Urban Athens: a cultural examination of the differing treatment towards stray dogs and immigrants When I first arrived in Athens one of the first things that struck me was the stray dogs that are everywhere in the city, lounging in the sun in Monastiraki square and at the foot of the acropolis, lying at the side of the road at Syntagma square and playing with each other in Exarchia. Of course the street dog “Loukanikos” is well known internationally but I hadn’t expected so many dogs on the street. For me and for many others who have travelled from Western Europe/America this was something I had not come across before.
In England you hardly ever see a dog off the lead unless it is in a designated dog park, and if a dog is seen wandering the streets on their own they will be taken to the dog pound and kept locked away until somebody comes and claims ownership and responsibility for them, having to pay a fine to take them home. Instead of a programme of accountability, responsibility and specific ownership of the dogs Athens has a programme which strives to care for the strays, they belong not to one person but to the City of Athens.
When I first found out about this I was shocked to say the least. Everyone is aware of Greece’s current economic situation and when I was told by a friend that the dogs are in fact taken care of by the City, the first question I asked was how is this seen as one of the top priorities of a state riddled with debt that it cannot manage, a state that has run out of money to pay teachers and municipal workers and yet finds the funds to care for thousands of dogs.
And in the following weeks the thing that bothered me the most was how a city that has such a humane programme for its stray dogs can have such a callous attitude towards the homeless, the immigrants and the junkies that are so common in certain areas of the city such as Omonia and neighbouring districts. If you take a walk through these parts you will see makeshift houses at the sides of streets or in parks, used needles littering the floor and people huddled around fires trying to keep warm, or helping each other to inject. And yet the city’s reaction to this obvious problem is not to offer a programme of care and support but instead to send the police to move these people on, even though they have nowhere to go.
Why is it that people in Greece see it as more important to care for the population of stray dogs than to spend money on caring for the population of immigrants and homeless people? Upon further investigation into the subject I discovered that the programme for stray dogs includes “collection, documentation, tagging, vaccination, sterilization, parasite control and veterinary care”1, and although there are numerous accounts of this programme being harsh to the d ogs, leaving them vulnerable to poisoning which apparently is quite common in certain areas2 from what I could see all the dogs seemed reasonably healthy and very fat – in some cases when I offered the food they refused it. Also all of the dogs seemed very friendly and calm, sometimes following you for a bit for some company and attention. Apparently this programme was set up due to a checkered history regarding animal shelters, which were exposed to be cruel and inhumane.
As a result, almost every municipality in Greece dissolved their dog pounds and fired their dog catchers3. If this is to be the reasoning behind the dissolution of dogs pounds then what is the reasoning for setting up such a generous programme for the dogs today.
The most obvious explanation, and the one cited by city officials is that this programme exists due to the fact that euthanasia is not permitted in Greece. Anna Makri, head of the stray dogs department of Athens has stressed in interviews4 that euthanasia is against Greek culture therefore will not be permitted in regards to dogs. However I feel that this is not a deep enough explanation into the cultural aspects of the stray dog problem. Yes, Modern Greek culture does not permit euthanasia, but neither does British culture, yet this does not prevent dog pounds from putting unclaimed stray dogs to sleep.
To understand better this behaviour it is necessary to look at more aspects of Greek culture than simply the illegality of euthanasia. First of all it is necessary to briefly look at the impact of Greek history, As Faubion5 suggests in no other country has “history past and present been so dominant a concern”. I think in some respects the Greeks feel alone and isolated from the world. They are essentially an Eastern country trying to fit into a Western culture, their history is different to that of most of Europe, formerly part of the Otterman Empire they lack the colonial history of many Western countries and they have an entirely different alphabet and language that is unique to Greece.
Also, not only is there the obvious history of the Ancient Greek civilisation – a past which modern Greece plays up to to attract tourists. But more influential to the culture today is the fact that there has been the constant invasion and occupation of parts of Greece by the Turks, Italians and others, that has made Greek people hold such a strong sense of community and respect for fellow Greeks. If a country has a common enemy then the population becomes stronger as a community, the isolation felt by Greece strengthens the ties within Greece.
These points lay the basis of nationalism and identity for Greek state – ethnic origins, orthodoxy, and cultural heritage of Hellenistic past (Christopoulos,)6. This history produces part of the habitus (Bourdieu)7 which in turn produces individual and collective practices in accordance with the schemes of history. It is important to look at “webs of meaning” (Geertz 1973)8 created and transmitted in the course of social interaction, the habitus of the people who live in Athens.
Bourdieu uses habitus as a concept for understanding society; it refers to the learned, fundamental, deep-founded, unconscious beliefs, and values, taken as self-evident universals, that inform an agent’s actions and thoughts, therefore it is useful to look at the day to day interpretation of the set of social structures within which Athenian citizens live. Broome9 identifies the cornerstones of Greek society to be religion, family and village culture. Even though Athens is a city, it is still the case that people identify strongly with the village community, family and neighbours are very important to Greeks from what I have experience.
