Adam Willis tells
From a restaurant patio in Plaka, the Acropolis looked shades between platinum and gold against the purpling sky. A young girl, no older than ten, drifted from table to table pumping on an accordion with a few missing keys and retreating whenever a waiter exited the restaurant doors. A dog, fat and shaggy, made its way along the pedestrian street, ignoring the men waving menus at passing tourists, and slumped against a wall to watch the sun sink behind the Parthenon.
The walk back to our Airbnb after dinner revealed a city that has fallen far from its ancient glory. The Greek debt crisis hit Athens hard, and it shows. Building facades are masked in graffiti. Men, women, and children huddle beneath dirty blankets on sidewalks, extending cupped palms. The stench of garbage clings to the air. And a population of dogs roams the streets, lightly stepping over their city’s wreckage.
These dogs rove the city seemingly without bounds, past the vendor stalls of Plaka, through the National Gardens and the paths surrounding the Parliament Building, across the sun-bathed field at Hadrian’s Arch, and beneath the pillars of the Parthenon.
The absurdity of the seemingly over-fed, sometimes fat, and immaculate street dogs became a running joke between my friends and I: “Wow look how healthy that dog is!” or, “Check out that coat—so well groomed!”. After a few days of puzzlement, I did some research, and I was surprised to find that this was no standard stray dog population; these dogs are adoptees of Athens. Through a program initiated in 2003, the city of Athens began the “collection, documentation, tagging, vaccination, sterilization, parasite control, veterinary care and, finally, adoption” or re-release of the city’s massive stray population (reportedly around 5,000 before the 2004 Olympic Games, according to the New York Times). This means that Athens now plays home to thousands of healthy, relatively clean, and surprisingly friendly dogs that wander its streets and benefit from the charity of their human neighbours.
This program is by no means perfect. Dogs that do not live near the Athens center find far less care than those that do, and whether they receive care or not, they are all, of course, still homeless. But the initiative has made significant strides. Its website reports that “when the program was introduced… more than 2,000 stray animals received the necessary veterinary care” and over 400 were placed in homes.
A recent New York Times article on stray dogs summarizes a new zoological theory on the evolution of dogs as pets: “Really… it is the dogs who adopt humans,” rather than the reverse, the article says. The suggestion, then, is that these street dogs are perhaps in more control of their fate than we give them credit for. They are reared with a survivor’s instinct, they have learned to live off their urban surroundings, and they “have a true superpower in reserve… they can convince a human to feed them.”
The dogs of Athens, perhaps more than any stray population in the world, have mastered this art. They have found favour in their city, and have become beloved members of its population. One of these dogs, Loukanikos a.k.a. Riot Dog, perhaps best embodied the fondness that Athens has doled upon its stray population after achieving global fame and becoming a symbol of the Greek populous for his consistent participation in Athenian riots during the debt crisis.
Loukanikos became an icon, but the larger stray population has curried favor as well. In Athens it is a near civic duty to care for the neighborhood stray. The dogs look over their city from perches atop the Acropolis. They are the government-approved rogues of the city. They are kings in the rubble.