New Mexico's Pet Resource WINTER 2002


A Greek Tragedy:
The Plight of the Cycladic Cats
and Other Reflections on Life in Greece

By Derek Bousé, Ph.D.

  I. Deserts East and West

“That could be Greece,” my friend Paul said, casually sweeping his hand across the view out of the car windows. We were a few miles outside of Albuquerque, taking a roundabout way up to Santa Fe. I looked harder at the rocky hills and sparse, dry vegetation, trying imagine myself in the Mediterranean, and even pretending I might see its blue expanse coming into view around the next bend.

At last it did – three years later while driving the length of the Greek mainland, from Athens up to Thessaloniki, and then out to the Chalkidiki peninsulas. The brilliant blue of the Aegean came into view around the next bend, and the next, and the next, until it stretched out endlessly over the low, rocky hills. Paul had been right; the landscapes of Greece and New Mexico are indeed similar – and, as I came to realise, so were many aspects of life.

Santorini feral dog

This became especially clear to me three years after that, while visiting the Cyclades, a chain of islands far to the south of the Greek mainland. The Cyclades include Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Delos, Andros, Tinos, Syros, Santorini, and several other dry, rocky desert islands, any of which might make a New Mexico dweller feel oddly at home. I was with my companion and filmmaking partner Wiltraud, who, though Austrian, has also travelled the American Southwest extensively. On this trip, however, it was far from our minds.

Then one evening I suddenly found myself sweeping my hand across the scene, much as Paul had done years earlier, and remarking, “this could be New Mexico.” It wasn’t the landscape that evoked the comparison this time, however, but the large, walled-in garden of a restaurant where we sat in a quiet corner of Mykonos. The terra-cotta floor tiles and the cacti growing out of large ceramic pots all had a familiar Southwestern feel, but it was really the architecture of the walls and the building that gave me the strongest feeling of New Mexico. If painted adobe colour instead of Greek white, the place could have passed for a Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe – except for the preponderance of seafood on the menu and the bazouki music coming from indoors.

Snooze with a view

The Greeks, like the early residents of the Southwest, developed their styles of architecture and living in part as a response to a hot, dry climate. The word “siesta” isn’t really used, but its unwritten rules are in effect. If things don’t actually shut down, they at least slow down during mid-afternoon. Many here wisely retreat from the heat of the day, taking refuge behind thick walls and closed shudders that keep the sun and heat out. On Santorini long ago, the residents began digging into steep hillsides, creating deep, cave-like dwellings that took advantage of the natural coolness inside the mountain. Today, many of these have been converted into luxury hotel rooms, but the basic architecture survives. The early Native Americans built similar dwellings on equally precarious cliff-sides in what is now Bandelier National Park, as well as in several other locations in the Southwest. Anyone familiar with those places might well feel a mild sense dejá vu on Santorini.

Water has always been a problem in both of these parts of the world. The Cyclades are exceedingly dry, and in the summer of 2001 were suffering a fresh water shortage that had become acute. We were told there had only been one day of rain during the previous season. The landscape looked it. It seemed as if a great brown paper bag had been crumpled up and then spread back out unevenly. It stood in stark contrast to the blue of the sea always visible out of one eye or the other. In the Desert Southwest, the early residents dealt with the water problem in a number of ways. At New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, the residents of Pueblo Bonito made ingenious use of containment pools – some natural, some constructed – that trapped and held rainwater in the rocks above. This technique is still in use in the Cyclades, where many Greeks still rely on stored rainwater. Even the affluent on Santorini build traditional, rounded roofs on their houses to channel rainwater into large cisterns down where you might expect to find a cellar. We pulled open a wooden trap-door and looked in. I could see my reflection. And it is with this stored water that the people who live there will shower and wash dishes and do laundry all year. If it runs out, it will have to be filled from a tank truck, which will haul it up at great expense from god-knows-where. Drinking water, however, comes from a source the Chacoans never knew, and that could well be the very symbol of the contemporary Cyclades: the ubiquitous plastic bottle. They are everywhere – millions of them. They arrive packed onto wooden palettes stacked on trucks that come out on the ferries, one after the other, all day, every day. Everyone here, tourist and local alike, depends utterly on the contents of these plastic bottles.

Derek with street kitten

What becomes of them after they’re emptied? Are they recycled to make nice plastic park benches or other durable goods? Don’t count on it. Here on the islands, they’re trucked to the dump and burned along with all the other rubbish. What becomes of the toxins sent high into the air in the plumes of smoke? Why, the Mediterranean winds will take care of that, we were told. It’s an ancient solution to a modern problem, called out of sight, out of mind.

Smoke announces the location of the dump on like a grand-opening searchlight. Perpetually smouldering, it is a different sort of ‘eternal flame’ from the one will be celebrated in 2004 when the Olympics come to Athens. Yet the two flames have a concrete, if unfortunate connection. For although some will say of the Olympic torch that it stands for some of humanity’s highest ambitions and noblest aims (crass commercialism and rampant IOC corruption notwithstanding), what the Olympics will mean for Greece in practical terms is a sudden influx of a million or more hot, thirsty tourists, each one disposing of one, two, three, perhaps four plastic water bottles each day. Many of these could ultimately be sent into the winds.

