My SymiWillAnimal Welfare on Symi 06/10/2012, 00:00

Original Blog: Early April 2009 | Update 27 April 2009 | Update 6 October 2012 NEW

The first decade or more of my life, spent on the Norfolk Coast, is filled with memories of animals. I don't know if I have typical memories for the son of an RSPCA inspector, but I have clung onto them despite most of them being before I was even of school age. I remember countless cats and dogs, seals and swans living in our bathroom, owls and pigeons, horses, stinky cattle markets, horse races, and a memory (which I'm very uncertain is a real one) of porpoises at Brancaster...or maybe it was Holme. I accompanied my dad around in his blue van for weeks at a time as he drove about the villages and towns doing his job and learned many important lessons, not least that death came hand-in-hand with saving life. In those days, when an animal was unwanted, there was often little option but to "put it to sleep"...and in Norfolk in the 60s and 70s, there were lots of unwanted animals. My philosophy on animal welfare was mostly formed by watching and listening to my dad, and seeing how he dealt with our own pets. The golden rule was to neuter your cats and dogs (both males and females)...with none of this silly nonsense about letting a female cat have one litter first, or letting a male cat "enjoy himself with the ladies" for a while before he got the snip. We never ate veal in the house, had a healthy dislike of horse-racing, abhorred fox-hunting (not just because of the fox...what do you think happens to all those beagle pups that don't make good hunters, or the adult dogs that have grown too old?...surprising how people seem to think they're all farmed off to homes by the thousands each year, rather than the truth that they are just killed), and cared for as many animals as we could.

My visits to Italy and Greece in the 90s were eye-openers. Feral dogs and cats were something that really didn't exist much in the UK, yet in the Med they were everywhere to be seen, and often in a sad state. The golden rule was clearly not being followed. When I came to Symi, I applauded the Symi Animal Welfare (SAW) neutering visits each year and wanted to have more of them...I would have rid the island of breeding cats to stop the death and sickness I saw around me. I had all sorts of silly notions; foremost among them being that a group of like-minded people could learn how to neuter cats so the good work could go on all year. I even proposed this to SAW and to Martin, their English vet, and, quite rightly, was told to forget it. The woman who ran SAW at the time, Jenine, told me that a better direction for me to devote my energies was to securing more money for SAW so they could have Martin come for a second visit each year.

Ok, thought I, a second about a second vet, as well? did it have to only be Martin? My sister, Lorna (who sometimes pops up on the Chat Page) is friend to a vet and his wife (also his practise nurse) in Norfolk and she told them of Symi and SAW and they declared themselves willing to come to Symi in the Spring of 2007. I sent off my email to SAW with the good news, expecting them to be overjoyed. Jenine could not have been less enthusiastic. She was, she said "too busy to help" but "wished us luck". I replied that I had expected SAW to run the show, that we would help get the vet to Symi, that they could use my own home for the surgery (as FAROS has done twice)...wasn't that what they wanted? She replied with pretty much the same email as her first one. With no help forthcoming from SAW, the vet we had found never came to Symi. Jenine later stepped down from running SAW, and the new committee were horrified when I told them more than a year later about what had happened; Jenine hadn't told any of them about it at the time.

From this time on, I allowed my eyes and ears to be a bit more open regarding animal welfare on Symi. I got into many conversations with Greek people about the animals on Symi and, without exception, I heard the same negative things being said about SAW and the neutering visits. There were tales of people's pets being taken without their consent, animals dieing shortly after the surgery, resentment that a bunch of ex-pats should think they had the right to gather up the island's animals once a year to carry them screaming in baskets through the streets. The dislike was, and still is, quite strong. In these conversations I would always ask "what is to be done, then?" and replies woud vary from "do nothing, it's fine as it is...this is nature" to "they should talk to us and maybe we could work out an answer". This, then, is the problem for SAW. Quite rightly they don't want to ignore the problem as Symi has too many animals in need, but they have always been, and still are, completely incapable of talking with the people of Symi and forming a compromise. What sort of compromise could they make, in any case? They operate a small winter feeding program, but they exist, as their mission statement says to "Organise an annual UK voluntary vet visit, the emphasis being to neuter feral cats". The answer seemed quite clear...Greek vets, legal visits.

