Every time I visit Greece, one of the first things I do is go to the corner shop and buy cat food. Then I go out walking.
I'm looking for stray cats. But I don't have to look far. They're invariably hiding near dumpsters, under parked cars, and in abandoned buildings. They're even at the Acropolis and countless other ancient ruins. Dozens of them, all shapes and colours, adults and kittens, some healthy but mostly unwell and emaciated. It breaks my heart, and I can't just look away.
Like most cats, their personalities vary as much as their coat colours. Some are friendly, others are wary and hesitant. I decide the best approach is to always leave the food on the ground and step away. They’re soon gathering around and eating hungrily, which then affords the time to properly admire them. I'm always struck by their beauty, their faces full of character, which is unlike almost any other cats I've seen. It could be due to their wild nature, or perhaps to the light in Greece, which has a habit of making things appear both marvelous and magical. I’ve even set up Facebook and Twitter pages to raise awareness of the plight of these captivating felines.
My brothers, who live in the town of Florina in the northern mountains, think I'm mad. I'm their strange little brother from another country who throws his money away feeding the local vermin. Sitting leisurely in the town square, sipping their coffees and discussing politics, the Greeks ignore the ubiquitous clowder of stray cats like we do flocks of pigeons. To them, it's just an annoyance, an unwanted background noise.
But I can't. In the countries where I've lived – Australia and England and America – people treat their pet cats better than some humans.
So it came as a surprise to hear about the popularity of the caretaker position that was recently advertised for the God's Little People Cat Rescue on the Greek island of Syros. That wasn't my experience. But then I realised that most of the 3,000 applicants are American and British nationals, who are most likely lured by both the idyllic Aegean and the beloved moggy. The sanctuary owners are also foreigners: Joan Bowell is a Briton, and her husband Richard is Danish.
On the islands, the strays gather at the docks, hopeful of sampling some of the day's catch from local fisherman and fishmongers. The mountain cats have no such seafood buffet at their disposal, and suffer incredibly during winter when the snow piles a metre deep and the temperatures plummet to twenty below. Its better in the spring; the survivors emerge, and do what comes naturally: breed.
I remember sitting at a café near Lake Prespa with my brothers. A stray calico cat appeared from behind a rock wall and slowly pattered up to our table. It was stringy and underweight, but its eyes were clear. It sniffed warily at my feet before it finally plucked up the courage to leap into my lap. I patted it, watched it curl and extend its front paws in pleasure, heard it purr, felt its warmth as it sat. But then it got frightened and ran away when two scruffy dogs approached the table. They sniffed around and before I knew what was happening, they started having sex next to my brother Georgios's leg. He paid them no mind, continued sipping his espresso. After they finished, the dogs were stuck together for some time in a copulatory lock, facing away from each other.
"This is called 'the tie'," said the waiter who came to help. "The male's got a gland that swells, locking it into the female. It takes a little time for the gland to shrink."
I screwed up my face. "Don’t they desex animals here?" I asked my brother. "I see stray dogs and cats roaming every street."
He took a long drag on his cigarette. "Greece has bigger problems," he replied coolly.
He was referring to the country's ongoing economic crisis, austerity measures, rising crime rates, and spiraling unemployment. More recently, you could add the problems of devastating bushfires and influx of desperate refugees seeking asylum in Europe.
After weeks exploring the islands with tins of jelly chicken and gravy beef, I finally came across a single old lady caring for the stray cat population on Paros. I was almost as surprised to see her as she was to see me. At first, she questioned my motivations. She saw me taking photos and said that some of the locals wanted to hurt the cats. She told me they found her odd and her practice peculiar. No one could understand why she was lavishing such time and attention on such worthless animals.
"These poor creatures have souls too," she told me simply. "They deserve our love and care."
Of course, there are dozens of animal welfare organisations across Greece, on both the mainland and islands. They're just not at the forefront of mind or as well-known as organisations like RSPCA or PETA. Greece, remember, has bigger problems.
As for the caretaker job at the cat sanctuary on Syros, one only hopes they might consider giving it to an unemployed local who is sympathetic to the plight of stray animals; after all, it's not like the Greek economy is thriving. Alternatively, what better way of welcoming a newly-arrived asylum seeker than to offer them a job caring for some of Greece's more furry and cute inhabitants…? Now that would be a win-win.