to Consider

April 19, 2007

You can’t know everything, and you can’t ask the right questions until you know everything. One of the subjects often discussed but never settled regarding both Greece in general and Crete specifically is animal welfare.

Coming from the U.S.A. or the UK it is difficult to imagine how the general state of animal welfare on Crete will affect your daily life. In our home countries, it is not only illegal but also socially unacceptable (a more powerful tool in many respects) to abuse or neglect an animal. In Greece, it is illegal but socially acceptable.

How will this affect people moving to live in Greece or Crete? I offer two illustrations of the Cretan attitude towards pets.

It had been raining non-stop for two days when my landlord’s sister came over to investigate some leaks. Her eyes zoomed in on the dog’s food dish in the corner and her lip curled in disgust. “You feed your dog inside?!!” I’m not sure if it was a question or a statement. Clearly, she felt that despite the sheets of rain, no sanitary person would allow a dog to eat inside their home.

I feel compelled to point out something for perspective. In Crete, toilet paper cannot be flushed. Used toilet paper is put into a basket. Hello! – raw sewage sitting in your house and then placed into the dumpsters (skips or rollybins for the Brits reading.) If it isn’t dragged or blown out of the dumpster it will be carted off to sit in a landfill and filter into the water table. Now, that‘s unsanitary. Eating food under a roof – not dirty.

Our neighbor’s perception that dogs are inherently dirty or unhygienic is not unusual on Crete – it is the rule rather than the exception. I had a British friend who, by all accounts, had too many dogs. When she fell ill with what turned out to be severe depression, the general consensus in the village was that she’d picked up something from her (inoculated, clean, and parasite-free) dogs. There was some serious conjecture that she might have swallowed a dog hair. Heads shook all around as everyone agreed that it was only a matter of time because she was living with those dogs.

Those two stories illustrate somewhat how you and your pet will be treated when living in Crete. But the problem is much more serious and problematic when one considers how many Cretans treat their own animals. Starving, beating, tethering dogs ON the road or alone in the middle of an olive grove is common. Some hounds are tied to trees with only a goat’s skin thrown to them once a week. Puppies are found in dumpsters regularly. You cannot drive 5 kilometers on the national highway without seeing at least one dead dog or cat. There is no governmental agency which takes care of these bodies so they simply go through the entire cycle of decay in the open. And then there is the regular laying of poison to kill strays (and sadly, well-kept animals unfortunate enough to lick or eat the poisoned food.)

Such treatment is illegal but accepted in Crete, and the reason is two fold. First, most people just don’t consider the ill-treatment of animals to be a moral issue. Second, and more nefarious, there is a real danger of revenge should someone intervene and fail to remain anonymous. Until you’ve lived in a tiny village, you can’t imagine how difficult anonymity can be. One friend rescued two tethered, starving hounds only to find 4 Cretan men on her doorstep the next day with guns demanding their dogs’ return. That they were breaking the law in their neglect of the animals counted for nothing.

Another time, we came upon a dog whose back had been broken when she was hit by a car. The dog’s owner simply let it drag itself around by it’s front legs, resulting in open sores. A neighbor told us that the animal had been injured at least two weeks prior but refused to help because the male owner was very mean and threatening. When we asked if they planned to do anything for this dog, the female owner simply shrugged as if it wasn’t her responsibility. Thankfully, that episode ended well – we asked to take the dog and they gave us permission.

The potential expat who lightly says that even if the neighbor is mean or vengeful, they will do the right thing has never lived in fear that their neighbor, if crossed, may well take revenge. A successful, happy expat in Crete will have to find some way to come to terms with the widespread abuse. And there’s something else.

When calls are made to enforce anti-cruelty laws or to attempt to institute widespread change among the Cretans; they are not just met with blank stares from the Cretans. Fellow expats will often come to their aid, usually saying that you have no right to come to another country and demand that they change to suit you. True, perhaps, if you are demanding that they not play their music so loud at the wedding or that the husbands help with the housekeeping. But would they say the same if they were living in a place where female circumcision was the norm? Maybe they would. Those people suck, and they seem to be compelled to move to Crete and work very hard for the prevention of the prevention of cruelty to animals.

Lastly, as regards this issue, anyone moving to Crete will have to know how they will handle the issue of animal rescue. There are some who have houses full of animals and who spend the greatest majority of their time and money housing strays. Others volunteer at privately run and funded shelters. The most disheartening thing about all this is that there are still thousands of animals who need rescue. Many thousands. A soft-hearted expat looking for a place in the sun who moves to Crete may end up unhappy; devoting themselves completely to the hopeless and thankless task of rescuing what animals they can – and it’s never, ever even close to enough.

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