In March 2008, Christos and I contacted SAW and asked to meet them. We had been working with our new idea for a while and initial results were very encouraging...we had found, in the space of just a few weeks, as many as eleven vets in Greece who had expressed an interest in coming to Symi. We agreed beforehand that we would raise the idea of Greek vets coming to Symi at the meeting and see what reaction this got before saying that we had been working on this already. At the meeting were Melanie Sharp and her husband Paul, and Hazel, the treasurer of SAW. We told them what we had been hearing from the Greek people on Symi about SAW and asked what their plans were to involve more Greek people, and what were their ambitions. Most of the negativity came from Paul who said such things as "SAW doesn't want to bring Greek vets" and "Greeks wouldn't bring animals to clinics" and "No Greek vet would want to come". We told him that we had found eleven and that they were enthusiastic, and he seemed genuinely surprised. We told them of our belief that SAW needed to change, that there needed to be a long-tern solution, and that the organisation needed to belong to the whole population of the island, not just a group of ex-pats. Things were not encouraging, but we left the meeting after offering them SymiGreece's full backing, to make them a new high-profile website, and to help with a more active campaign in Greek as well as English. In return, we wanted to see the organisation open to change. Melanie said that she would consult with the committee and let us know. On the walk back down to Yialos, Christos and I talked about what we thought would happen. He was more pessimistic than I. Melanie had said that if they used SymiGreece, the Symi Visitor would drop any support for them. The previous summer, when we had also offered Melanie usage of SymiGreece to promote SAW, she had been told by Wendy Wilcox of the Symi Visitor that if they did this then the Symi Visitor would remove their offer of accommodation for the surgery...Melanie admitted to us that Wendy had threatened this just a few weeks before Martin was due to arrive. Christos and I had upset Melanie a few times before and during the meeting by accusing her of being under Wendy's thumb, and although Melanie had denied this, Christos was not convinced that she would have the strength to push through the necessary changes in SAW. Despite this, we kept our fingers crossed and waited.

Twelve days passed and no email from Melanie or anyone else in SAW came. Christos had been continuing talking with the Greek vets that we had found willing to come to Symi, and two, in particular, seemed very keen and, so long as we could get a letter from the council saying it was fine for them to come and work on Symi, they would like to come at the end of April...less than five weeks away. We could no longer wait for a reply from SAW and so sent Melanie an email telling her about the vets. I've decided to put the whole text of the letter below; Christos and I are accused far too often of being pig-headed and refusing to compromise, and this letter, had it been answered differently to how it was, would have meant no FAROS, and a very different, pro-active and more modern SAW than exists today:

Hi Melanie,

We've been in contact with a vet based in Thessaloniki and together with one of her colleagues in Athens they have agreed to come out to Symi to do a week's visit in a month's time as this is the best time for them. It's very short notice, but we believe it can be done. All they need is a letter from the council on Symi saying they are aware of them coming and that they have no problem with it. As they are Greek with a Greek veterinary qualification and licence to practice, they don’t have any of the legal issues that Martin has. I met Irini Gazi yesterday to ask her if she thought this visit was possible and she thinks that it will be no problem. We've offered our house in Mavrovouni as accommodation for the vets and also for the surgery, though we may be able to arrange something more suitable. We've also offered to pay for the flights, surgery equipment, medicines, etc. although after my meeting with Irini, we think this may not be necessary and have some ideas about this. The first step is to get the letter from the council signed, which I have already drafted (in Greek of course, accompanied by an explanatory note) and Irini and myself will go to the Municipality on Wednesday this week to get it signed. The vets have about half a dozen colleagues who also want to come for visits here, so it seems this could be the start of something good; we believe that up to half a dozen visits per year, all year round, is quite feasible.

We haven't heard back from you about the results of your discussions within SAW since we met the other week, and don't know if you have met with any opposition to involving us and SymiGreece. Of course, we don't want to set up a second welfare group on Symi, so we hope that you will be one of the signatories of the letter to the council, though we understand you may not be in a position to do this. I am sure you will meet some opposition if you do want to be a part of this, but we really do want the complete support of SAW. I hope you can take this email and our asking SAW to come onboard as a sign of solidarity.

This will be a general vet visit without a specific focus on neutering, but we hope that some neuterings can be done by people bringing their own animals to the surgery; we have our own 4 female cats and one male to get neutered and among Irini's and our friends and contacts there are many who want the vet to see their dogs and cats. Both ourselves and Irini do not want this to be a "snatch and grab" visit as building up trust among the people here is important. We'll be getting as much publicity about the visit out in the next month, with posters, word of mouth, announcements made on the tannoy system, etc. Hopefully a Greek vet will encourage more people to bring their animals.