Sadly, the Greek islands (as well as much of the mainland) seem many years behind Europe in disposing of waste, controlling pollution, and conserving energy. Don’t expect, for example, to see anyone commuting by bicycle, as you might see throughout much of the rest of Europe. Greeks love their cars every bit as much as Americans do. Low-cost alternatives to cars include only motorcycles and motorbikes, which are either exempt from, or in perpetual violation of, any conceivable pollution regulations. These machines are also ubiquitous. Even when you can’t see them, you will probably still hear them. In some areas of the Cyclades, the cost of a hotel room seems calculated in inverse proportion to the amount of road noise – mainly from motorcycles – disturbing one’s sleep at night.

Spots on spots

Yet we hadn’t come here in July of 2001 to compare cultures, or architecture, or to sample the cuisine, or to measure decibels, or to inspect the dumps. We’d come toting our filming gear – cameras, lenses, batteries, tripods – and a long list of people to see and places to check out. Our goal was to make contact with, and then film the social behaviors of, members of a population of Greeks who are descended from some of the first travellers to visit these islands thousands of years ago. Today, they cling to existence at the lowest level of Greek society, where they are either barely seen, or more often simply ignored. No, not the Gypsies. Even lower. These Greeks have been relegated to abandoned buildings and forgotten corners, accepting handouts from passersby and often begging at outdoor cafés along the waterfronts. We found them easily enough; sometimes they even found us. And in the end, one came home to dinner.


II. How the Other Half (Barely) Lives

At the Mykonos airport, hotel owners gather at the door to snag customers and hustle them off to waiting vans. They bring brochures and photographs so you can shop for a room right there. It feels at first like real hustle, or a trap, but it’s actually a fairly reliable and efficient way to find a decent room at a reasonable price. The expensive hotels, of course, don’t stoop to this. With their swimming pools and wet bars with waiters in white shirts and black vests, they cater to the international suntan crowd, ever in search of the perfect malignant melanoma. Most are actually of modest means, but for these few days they will imagine themselves members of a leisure-class that, they believe, has banished all physical effort, and has all its needs met by servants.

Meanwhile, back on earth, the shouting at the airport had subsided, and we simply went with the lowest price put in front of us – at a place called the Hotel Gallini. A short ride later I stepped into an immaculately clean little room. A small refrigerator stood in the corner, doubling as a nightstand next to the bed. It had an ice-cube tray. Visions of gin-and-tonics danced in my head as I crossed the room, opened the double doors, and stepped out onto the balcony to take in the view.

Mykonos ferals

Then I beheld what the brochure didn’t show: the vacant lot just across the way, overgrown with dried, dead weeds, and littered with garbage, all leading up to the crumbling remains of some old buildings. Disappointment lasted only seconds, however, for we had hit the jackpot: there, in every shaded corner of this informal dump, sleeping away the midday heat, were the forgotten Greeks we’d come all this way to see, and whom we hoped to film: the feral cats.

They are, in a way, among the most ancient of Greeks. The came to the islands thousands of years ago with the ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians, who brought them on their ships to kill the rats that infested the stores of food. Inevitably, some of the cats went ashore and began multiplying. Very quickly, these descendants of Felis sylvestris lybica, the African wildcat, spread to most of the Mediterranean – arguably even before some of its great civilisations had begun. By the time Shakespeare penned "The Merchant of Venice", cats had been in the region for thousands of years, and were an established fixture in nearly all towns and villages. Thus, even Shylock notes that they are “necessary” – alluding not only to their role as scavengers, but to their skill as hunters. For it was found that when cats were killed in large numbers, the resulting rise in rat populations spread disease, even plague.

Cat vs. rat

We had not actually come to this land of history and beauty on a real film shoot. No project had yet been okayed, no contracts signed, no money committed. We were here on a “reccy” as they say – an industry term for a reconnaissance trip. That is, we’d come investigate the possibilities of a film, to see if there was enough going on from which a complete film could be made, and to scout locations for it before we pitched the idea to a commissioning producer. But we also intended to shoot some footage we hoped might help convince investors to commit funds to the project, and that might later be useable if we did get it commissioned. Even the wildlife and natural history film business is a business – it is ultimately all about money. For a filmmaker or producer with an idea for a film, this means finding the money. For those without a real track record, it can mean begging for money.

For now, however, we simply needed answers to some questions before we committed ourselves further to the project at all. We knew there were feral cats on the islands, but would we find any living in an actual colony, with a discernible social organisation and filmable social interactions? Could we get close enough to film them? Or would the cats be mostly nocturnal, and spend the good filming light of the day doing nothing? We had been in Mykonos less than an hour, but the indications were already favourable.

Santorini farm cats

We were told that they would be up and moving when the air cooled in the late afternoon. For now, the heat of the day was our time to talk to people and schedule appointments. In the shade outside a café on one of the island’s narrow, picturesque walkways, we sat down with Melanie Nebel, the first of several transplanted Germans we were to meet. Her day job is in a travel agency, but her passion is the island’s stray cats. She and a small handful of activist colleagues spend the off-seasons trapping the cats and getting them spayed, often at their own expense, in an attempt to bring down their numbers. These expenses are augmented a bit by donations left in boxes at various local businesses, but it doesn’t amount to much. Of the many hundreds of cats on Mykonos alone, they manage to get only 50 or 60 spayed each year.

