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Home Paros Life - Current Issue Backissue Nr. 128
  Nr. 128 - August 2009
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An Interview with Nikos Tsigonias

by Lena Yacoumopoulou
Niko, many people in the international community know you are the State Vet on Paros, but can you give us a better idea of what that means in terms of your actual work?
I have been employed by the Veterinary Department of the Cyclades Prefecture under the Ministry of Agriculture for the last
25 years. I was born in Paros and am therefore very familiar with the local practices. My work has put me in touch with all the farmers, hunters, and, increasingly, the Athenian and international communities. I take care of both large and small animals, but a big part of my job is to ensure that the newly-built slaughterhouse on Paros meets EU standards – this involves being there three times a week when slaughters take place. First I must ensure that animals are healthy before they are slaughtered and that they are fit for consumption.

Then that all the paperwork is properly completed and filed centrally in Brussels. This means that anyone buying meat at a Parian butchers shop can request information on where it came from, the date of transfer and slaughter, etc. I must also ensure that all animals are ear-tagged soon after they are born, which also guarantees the quality of meat. Another of my main responsibilities is to put in place a full health plan for animal diseases, such as brucellosis, mad cow disease, salmonella, etc. This involves vaccinations, treatments, if necessary sending carcasses out of Paros for testing, and information campaigns. A few years ago during the avian flu epidemic, we spent the greater part of two years just inspecting fowl and birds in Paros, and sending dead birds to Athens for testing.
Thankfully we didn’t get one case of avian flu.

I am also responsible for testing all products that are imported into Paros which contain animal products, including cosmetics. You may remember the scandal that was exposed in 1999 when high levels of dioxins and PCB’s were found in animal products in Belgium. Bear in mind that I am the only one carrying out this work, because recently my partner, veterinarian George Kanganis, retired, and so I am glad that Andonis Lambrou has opened his veterinary clinic for small animals in Paroikia, as it has relieved my burden considerably.

One often sees animals on Parian farms that are exposed to the blazing sun, with no shade, and with their legs tied, and complaints have been sent by many people to you as well as to the local animal welfare organization, PAWS. To what degree do you feel that farmers on Paros abide by the law that their animals must be provided with ‘Euzoia’ – i.e., well-being and a comfortable life?
Look, no working animal in Paros is without water or food – I know all the farmers and it’s not in their interests to have sick or dead animals. The only creatures that cannot tolerate excessive heat are the dog and the chicken. Dogs are not able to effectively regulate their temperature and that’s why you have these horrible cases of dogs dying in cars even with slightly open windows on hot days. There was a big tragedy some years ago during August when 20 hunting dogs were being transported to Antiparos for the hunting season and they all died from hyperthermia during the crossing.

Another Parian lady lost all her 3 dogs while transporting them on the ferry boat – she had kept them in the car in the garage and they died of asphyxiation and overheating. There have been other similar incidents. Dogs must be transported in the appropriate cages provided on deck. It’s too dangerous to keep them in the garage, even with slightly open windows. They often cannot survive for more than a couple of hours in those conditions. It was an important lesson to all dog owners to ensure that their animals are not exposed to high temperatures in enclosed spaces.

As for cows, I can tell you that in May when it’s still cool, cows will break loose from their ropes if necessary to reach the shade, but in the heat of the summer they will make sure they are exposed to the sun. There’s a reason for this, since cows are not so stupid: there’s a fly that carries parasites that appears in May and the only place cows are safe is in the cool of the shade; on the other hand cows and all other animals need exposure to the sun. Animals that are kept standing in sheds all day suffer from all kinds of diseases related to lack of sunlight and heat, still the case in Paros sometimes. That said, of course all animals on farms should have some shade and water, and I have looked into several cases of such abuse.

What improvements have you seen and what needs to be worked on still in Paros in terms of animal welfare?
Things have improved a lot in Paros in the 25 years I have acted as the local vet. There was a time when donkeys and mules transported both people and goods – my own father had many mules working for him – and yet even then we were guided by the law, for example how much a donkey, horse or mule was allowed to carry. We even had rural police (agorafilaki) in place to ensure that these laws were enforced. But there was abuse of these animals too – some people used to just tie their animals to a tree when they were no longer productive and leave them to die.

Many people were also very poor in those days and when they suffered, their animals suffered. Now of course the owners of the few remaining working animals – most donkeys, mules and horses were sent to Santorini to work the steep hills – will call me if their animal is old and sick and if necessary I will euthanize it. Many older people on Paros who cannot drive a car would like to have a donkey to ride on, but there aren’t enough donkeys that are trained to safely navigate the roads these days.

Of course there is no doubt that with the growth of an international community on the island, many new important concepts on animal welfare have taken hold and we are grateful for that input. Most urgently we need an official dog shelter, then we need an appropriate place to bury animals. Right now there is no place in Paros where animals can be buried and the only dog shelters, as you know, are Barbara’s own house and another area rented by PAWS and run by Biggie.

Which Greek laws do you use as the guide for your work and how do you deal with violations, fines, etc.?
Primarily Law No. 1197 of 1981 and, more recently, just before the Olympic Games, Law No. 3170 (mostly for dogs and cats) which was adopted in 2003. The first one lists all the requirements for protecting animals, breeding, transfer, etc. Law 3170 addresses dogs and cats, both domestic and strays. And of course Greece has ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals in 1992:
I have not had to personally enforce any of the animal welfare laws in Paros. When people call me to report a case of abuse, in almost all cases I have been able to settle the case with the owner and make him understand that there is possible abuse involved, without resorting to reporting him to the relevant government authorities. All laws that are contravened carry a fine, sometimes even imprisonment, but no one has ever been fined or imprisoned in Paros over these matters.