Could you let us know what SAW wants to do regarding this. The most pressing step is to get SAW to be a signatory to the letter to the council and this is needed in the next couple of days as we plan to meet with the Mayor on Wednesday morning. Once again, sorry for the rush and for pushing you into a corner like this, but it's "make your mind up time"!

Christos and Will

I've highlighted a line in bold among that letter, just in case you missed it and harboured any thoughts that a month before the first vets came from Thessaloniki we had any intention of setting up FAROS. We had no such intention. I had told SAW before that I had no reason to trust them and would be a fool to do so after all that had happened in the past, but this should be no barrier to cooperation.

When we heard back from Melanie, it was to say that SAW had decided to carry on as they were and that they thanked us for our offers of help on SymiGreece but had decided not to avail themselves of this, and also that they could not help with the visit of the Greek vets to Symi. In this way, FAROS was born. When our request to borrow some cat baskets from SAW was turned down, we realised that trying any further to work with them was pointless. Christos sent an email saying how disappointed he was that SAW had once more, quite clearly, been under the thumb, and Melanie replied that we were just playing politics with animal welfare on Symi. As is the Greek way, we got things off our chests by replying back:

SAW has been offered the chance to become part of an initiative that can make long-lasting changes to the welfare of Symi's animals and which can engage the whole population of Symi rather than a few percent of it. SAW has chosen to reject this chance. The lack of imagination and the sheer poverty of ambition of SAW is breath-taking. Melanie had the audacity to accuse us of playing with politics to the detriment of the welfare of Symi's animals; we can all see how monstrous this accusation was and how it can now be applied very clearly to SAW. SAW should be thoroughly ashamed of itself; you have chosen to betray animal welfare on Symi. It seems very clear to us that all that matters to you is the maintenance of Martin's precious snatch-and-grab visit which while giving a false source of validation to your little group incurs the displeasure of 99% of those around you (not that you seem to care).

A week before the FAROS clinic opened, Melanie used the Symi Visitor to say the following "Many of you may already be aware that, as from April 2008, Symi has another animal welfare organisation, FAROS. There is a webpage which explains fully their plans for the future. This new initiative is wonderful news for the animals of Symi especially as the two organisations have different objectives and fundraising, but the same desire to improve the welfare of our Island's animals."

Needless to say, a link to the website was omitted and, ever since, links to FAROS have been cut from Symi Visitor's chat page.

The first four FAROS surgeries have gone ahead and were great successes. Our fund-raising efforts have gone well, people on Symi can read about FAROS every month in the island's Greek language newspaper, and we have begun what we believe is a path to creating a new ethos here on Symi regarding animal welfare.

With the huge collapse in the cat population of the island due to the epidemics in 2008 and mass poisoning, FAROS found itself openly opposing SAW's October 2008 mass-neutering visit. SAW, in the face of overwhelming opposition from every quarter, cancelled it. It's been a very strange journey, to find myself in the position of believing that SAW's neutering visits that I so strongly supported such a short time ago, have now become part of the problem. One of the bigger obstacles that FAROS has faced is convincing the people here that we were not SAW...the strength of the anger that some people have about them can be quite surprising, and even as recently as last week, people are still mistaking us for them, and we have to tell them that "no, we will not neuter your cat without asking you" and "no, we won't be going around snatching cats", but we always say "but if you want to bring some, you can". We are, we believe, beginning to gain the trust of more people. With children seeing our colourful posters around Symi, with monthly printed reports in Greek (and in English too) being available in the local paper, and with so many of the island's businesses supporting us, FAROS is, we believe, the way forward. It should be given a chance to grow without interference. When people on Symi talk about an animal welfare organisation on Symi it should be without harsh words, accusations and anger that their children hear and pass on.

In the 17 days that FAROS clinics have operated on Symi in the past year, only one of SAW's committee/supporters has brought a cat for neutering, despite us having neutered about 30 cats. It would be nice to truthfully say that I'm surprised by this, but I'm not in the least. All that FAROS asks is that anyone bringing an animal to a clinic takes responsibility for its aftercare, as the vets say that this can be as important as the primary care they receive at the surgery. Despite this, the story is still put about that "FAROS doesn't neuter"...deliberately to provide a continued reason for SAW's existence, I would guess. One cannot help but conclude that it is Martin's visits themselves (and how important and comfortable they make them feel), and not what actually happens at them, that SAW loves so much. The point has been lost or maybe, as I suspect, it was never really grasped in the first place.