Melanie told us that unlike most places where kittens are born mainly in spring, here they can be born any time between March and September, with some females even producing two litters. Naturally, those born late in the year have little chance of surviving the winter. It was early July now, and for the rest of our trip we looked at every pregnant female with a sense of foreboding.

Dead kitten in Oeia . . .

and his mother

Back at our balcony overlook the shadows had begun to lengthen, and the air was cooling – if only slightly. Sure enough, the cats began to stir. One by one, they were up and moving. Cats of all sizes, and colors began stretching, greeting each other, and walking along the barely perceptible trails. We set up the tripod, laughing gleefully at our good fortune. All that evening, the next morning, and for several more days, in fact, we watched, studied, and filmed, sometimes moving our camera down closer to get different angles or to take advantage of different light.

Filming a feral

The cats did indeed seem to be a functioning colony. At its center was a mother with five kittens. Beyond that core lay a whole range of different adults – bold ones and shy ones, friendly and aloof. Over the days we got to know them all, and, inevitably, had our favourites. In particular was a young female we called “Skinny,” who, we later discovered, kept her own litter of younger, smaller kittens hidden away within the walls of hotel complex a few meters up the hill. As such, Skinny was only marginally a member of the colony. When food was present and the colony gathered, she was right there among them. Yet we noticed that sometimes even the kittens swatted her and ran her off. Even at their age they seemed aware of differences in social status. Some afternoons I saw Skinny lying atop a wall across the way looking out over the colony, as if yearning to be among its members but keeping her distance nevertheless. With us she was always friendly and outgoing. We grew to love Skinny, and we still think about her.

Skinny & kittens

Yet as different as they all were in size, coloration, and temperment, they all undeniably had one thing in common: hunger. I had expected on the first day to relax with a cool drink on the balcony while Wiltraud ran the camera, but instead found myself running to the nearby “super-market” (a “mini-market” by American standards) for cans of cat food. It was the beginning of an informal feeding program that would last throughout our weeks in the islands. It hardly seemed inappropriate; these cats, after all, lived off such handouts.

Feeding frenzy

After a week we said goodbye to the colony, and left Mykonos behind. We would be back to catch our return flight, however, and made arrangements to get the same room then for one more night. We looked forward to seeing Skinny again, and to seeing how her kittens were doing.

The island of Paros is only 45 minutes away if you take the high-speed boat. Nearly all boats stop at the port there, at a bustling little city called Parakia. We had arranged to stay a few miles away at a place called “Sakis Rooms,” which sits on a hill overlooking a bay at the village of Noussa. We were greeted at the port in Parakia by Sakis himself, who greatly resembled actor Bob Hoskins, and later at the hotel by his wife, a poised and cultured young German woman named Martina.

We had learned of Martina earlier from her contributions to an internet newsgroup devoted to cats, and from a website she had put up ( that had been the first stop in my research some months back. We were eager to sit down and speak with her about the cat situation on Paros, although she rarely seemed to have a break in keeping the hotel running. Yet in spite of the heat and toil she somehow managed always to look freshly showered.

Paros hide 'n seek

At last we sat down in the breezy shade of the hotel, with three or four of Martina’s cats lying in the shade nearby. Speaking in perfect, British-accented English, she articulated with bullet-point clarity the problems facing the island’s cats, as well as those facing the people there who try to help them. It was a faintly depressing picture: hunger, disease, overpopulation, lack of veterinary care, retrograde attitudes among the locals. . . Having heard similar reports from Melanie on Mykonos, the individual elements were becoming familiar, but the implications were beginning to appear more complex.

It seems, for example, that a local volunteer group called the Paros Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) had been bringing in veterinarians from other countries who had agreed to volunteer their time and skills in a PAWS-sponsored mass-spay-and-release program. The idea was to spay and neuter all the cats possible in an attempt to check their population growth, and perhaps begin its decline. All work was done by volunteers, and the spaying surgeries were performed pro bono. Since nobody owned the stray cats, nobody had really been willing to take them to the local vet and pay the $75usd to have each one spayed. The free clinic seemed the only answer. Yet the island’s local vet nevertheless saw the potential for lost revenues, and obtained a court order putting an end to the spaying clinics, and with them any immediate hope of controlling the stray cat population on Paros.

Martina went on to address the question of whether or not tourists should feed the stray cats. On her website she had advocated feeding, and we had certainly been doing so. For although we had come to film the “natural behaviour” of the cats, at the same time we were simply unwilling to stand by as passive witnesses to hunger.

Imerovigli kibble nibblers

That, however, is a common posture among wildlife filmmakers, and is typically described or defended as “not interfering in the course of nature,” or, worse, “not upsetting the “balance of nature.” To what this refers, exactly, is never quite clear – the health and well being of a population? Of a species? Perhaps of an entire ecosystem? Although it implies some precarious evolutionary balance, it seems a bit self-important to suggest that a single act by the filmmaker could change the course of evolution (that is, if evolution followed some prescribed course to begin with).