With regard to dogs, the standard laws are that they must be electronically registered – micro-chipped – soon after birth (though, unfortunately, this is happening less and less), they must not be abandoned and they must be taken regularly to the vet for check-ups; they must also always be on a leash and owners must clean up after them. Those who do not want to keep their puppies should sterilize their female dogs. (The same applies in this respect to owners of cats.) Dogs in shelters have a right to their own space of 8 square metres in which to exercise and to sleep. All cats and dogs must be well taken care of in terms of food and water, shelter and exercise. It goes without saying that poisoning dogs and cats is a crime and punishable by law.

Turning to the situation of stray dogs, how can the municipality, and you as the state vet, be more involved beyond the current practice in Paros where stray dogs are rehomed in Germany, financed by PAWS. And since you know most inhabitants of Paros who own animals, why do you think they are abandoning their dogs?
I don’t like the fact that our stray dogs are sent to Germany. Although I know it’s not the case in Paros, you probably know that the Greek government has issued warnings about dogs being sent abroad for medical experiments and other purposes. On the other hand, I don’t believe that up to 200 abandoned dogs a year can be adopted in Paros. So I think it is imperative that we get our own official dog shelter. The law states clearly that it’s the duty of the municipalities and communities to pick up stray dogs and to provide a shelter. The law also allows animal welfare organizations to help run these shelters.

Dogs are not abandoned by farmers, nor by hunters, but mostly by town people who buy expensive breeds and who may find later that they cannot handle their pet dogs. Hunters pay up to 1,000 euros for their hunting dog and it’s in their interest to keep it in top shape. They keep their dogs in houses with mosquito nets so they won’t be exposed to calazar; they give them the best and most expensive food. Paradoxically, I have known cases where a hunter shoots his own dog in a fit if the dog has, for example, eaten the game or not behaved correctly during a hunt. But they will not abandon their dogs. Nor will farmers abandon their dogs, since they also need them to guard their livestock.

Why is sterilization not practiced more in Paros and instead people are dumping unwanted puppies and kittens in rubbish bins – PAWS has found at least 40 live puppies in garbage areas in the last two months. Countless kittens are found abandoned on the beach or in garbage areas too. PAWS has sterilized 160 female cats in the last year, yet some Parians object to that. Why is that?

We always had a good balance of the cat population before the tourism industry began and cats started to gather around hotels and restaurants to be fed. Of course they take the easy way out and prefer fast food to chasing mice, birds and lizards! However, to reach owners of cats and dogs who do not want their animals to reproduce, we need to start educational campaigns in the schools and influence the new generation to make them see that sterilization is the only way.

There too the municipality, in cooperation with PAWS, can play an important role. Look at the success of the Aegean Wildlife Hospital Alkyoni in Paros, which rehabilitates mostly migrant birds. They have had considerable influence on the behaviour of young people through their campaigns in schools, so that young boys do not kill birds for fun like they used to in previous generations.

What more should PAWS be doing?
People in Paros know PAWS mostly for taking on cases of abandoned dogs. PAWS needs to start working with the local municipality to produce leaflets, mount educational campaigns, and communicate with the population so as to persuade them to abide by animal welfare laws. PAWS is very important for Paros and it needs to be better supported financially.

PAWS President, Nicolas Stephanou responds:
I agree completely with my friend Nikos Tsigonias that it is essential that the municipality create a dog shelter with the collaboration of PAWS. In fact this has been a priority goal for PAWS since its inception ten years ago. However, experience has shown that municipal shelters do not resolve the problem of stray animals.

Current legislation stipulates that stray dogs be taken to the shelter to be sterilized, vaccinated and registered and unless they can be rehomed in a timely manner, that they should then be returned to where they were found. In this case stray animals do not have a life expectancy of more than a couple of years. Dogs need homes, and that is why PAWS has instituted the rehoming programme without borders. However this has been hampered by the government issuing warnings about dog-traffickers who allegedly export animals for medical experiments to other European countries – accusations that are completely without foundation. 

At the same time, the state does not seem concerned with, nor tries to regulate, the importation to Greece of about 200,000 dogs each year from countries with a very poor record in breeding such as Hungary and the hideous trading by the pet shops that distribute them.

I also agree with Mr Tsigonias when he says that in the past, when people suffered, their animal suffered. However, people do not suffer from such poverty these days on Paros and there is no excuse nowadays for keeping a dog on a chain for life, allowing overpopulated communities of cats to survive with diseases, immobilizing cattle, goats and sheep by tying them up and leaving them without any shade, and abandoning and poisoning dogs or cats and their litters.

As a result of these practices, Greece experiences a serious problem with its image – all the more so in cosmopolitan places such as Paros – where it degrades the quality of life, spoils the holidays of many (who vow never to return), and projects the worst possible example of local and Greek civilization.

Everyone knows that to solve a problem it’s necessary to acknowledge it first. That has to be the starting point for the local authorities - the veterinary services, the municipalities and all other relevant parties – to acknowledge the necessity of animal welfare related services.

Until that happens, non-profit organizations such as PAWS remain virtually unaided in their task. The agro-veterinary officials are probably the most influential persons vis-à-vis the farmers and other animal owners and we absolutely need them to join forces with the municipalities and the animal welfare societies to help in the education of animal owners. Just as Mr Tsigonias suggests, we all need to begin to work together to address the terrible deficit in animal welfare which afflicts the whole country. Our combined efforts really could resolve the situation in just a few years.

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