What do I think the future holds? In the past, when there was nothing else, it could have been argued that a clinic operated by a surgeon practising illegally in Greece with low standards was acceptable on Symi. SAW's clinics are run with instruments being boiled to clean them and then being dried on towels, the animals are not fully anaesthetised and not given oxygen and nor are they adequately monitored during surgery, the surgeon does not wear gloves nor a mask, and untrained personnel are allowed to watch (and have even participated in) operations, surgeries are in rooms with open doors and windows. In contrast, FAROS sterilises all equipment with an autoclave (the instrument required in all verterinary practices in Greece) all clinics have an attendant surgeon and anaesthetist who both wear face masks, the surgeon wears sterile gloves, all animals undergoing surgery are given constant care and monitoring by the anaesthetist and are given oxygen throughout, and as soon as the moment of first incision arrives, all non-qualified people (including Christos with his camera) must leave, and the door is shut. Symi no longer has to make do with second best with English vets operating in conditions that would be illegal back in Britain.

The damage that any more SAW neutering visits could do by causing confusion about the identity of organisations here on Symi, the poor standards of SAW clinics, and the strong dislike of mass-neutering visits by the people here, have led FAROS to believe that SAW should reconsider any future neutering visits. Animal welfare on Symi must belong to all the people of Symi, and not be dictated by a non-Greek minority, whatever their good intentions. Only in this way, can something long-lasting be achieved. FAROS is reaching out to the children of Symi with initiatives such as its art competition, and we are looking into ways that visiting vets could also include education in schools during their stay.

My main reason for writing all this now is to give some background to a difficult decision that FAROS has had to make. I wrote to SAW several days ago asking them, for the long-term benefit of animal welfare here on Symi, to cancel the GAWF-sponsored mass-neutering visit that they have planned in the near future. I have had no reply, as I suspected would be the case. With the vast majority of Symi in opposition to them, with the Mayor himself in his interview with the News of Symi saying the visits should stop, and with FAROS needing all the support it can get to grow and capture the minds of the people here, FAROS will be writing to GAWF, introducing itself and its work and asking them not to come to Symi, but to better spend their limited resources in other parts of Greece where there is no organisation already doing good work. FAROS hopes that those of you who have supported SAW in the past will understand why FAROS believes this to be necessary.

UPDATE 27 April 2009

After over three weeks, and with some of what I have said above being in the Greek and English editions of The News of Symi this month, SAW have finally decided to comment. Earlier today they put up the following post on the Symi Visitor chat site.

Symi Animal Welfare has recently received unfair and damaging criticism from a new animal organisation on the Island. For further information please contact us personally.

Malicious comments were publicly directed at our vets and the clinical procedures used, a distortion of our programmes and objectives. Any future SAW sponsored vet visits have been threatened with closure and further bad publicity, by them.

As you can imagine, this has been a most distressing period in our long history, such remarks are unjustified and biased. However, under the circumstances, we now agree that it would be unfair to allow any unnecessary pressure be placed upon the Greek vet and qualified assistant who had planned a visit in May, with a grant from the Greek Animal Welfare Fund (GAWF). Without a neutering programme at least once a year, Symi will experience a huge upturn in the street cat population, but unfortunately, SAW is now not in a postion to provide a vet-visit.

Our winter feeding programme will grow further and we will encourage our neighbours to help in order that so many animals stand at least some chance of survival during the out-season. As always, we are here to offer assistance to any sick or injured animal and advice to owner/carers, this will be with the advice/instruction from vets on Rhodes, GAWF & UK vets. Our prime concern has always been for the welfare of the street cats and dogs and our dedicated volunteers will continue with their work

We thank you for your support and look forward to seeing you again this summer,

Melanie, Tove, Claudia & Hazel

How thoroughly childish and very disappointing. Such silly games that they can't even bring themselves to mention FAROS by name. Unfair? malicious? distortion? biased? Exactly what was unfair, malicious, distorting or biased? What, of what I said above, was incorrect? Have I described how SAW clinics are run incorrectly or not? How have I distorted SAW's objectives? It seems that they simply have no answers at all but to post this empty, non-informative piece of blather. How many times do these people have to be contacted, to be asked for a response, to be asked to join in, to see a bigger picture? They could have chosen to bring their experience and enthusiasm to FAROS to make a real difference on any of the times we asked them, but instead...a typical reaction.