Ultimately, these arguments are used mainly to enhance the filmmakers’ own position: our actions here, and our role vis-a-vis this species, could be pivotal in determining its future – which is another way of saying our work is important, or just we are important. Perhaps everyone needs to believe this, but the level of self-deception varies, and in this business it often seems especially high. Ultimately, the “non-intervention” pose is little more than a means for rationalising self-interest. After all, wildlife filmmakers routinely interfere in the lives of their animal subjects in a hundred ways, and often do so quite intentionally and invasively in order to get the shots they want. In the past, filmmakers often harassed herds of grazing animals from helicopters, then filmed them in slow-motion as they ran in terror. “What graceful creatures,” the narrator would remark. Still today, a common practice is hacking away part of a den or nest in order to film the young inside. Routine shots of animals looking into the camera, or approaching it, are usually achieved by disturbing or provoking it. Yet all of this is seen as “necessary” interference, defended “serving a higher purpose” because it “educates” the public and “motivates them to care,” and so forth – none of which is supported by the slightest bit of concrete evidence. The widespread notion among wildlife filmmakers that their work is helping “save nature” remains wishful thinking of the highest order.

I'm ready for my close-up, Ms. DeMille!

At the same time, they continue righteously defending in-action when it serves their purposes by claiming a moral or ethical responsibility to remain uninvolved. They have thus succeeded for decades in having it both ways – claiming non-involvement, while all the while being involved. Wildlife films are not “documentaries,” by any means, but the claim to “fly-on-the-wall” objectivity is employed in both genres, and always, it seems, with more than a bit of self-deception.

In practice, “not interfering in the course of nature” usually means suspending compassion in order to get a good shot. No shots, no pay, after all. Yet acclaim from peers may be just as powerful an incentive as money. “Great work, old boy! Nice shots! Well done! Care for a gin and tonic?”

In the case of feral cats, however, even the best of these threadbare arguments simply won’t work. The very existence of cats here in Greece – which were purposefully bred from African wildcats – marks a major historical interference in nature in the first place. These cats (or, at least, their ancestors) were created to suit human needs and desires, and today are simply not able to “return to the wild” any easier than modern, inner-city blacks can “go back to Africa,” as racists used to shout, and take up tribal life there. Neither scenario can be understood as a “return” to something familiar, or as a “resumption” of a previous way of life. The connection of both to their ancestors was largely broken by our ancestors. Yet the fact that we have retained the connections to ours is what makes us, at least to some extent, responsible for their actions. To think that these cats can simply move up into the hills and live by their hunting skills alone is to deny countless generations of deliberate efforts to breed out of them the very wildness that would allow them to do this. Breeding is eugenics, after all, not natural selection. Now they must live – or try to live – with the consequences of our ancestors’ actions. There seems little moral justification for not helping them to do this.

Mykonos botanist

Still, I hardly felt like a moral exemplar or heroic bringer-of-life as I stood there with a can of cat food in each hand. I could neither save their lives, nor right some great historical wrong. I could only provide a few meals. In a week I’d be gone, but the problem wouldn’t. The old women who lived nearby would continue setting out their bones and bread crusts for the cats, but it would never be enough.

The champion cat feeder on the islands was Vivienne _______, an Australian who had married a local Greek man, as Martina had, and decided to stay on (it seems to be a widespread phenomenon). Vivienne can only be described as a ball of fire. The evening we met her, she arrived on a rented motorbike, dressed and made-up as if for dinner, her full head of curly blonde hair blowing freely behind her. To complete the ensemble, her four-year-old son Jody sat hanging-on crookedly behind her, wearing an oversized helmet. Thus outfitted, she buzzed from one location to the next, a sack of cat food cans between her feet.

Hellas angel?

“Puss-puss-puss-puss!,” she called musically at each stop, while banging the empty cans on the rocks. Sometimes little Jody handled the percussion while she called. The cats come running furiously, sometimes just at the sight of Vivienne rounding the bend. There was often a pecking order among them, and we helped make sure that even the lowest got their share. Vivienne knew them all, and could point to each one that had been “done” (spayed), and each that she still intended to “do.” Having broken-off from PAWS, she had been working on her own. She had even learned several minor medical procedures, and had, in the past, carried a medical bag full of syringes, needles, medicines, and so forth. She was a one-woman humane society, often financed mainly by her waitressing tips. Some in PAWS seemed to regard her as a bit of a loose cannon. The way she saw it, she was getting things done while the others dragged their feet. Few, however, could have kept up with her, or matched her energy.

We tried one night. On our own rented motorbike, still bruised and bloodied from an accident the day before, we struggled to keep up as she led us on a merry chase from one feeding location to the next. Vivienne didn’t just put out food; she persuaded others to put out food, to leave water, to adopt cats, to pay for spayings, to take up the cause. . . She was an irresistible force.