For example on New Year’s Eve my Greek friends stayed in with their family for dinner until after midnight – the streets were quiet, this is not the case in England where young people start the party early away from family. And it is these aspects of Athenians habitus that I feel explain the treatment of stray dogs in the city, the strong sense of community, in which dogs are included as they are companion animals. As mentioned before the feeling of nationalism brought about by Greek’s history also contributes to the immense feeling of community felt between Greek families and neighbours as well.
And thus within the paradigm of community we can start to understand why stray dogs are cared for and immigrants shunned. Dogs are companion animals to people, immigrants are seen as invaders not companions. The “social facts” (Durkheim)10 of community give a collective consciousness of looking out for those less fortunate or in need of help. From being in Greece just a short time you can feel this sense of community. If you are travelling on your own people will invite you for food and drink, offer you a place to stay and take great care to make you feel welcome.
The Greek family is a model of a caring community, they take care of the young and old alike and young people in Greece have much greater respect for their family, spending a lot more time with them than many young people in England. This notion of family extends to dogs as they are seen as companion animals. Dog ownership attitudes fall into three categories: Humanist, where dogs are highly valued and considered close companions, like pseudo people; protectionists might be vegetarians and they greatly value animals in general, not just as pets; dominionists saw animals as separate and less important than people, often using the dogs for hunting and pest control and requiring them to live outdoors11, and I think it is clear that in Greece the attitude towards dogs is humanist.
Thus they are automatically embraced into the village/family community, needing to be looked after and cared for as would an elderly family member or the village idiot. This sense of communal care is even more obvious if you travel to the islands. I recently visited Hydra, and the stray dog there was well known to all villagers, they smiled at her and patted her, fed her and kept her healthy.
Therefore it is seen as perfectly acceptable to maintain a programme to look after stray dogs. And yet this idea of hospitality, of filo xenia that we can see toward dogs is not extended toward the immigrants in Athens. Jacque Derrida12 offers the view that a welcomed guest is a stranger treated as a friend or ally (in the case of Athens this is the dog), as opposed to the stranger treated as an enemy (friend/enemy, hospitality/hostility) – in the case of Athens the immigrant.
We can see the reasoning of the dog as an ally through cases such as “riot dog” who has participated in protests against the much hated Athens police, the corrupt regime and state. Leach13highlights that in respect to creatures in England “the following categories apply i) wild animals, ii) foxes iii) game iv) farm animals v) pets vi) vermin, and if you compare this to the sequence of words ia) strangers iia) enemies iiia)friends iva) neighbours va) companions via)criminals, the two sets of terms are in some degree homologous. By a metaphorical usage the categories of animals could be (and sometimes are) used as equivalents for the categories of human beings”.
I think that this thought can be applied to the case of Athenian stray dogs and immigrants. The dogs are seen as pets therefore companions who need to be treated well, whereas the immigrants are seen as strangers and criminals, therefore wild animals and vermin that do not need to be cared for. There is no real system for caring for asylum seekers in Athens, and any attempt at one does not come close to the programme in place for caring for the stray dogs. This example demonstrates that Greeks take care of people in their community and not of those outside of it.
In this essay I have tried to find a cultural explanation for the treatment of stray dogs in Athens and to briefly look at why stray dogs are treated with more care than immigrants and have attempted this through looking at the cornerstones of Athenian habitus, that of family and community. The programme for the stray dogs embraces them as part of the community; they are seen as an ally, a member of the neighbourhood – an element emphasized through the tendency of stray dogs to stick to one area of territory. Opposed to immigrants who are seen as the invader, the foreign strangers,
and through looking at Greek history of invasion I have tried to explain the modern notion of nationalism and community for those that fall into the category “Greek” therefore giving an explanation to the treatment of immigrants who do not fall into this category. The state in Greece has had to find acceptable ways to spend money; to the benefit of employees and suppliers. Caring for stray dogs employ a number of people and benefit local suppliers without angering voters making it good for all in the community whereas caring for foreigners in tough economic times is unacceptable to Greek voters, it sacrifices the good of the community for the sake of strangers.
References 1. http://www. cityofathens. gr/en/stray-animals-0 2. http://neoskosmos. com/news/en/node/10214 3. http://neoskosmos. com/news/en/node/10214 4. http://www. ekathimerini. com/4Dcgi/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite4_2_06/10/2011_409656 5. Faubian, J “Modern Greek Lessons: A Primer in Historical Constructivism” 1993 6. Christopoulos, d “Defining the Changing boundaries of greek nationality” chpt 8 “Greek Diaspora and migration since 1700″ by Dimitris Tziovas 7.
Bourdieu, Pierre,” The Logic of Practice”, Chap 3: “Structures, Habitus, Practices” 1990 8. Geertz, Clifford , “The Interpretation of Cultures” 1973 9. Broome, B “Exploring the Greek mosaic: a guide to intercultural communication in Greece” 1996 10. Durkheim, i?? “The Rules of Sociological Method” 8th edition, trans. Sarah A. Solovay and John M. Mueller, ed. George E. G. Catlin (1964 edition) 11. Clinton R. Sanders “THE ANIMAL ‘OTHER’: SELF DEFINITION, SOCIAL IDENTITY AND COMPANION ANIMALS” 1990 12. Derrida, J “Hospitality” 2000 13. Leach E chpt 3 “The Human Animal and His Symbols” in “Claude Levi-Strauss” 1974.