Symi is not without a "neutering programme" and they know it. If they wish they can bring cats along to FAROS clinics, as people other than they have done at all four clinics held over the past year...and they know this. To accuse me of distortion, after saying that, is really quite grotesque.

I rest my case.

UPDATE 6 October 2012

It has been more than three years since that last update when I had hoped I'd rested my case. In that time, FAROS should have run 12 more clinics on Symi, and SAW and its supporters should have understood that animal welfare on Symi could only move forward with the support of the Greek people. If this had been the case, all would have been well. Alas, it did not happen.

FAROS ran four more clinics in the following 18 months after my last update, and then, while planning its ninth clinic, the University of Thessaloniki's Veterinary Department were sent a letter from the Authorities in Athens saying that they had received a complaint that FAROS's clinic was illegal...that it was unlicensed. It is amazing to think that somebody went out of their way to stop the FAROS clinics on Symi. Who was responsible? There are not many obvious culprits, but there are also few who would gain. It is without doubt that the complaint arose among those on Symi (and some of their supporters in the UK) who have been upset with FAROS and its criticism of SAW. One of these supporters spent considerable time trying to destroy FAROS shortly after it started, and has continued to target its founders ever since. Whoever the culprit, they succeeded: FAROS, which had ran its surgeries in clinics that had been expressly set up by the University to be of a legal standard, was stopped because of a technicality. It has taken two years to overcome the simple legal obstacle of getting a licence but soon we shall have it. With licence in hand, the FAROS surgeries are soon set to exactly the same building, under exactly the same conditions, as before...though with the bureaucratic niceties followed.

During FAROS's hiatus, SAW have continued their winter feeding program but have not, until recently, voiced a wish to have another of their vet visits. Needless to say, FAROS cannot allow them to have another unsanitary clinic, and nor, given the difficulties that FAROS has had over the past two years to get its clinic licenced, can it just sit by while SAW ignores this themselves. It can be tempting to think that we should just allow SAW to have their clinics given that FAROS cannot, and if SAW had been anything but unfriendly, obstructive and dishonest about FAROS, we could have sat by...but to do so would be to say goodbye to FAROS and all it stands for.

If SAW truly care about animal welfare on Symi, they will stop their stupid games and cooperate with FAROS...they will bring cats to FAROS surgeries to be neutered in legal, clean, well-monitored conditions by Greek vets...they will support FAROS on their webpage...and they will, above all, stop telling lies and playing politics with animals lives.


(7) Comments

  1. Lorna said on 06/04/2009, 11:41

    excellent Will

  2. John Pritty said on 06/04/2009, 21:02

    Thank you Will. Whilst it is not unreasonable for us Brits to have an opinion on island matters, you are so right when you say that ownership of island issues must remain with the local population. I just hope that the two organisations can find the middle ground, to the benefit of the animal population.

  3. Will said on 06/04/2009, 22:15

    It would be nice, John, and they'd be most welcome as partners, if for no better reason than that they have showed a lot of enthusiasm for animal welfare in the past. A few bring animals to FAROS clinics, but unfortunately the "hard-core" ones hate SG's guts and, by extension, can't bear the idea of FAROS. Some even go out of there way to try and harm it, which is a big shame. We have I hope I showed, but it could just be impossible for them to move forward. We at FAROS can't afford to waste any more time waiting for them to contemplate thinking about thinking about talking with us.

  4. Simon said on 06/04/2009, 23:45

    Excellent Will, if SAW are too concerned with politics rather than the welfare of the animals on symi, well shame on them, and a shame it is.
    As John (and yourself) says, the animal welfare should be down to the local population.
    Carry on your gd work FAROS, hopefully the residents of Symi are noticing your effort.

  5. Marianne said on 08/04/2009, 22:20

    I hope you will be able to carry on with FAROS, so important for Symi and the animals... and I really wish people would stop being so narrowminded and put their ego aside for a few minutes at least for the animals. Fingers crossed

  6. Will said on 08/04/2009, 23:15

    FAROS will carry on, and go from strength to strength, Marianne. It has too much support here on Symi now to fail.

    The next clinic in a few months is already being planned!

  7. Will said on 06/10/2012, 01:34

    More than 3 years later...and an update about the problems that FAROS has suffered because of sabotage by Symi's Englsh expats and their supporters in the UK. Not much work left to do now...and FAROS will soon be back!

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