One night we tried to emulate her routine on our own. “Puss-puss-puss-puss!” I shouted in my best Tiny Tim falsetto. We had few takers. Clearly, these cats were conditioned on Vivienne and wouldn’t trust an impostor – even a well meaning one. “Puss-puss-puss-puss!,” I cried over and over. They weren’t fooled. It wasn’t this, however, that soon caused me to rethink the whole practice of feeding.

On Santorini we met another German woman named Barbara Zaehnler-Angelopoulos, who gave a different view of the feeding issue. Like Martina and Vivienne, Barbara had married a local Greek and taken up residence there. Barbara too had become an activist on behalf of the cats, and spent a good deal of time educating us about their plight. She had great compassion, and had rescued many cats from cruel fates – and cruel treatment. But she didn’t put out food. She suggested, tactfully, that when tourists like us put out food, it only served to keep the unhealthy cats alive longer. This, in turn, prolonged their ability to compete with the strong and healthy for what little would be available when the tourists suddenly stopped coming at the end of September. In the face of sudden, mass starvation, even those more likely to survive the winter would now be more stressed and weakened in their attempt to prepare for it. Thus, even assuming that the weak would not make through the winter, we might actually reducing the chances of the others also.

Mykonos kool kat

It was a complex argument, which I viewed as a variation on the “lifeboat” scenario famously outlined by Garrett Hardin in his essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968), and also dramatically illustrated in the emotionally wrenching 1957 film Abandon Ship! (based on a true story). The moral dilemma arises from a situation in which there is a finite quantity of resources, and too many in need. Either everybody gets a share, and resources run out sooner, or some – the sick and already dying – receive none so that those most likely to survive anyway will have a better chance of doing so.

Such an imperative demands, however, that one’s personal notions of fairness and compassion be set aside, and this is not easy to do. At least, it wasn’t for us. We reasoned that on our own we could do little to endanger the future of the healthy cats. Yet when our actions were multiplied by the number of other well meaning tourists who also put out food during summer, the effect was worth considering. We did consider it, and decided that for now it was only a theoretical scenario, and that as human beings we could simply not stand by as do-nothing witnesses to hunger. And anyway, I did not accept that there was a finite amount of food in this situation, as there was in the “lifeboat” analogy. It seemed to me that the problem may also have been one of distribution and/or quality of food. So we distributed the highest quality food we could – knowing, however, that it was not the solution.

In classical economic terms, the problem of too much hunger chasing too little food might be described as too much demand and not enough supply. The implication, of course, is that the supply should be increased. But the solution on the islands is really not to increase the food supply, despite our efforts to the contrary. The real solution is to decrease the overall demand (i.e. hunger) by decreasing the number of cats experiencing it. Yet unlike the Abandon Ship scenario, this does not mean ending some lives in order to prolong others. Instead, demand can be decreased here over the long run by seeing to it that fewer cats are born each year.

Ear cancer patient after surgery

With this, we arrive back at the topic of spaying – widespread and systematic spaying – which is still viewed by people who study the problem as the only effective long-term solution to controlling stray cat numbers (provided enough money can be raised to pay local vets the going rate to do them). The goal is not to prevent all births, but merely to bring down their number so that there is less stress on the living. And anyway there will always be cats simply because no spaying program, however aggressive, can ever hope to “do” all of the cats on the islands. Systematic spaying is not a veiled program of eradication, but a way of having fewer in the lifeboat without having to cast any adrift.

Nevertheless, there is deeply entrenched resistance among the local public at large to spaying.

First, in order to spay the cats, they must be trapped. The volunteers who do this are seen often seen as “outsiders” coming in to trap, take away, and mutilate “our” cats. Here is where the curious local notions of ownership and responsibility come into play, and where their profound contradictions are revealed. When one of the local women puts out leftover food for a group of cats, she often begins to consider those cats to be, in a sense, “hers” – but only up to a point. Should the cats need veterinary care, for example, they are no longer hers, but instead only “wild animals” who live in a state of nature and must fend for themselves. Thus, the claim to ownership is strong enough that trapping-and-spaying teams must ask for permission (which they do not always get), yet not so strong as to produce any sense of obligation or responsibility for the cats’ health or well being. And it certainly doesn’t entail feeding them proper cat food or being conscious of their dietary needs.

Oeia cat on the edge

Yet resistance to spaying runs deeper than this. Even those who are indifferent to the plight of the cats will draw a line at spaying, regarding it as an unwarranted invasion of an individual’s body, an assault on his or her “freedom of choice” that robs them of their ability to enjoy “sexual pleasure” and the supposed “joy of having babies.” These are my terms, of course, but as the sentiments are so old, so endlessly invoked, and so naively anthropomorphic, I feel justified in using familiar clichés to summarise the mood here.

Simply put, the feeling on the islands is that death from malnutrition, disease, and starvation is acceptable because it is “natural.” It involves no active intervention by humans, so it must therefore be “nature’s way” or “God’s will,” or what have you. By this logic, any active effort by humans to forestall such suffering constitutes an “intervention,” and with the sole exception of feeding, all intervention, especially surgical intervention, and ESPECIALLY INVOLVING CASTRATION OF MALES, is seen as unnatural and barbaric. The discomfort expressed in relation to male castration was visibly greater than concern over female spaying, making it difficult not to see the situation through a Freudian lens of “castration anxiety.” “Do they ask to have their balls cut off?” This is the standard rhetorical question thought to be so powerful as to silence debate.

“Do their offspring ask to live the lives of disease and hunger to which you condemn them?” This was my ill-formed retort, but I never really got a chance to use it. There was no point in arguing – especially in pidgin-Greek. Despite my convictions, and what I thought was superior information, I came to feel in such matters like an arrogant outsider, an ugly American.

Hungry orphan

Still, it remains true that the old women who put out their leftovers and tablescraps are responsible for keeping many cats alive. Yet this is not really the sole “intervention” tolerated on the islands. There is yet another one practiced by other locals, and although it is far more invasive and barbaric than castration, it does not seem to be frowned upon, for it appears to have gained the protective status of “custom” and “tradition,” which have, through history, succeeded in sanctifying many atrocities. It seems some locals have long been attempting to bring down annual cat populations by putting out poison for them during the winters, when there are no tourists around to bear witness, or to notice the bodies. Tourism is the lifeblood of islands, but tourists’ sentimentalism toward the cats is seen as . . . well, quaint. They don’t seem to grasp the realities of life here. The cats are like pigeons or rats or snails. If we don’t poison, they’ll multiply and eventually overtake us. Poisoning has gone on for years. It’s not cruel. It’s just part of life, and blah, blah, blah. I wasn’t buying it.

Whew! Stray animals must certainly be better-off in the US, you might be saying. Yet it’s actually difficult to say where they have it better. True, many Greek approaches to these matters, as well as to their environmental problems, may seem retrograde in relation to the US’s modern, efficient, “market-based” solutions that are the envy of the world, and that have made the US a technological and political exemplar, as well as a moral beacon to which the world looks up in awe.

This is all plain to see in the way that stray animals are dealt with in the US. Indeed, the efficiency with which stray cats and dogs are dispatched there would make the architects of Nazi Germany’s “final solution” envious. Instead of allowing them to starve in the streets, Americans have decided to have them rounded up, put into concentration camps, and then, after a grace-period of a week or so, exterminated. Hundreds of thousands of them are put to death every year in what must be the greatest record of mass slaughter (for non-food purposes) in history. It is a holocaust that goes unnoticed, however, simply because it happens to members of another tribe – oops! I meant species. Although the US prides itself on being a place where “difference” is valued, “diversity” is celebrated, and everybody is treated fairly and equally, you had better fall within the limits of a single species – ours. To those outside those narrow confines, we bear no moral responsibility.

Dimitri and friends, Noussa

It seems strange that a people could have taken its history of liberation movements so far, and then simply stopped at this point. For in so doing they have drawn a line that few can even begin to define or explain. What is this thing called “species” after all? And what, then, is a “sub-species”? Who can say? Fortunately for those of us in the human club, membership has its privileges. Just now, however, the majority of us seem unwilling to extend those privileges any farther – at least not to those who can’t speak up, organise a protest, and demand them in language we can understand.

The ‘live-and-let-die’ philosophy is practised in two ways with regard to stray animals. In contrast to the Americans’ active model, the Greeks practice a passive version in which the animals are not exterminated, but simply left “free” to starve. Yet there is talk now of implementing American-style mass exterminations in Athens in order to clear the streets of “undesirables” in time to put on a good face for the 2004 Olympics. That way, foreign visitors won’t have to look down from their dinner plates into sad, begging eyes, and be forced to confront the moral dilemma of whether or not to perform a simple act of kindness. Better to kill them all, I suppose, so we can enjoy our dinner undisturbed by such troublesome thoughts. Glad that’s settled. A little more wine, my dear?

Restaurant patron

For now, in the Cyclades, at least, stray cats are not rounded up and trucked away, but instead are officially ignored. In a sort of unintended parody of the American mania for “privatisation,” the cats here have become the responsibility of the “private sector” – that is, they’ve been left to the charity of the old women, the seasonal tourists, and whatever animal welfare groups wish to form on their own – i.e. with no municipal support. Yet “privatisation” has still produced no health care plan for the cats. After generations of being denied proper veterinary attention, there are serious problems.

The most common of these is severe infestation by ear mites. Any cat anywhere can get them, but few who receive proper care will suffer. An untreated cat, however, may actually scratch bloody holes in the back of its ears in a futile attempt to stop the itching, the itching, that infernal itching. We saw many instances of this. Poor Skinny’s ears were blood raw.

Worse, however, and nearly as common, is Chlamydia, which leads to maladies of the eye that would be easily treatable, but in the absence of treatment end up blinding many cats here – often during their first year. The eye becomes infected, oozes pus, and slowly swells shut. Then, in layman’s terms, it rots out. In a single litter this can spread from kitten to kitten until all are stricken. They don’t realise they’re slowly losing their sight, of course, and a charming personality often shines through what is, unfortunately, a doomed existence.

Then there is what is called, in German, katzen-schnupfen, or “cat flu.” It is actually a kind of chronic cold that condemns its victims to a life of sniffing and choking on snot with every breath. How they manage to sleep is a mystery. Breathing becomes so laboured and loud for cats suffering it that you can hear them coming before you see them. Shaking the head, as cats are wont to do, sometimes succeeds in wrapping it in a crown of snot.


And it was probably my imagination, but katzen schnupfen seemed always to strike the charming, personable cats who wanted to be stroked about the face and head, or who insisted on rubbing against our bare legs.

But there were far more sad, and often gut-wrenching experiences awaiting us. On our first morning at the vet’s office on Santorini, one of the volunteers found in a nearby dumpster a cardboard box containing four young kittens, who had obviously been taken from their mother and simply thrown away. Their eyes were barely open, but their cries were loud enough to shatter glass, it seemed, or at least to break hearts. We did not sleep well that night.

Trashed orphans

In truth, however, Santorini could boast the healthiest cats of any of the islands we visited. There were far fewer instances of the maladies that afflict the cats on other islands – a fact we attribute to the work of the same vet in whose office we ended up spending so many hours. Margarita Valvis has been practising on Santorini, in the town of Maestri, for ten years. In that time a circle of concerned, caring volunteers, including Barbara Zaehnler-Angelopoulos, has formed around her. They spend mornings in her office taking phone calls, helping with treatments, or acting as ambulance drivers picking up sick or wounded cats and dogs as the calls come in. It is a busy place.

Here and there young kittens who had been rescued from various unspeakable fates slept quietly on chairs, awaiting adoption. Until then, they would have a good home in the large office quarters, and receive the affections of all who visited. Was it Margarita’s deft hand that had made these particular kittens so charming and well-adjusted seeming? We resisted the temptation to adopt one then and there, telling ourselves that our one-year-old cat at home in Salzburg was already enough for our tiny flat, and that she might resent having to share the space with an unwanted newcomer. Our resolve was soon put to the test, however.

  III. A Greek Souvenir

It was a hot Friday night on Santorini. For the next day’s filming we had just rented a car on the main street of Karterados, a small village in the middle of the island. With its low-rent hotels, Karterados seems to draw a lot of young people, as well as others for whom, apparently, noise is not an issue. The street was loud and rowdy. Maybe it was the heat.

By now, however, our ears had become “cat sensitive,” and we could pick out cat sounds even from amid the cacophony of cars, motorcycles, laughter, and restaurant clatter. So for us it pierced the night, just as if all had been silent: the pained, desperate screeches of a young kitten, coming at regular intervals, almost pulsing. Nobody else seemed to notice. I wondered as I crossed the street how anyone could not hear it, and not respond, but no one did.


There he was, crawling delicately amid the long, sharp thorns of a cactus. Had he been impaled? I couldn’t get my hand in among the spines to grab him, but one of our trusty cans of cat food helped lure him out. He appeared to be about five or six weeks old — far too young to be left alone in such a setting, and he’d been trying at the top of his lungs to let everyone know it. We looked him over as he ate. No holes, fortunately. He ate heartily, and even responded well to stroking, but we certainly couldn’t leave him alone there beside a busy street. We waited, and waited. It grew late, but no mother cat appeared.

A young Swedish woman had been watching from nearby, and at last approached curiously. She oooohed and aaaawed at the little beggar, but stopped and wouldn’t come closer. “My boyfriend won’t let me touch them,” she said, almost cheerfully. “He says they have rabies.” I looked over at the boyfriend, and gave him plenty of time, but he wouldn’t meet my glance. I turned back to her and tried in my warmest, most avuncular tone to explain to her that we were experienced researchers, that we had investigated the situation carefully, and that there was no reason to fear catching anything from the cats on the islands, least of all this one. Then, at length, I lifted the little kitten, tentatively, for her to pet. Smiling blankly, arms hanging limply at her sides, she simply blinked. There was nobody home. So Sweden had its Stepford Wives too, I thought, turning away. But things were about to get even creepier.

Back to the wall

From out of nowhere, an old woman suddenly appeared next to me. Where had she come from? She wore a long dress, a scarf over her head, and had a large facial wart (I kid you not!). Her appearance was so much in contrast to the tanned teenagers and other devotees of cool standing around that it seemed as if she’d somehow stepped out of the fourteenth century, or fallen out of a Jerzy Kozinski novel.

“Mama,” she said, and made as if to take the kitten from me.

“You know where his mama is?” I stupidly asked in English.

“Mama,” she repeated, and tried again to grab him from me.

Hoping she knew where its mother was, I let go my grip. She quickly bundled the kitten in her dirty apron and started away. A sinking feeling came over me. What had I done? I ran to catch up. For a second, I wished it had been the Swedish boyfriend; I’d have manhandled him with barely suppressed enjoyment, but what was I to do with this old woman besides follow dumbly like the bumbling boob I was at that moment? (“Uh, excuse me, uh, Ma’am?! Wait! Excuse me!”)

My, what big ears you have!

I followed her down the busy street and into a deserted field. There, in the darkness, she suddenly stopped and shook the kitten from her apron like old dinner crumbs. “Mama,” she repeated with finality, looking me in the eye and gesturing with both arms at the darkness, as if to say “somewhere out there.” My eyes followed her gesture out toward nothing, first left, then right, then down – where was the kitten? Then up – where was the woman? She had disappeared into the darkness, the kitten was nowhere to be seen, and I certainly saw no sign anywhere of “mama.” I was suddenly very alone, and feeling utterly, fatally duped.

I took a breath. Clearly, the old woman hadn’t a clue who or where the kitten’s real mother was, but had apparently assumed that if she dumped it here in the field the two would be magically re-united. And if not, well, it was all a part of the great cycle of life and death, as only an old woman from a Greek village could understand it, and as I, a foolish, sentimental tourist, would never comprehend.

Bunk! I may be a sentimental slob, but I wasn’t going to stand there and trust that kitten’s fate to any “ancient wisdom” any more than I would to tea leaves or to the alignment of the stars. That poor, frightened creature was out there in the darkness now, with no idea where it was or where it was going. It needed help, not faith, and it needed it now.

Fortunately, it resumed its forlorn wailing, and that set me on its trail. I couldn’t see anything, but I began following the sound, and I seemed to be getting closer. It led me through rocks and weeds and thorns, until suddenly I lost my footing and fell halfway down a loose embankment. Fortunately, I managed to get a hand on the little guy and pluck him up on my way down. I sat and let the dust clear. Got him!

The new adoptee

By this time Wiltraud had caught up with me. I handed her the little bundle and climbed up. After we emerged from the brush and made our way back toward the light of the street, I looked over and saw the old woman sitting and cackling with amusement at us. I was reminded of the old woman in Dickens’s "A Tale of Two Cities" who sat laughing and calling out “Guillotine! Guillotine!” I tugged at my collar.

It was probably at that moment we both realised that we simply had no choice but to take full responsibility for the little orphan, even if this meant taking him home to Salzburg. In for a penny, in for a pound, as an old friend used to say. Anyway, conscience would simply not allow us to take him back to the cactus where we’d found him, and where the old woman still sat.

Back in our room, we tried packing our little stowaway in a padded camera case, hoping it would muffle his cries, and that he would soon settle down and sleep. It wasn’t to be. He was frightened and confused, and used his prodigious vocal capacity to keep us (and likely a few others) awake half the night. In the morning we called to okay his passage with our airline, and then returned to Margarita’s clinic to get him a medical checkover and a proper travel cage. We had still planned to shoot that day up at Oia, on the north end of Santorini, and decided he would simply have to come along for the ride. I parked the car in the shade and checked on him every hour. Fortunately, he slept the whole day, and somehow we made it through that night with only minimal disturbance. Early the next morning we were on the ferry for a six-hour ride back to Mykonos. In the large, carpeted lounge area, we put a shoestring around the neck of little “Mikis,” as we decided to call him, so he could move about but still be retrievable. Soon, however, he settled in to sleep with us as we sprawled out against our bags.

Cat nap

At midday we arrived back at Hotel Gallini, in our old room with the balcony overlooking the cat colony. Weeks had passed. The colony’s kittens had grown considerably. The one with the most beautiful markings now showed signs of eye disease. Skinny was still there on the sidelines, lying on her hidden perch atop the wall, hidden by the bushes. Now, however, there was no sign of her own kittens. Had the hotel managment “disposed” of them?

Oblivious to the world outside, Mikis played contentedly in the room all day as we filmed and spent time away. Having now entered the all-you-can-eat world, he immediately put to good use a large bowl of sand I brought up from the beach. That night he slept curled up with us in the bed just like any comfortable old housecat, albeit a very tiny one. For the first time, he purred.

To our relief, he endured the two-hour flight from Mykonos to Salzburg without a peep. After a few days of quarantine in the bathroom, he quickly attached himself to our one-year-old, “Cheetah,” and hasn’t let go. For her part, she seems to enjoy his company and penchant for play-fighting – in moderate doses. Mikis yet knows no moderation, but he is learning.

Mikis & Cheetah--Amigos

In the end, considering the ancient lineage of the cats in the Cyclades, Mikis seems a far more authentic souvenir of Greece than anything else we might have brought home. He wasn’t something glued together yesterday for the tourist trade. He was thousands of years in the making, the descendent of ancient voyagers from Egypt and elsewhere, who came to the islands before the time of Christ. His is an old and distinguished line. He graces our household.

Communing with Nature

If you haven’t been to Greece, by all means, go. Visit the islands. Eat fava. Drink ouzo (with water). Better yet, drink Tsipoulo (straight). Lie naked in the sun, if you must. Have a good time. But skip the plastic souvenirs at the kitsch stands. If the urge to spend money becomes irresistible, there are struggling animal welfare groups that would put it to better use than the kitsch merchants and jewelry hawkers. But if you really can’t accept the idea of coming home emtpy-handed, I can report that Mikis is still quite a handful, and that there are many, many more like him also waiting for a second chance at life.

We get along OK, for cats!

Months later . . . Mikis the grownup Greek

Copyright 2001 Derek Bousé

Derek is a wildlife filmmaker, teacher, lecturer and animal advocate who travels widely and currently resides in Salzburg, Austria. Visit Derek's web site at:

Read Derek's "Acropolis Meow" for his report on the feral cats of Rhodes.

There are no ordinary cats. -Colette

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