As Greece burned, thousands of animals were left to die

Scenes of acrid smoke and ash choking a sky lit up by uncontrollable flames created an eerie backdrop to the wildfires tearing through southern Greece last week.

As well as destroying acres of forest land as they ripped through the regions of Attica and Peloponnese and the island of Euboea, the fires forced thousands to flee their homes and leave valuable belongings behind. 

Tragically, for many, that included beloved pets. 

‘Many of the dogs aren’t intentionally abandoned by families. When the fire started, people were at work and they couldn’t go back to the house so it was impossible for them to reach their pets,’ explains Nena Ververoglou, one of the many animal rescue volunteers working tirelessly to try to save as many creatures as she can. 

Living in Athens, where she works as a biotechnologist, she helps out with the UK based charity, Greek Animal Rescue. 

Describing how the very worst of the fires started a week ago and carried on through to the weekend, Nena, 48, says, ‘The flames were just eight kilometres from my house. I could smell it, choking on the smoke and the ashes. The heat was unbearable and I couldn’t even see the sun. There were helicopters and planes throwing water on the fire during the day. It was really bad.’

Although authorities thought they had control of the nearby fires last Wednesday Nena explains that due to strong winds, the flames continued to peak. 

‘Our team’s adrenaline was so high – we didn’t sleep Thursday or Friday. As we went near the fire, we could see the horses running like mad,’ she says, referring to stabled horses kept nearby. 

‘We were trying to catch them. There was a guy I saw who took off his shirt and put it around the nose of the horse so that it couldn’t breathe in all the smoke.’

Having already experienced the deadly wildfires in 2018, which also rampaged through the coastal area of Attica just outside Athens and killed over 100 people while destroying acres of wildlife, Nena has spent the last week joining forces with many other animal rescue volunteers who were prepared for a similar experience. 

‘Every volunteer would take a rescued animal to a tent to keep a record,’ she explains. ‘Most were dogs left in houses of owners who had evacuated or gone to look for help. Some dogs had just run away because they were scared.

‘But there are also bad people who left their dogs because they are not seen as a member of the family,’ Nena adds.

Having personally transferred eight dogs to safety in the last few days, she recalls how when she picked them up, many of the petrified animals simply didn’t react. 

‘They were very scared and looked lost. They were so frightened that they were frozen,’ Nena remembers. ‘They only wagged their tail when we put them in the safety of the tent and gave them a bit of water. Two of the dogs were running like mad on the streets. We had to chase them because they would go in towards the fire. They had bad burns on their feet from the heat.

‘A friend of mine also found a little kitten as she was going through the ashes. She just noticed from its eyes that there was something alive underneath the ash. It only had a few burns on his eyelids and lips.’

Nena adds that it’s not just domestic pets that they they are desperately trying to save. They’ve also rescued ‘rabbits, turtles, storks, foxes, and owls’, which they transferred to a non-profit organisation that specialised in this type of creature.

Now, she says, their next concern is how to feed many of the farm animals that have managed to survive. 

‘There is a huge impact on the shortage of sustenance because the dry food has all been burned,’ says Nena. ‘The sheep have been in the cities looking for food because theirs is gone.’

When she saw smoke billowing in the distance, the rapidly spreading wildfires caused huge concern for Katerina Pesonis, 57, founder of Dream Of A Safe Haven (DASH), one of Greece’s largest dog shelters in Greece.

‘We had a fire about 30 kilometres from us,’ she says. ‘When we see a fire approaching, we are scared because it is very difficult to evacuate to get the dogs out.’

Although the fire services managed to stop the fire before it reached DASH, which is home to 500 rescued dogs and situated in five minutes away from the town of Masini, in southern Peloponnese, Katerina is all too aware that they were lucky.

‘A lot of animals have died,’ she says. ‘The problem is that people have them on chains and they can’t get free. I can’t think of a more horrible death than of having a fire approaching and being on a chain, not able to get away. They weren’t trapped running away, they were chained.

‘I have a little, black, female dog that came from the fires,’ says Katerina, who set up her shelter over 10 years ago. ‘She has very low anaemia and blood count. We don’t know whether it was from the fire or if she was just sick. She’s not burned, but emotionally, she is in really bad shape. She’s broken – really terrified. You can see the terror in her eyes.’

With the pandemic prompting a growing number of abandoned, neglected, abused, and injured animals desperately needing help, Katerina’s charity has already spent most of 2021 rescuing more dogs than usual.

She describes how many had been left in dustbins, while others were trapped in the claws of wild animal traps or injured from a gunshot as punishment for stealing food to eat. 

Some are even intentionally run over by cars because ‘it’s an animal and it doesn’t matte’.

‘A lot of people got dogs or puppies when everything closed down during Covid,’ Katerina explains. ‘Now that it has opened up again and people have their normal lives back, they no longer want their animals.’

Just last week, she received a phone call from a local concerned about a whining dog tied to a tree. ‘I went down there and there was also a little cat next to him. They had no food or water. I called for someone to get me pliers, but I couldn’t get the chain loose, so I had to call another volunteer to come and help me. We eventually got them out and brought them to the shelter. That little dog was so grateful to me for taking him from there.’

52-year-old Sofia Tzoniki still has a lingering cough from the Greek fires of 2018. ‘I’m not the same person anymore,’ she says.

Remembering the events, Sofia, who is President of the charity based in Athens, says, ‘I remember this grandmother with her daughter and two twin girls. They were running from their homes, and they were burnt right on the street. I thought it was wood from trees. When I realized that they were people… It’s something you can get over.’

After the devastating effects of the fires she explains how the country put a system in place to evacuate people and rescue abandoned, lost, and injured animals. 

Seeing it in work now, Sofia says, ‘It is very touching to see so many volunteers rescuing and fostering animals. I started thinking, there is hope for humanity.’

In the midst of so many abandoned animals, she talks about those she met who wouldn’t dream of leaving their pets behind. ‘There was a man about 60 years old, carrying his big shepherd dog. Then there was a family who walked two kilometers with their horse, two children, and two dogs.’

But many dogs were left behind.

‘We have thousands of animals, wild and pets, burned alive,’ she continues. I’m shocked that people left their homes, but they left their pets, chained, facing imminent death.’

Sofia says that although Greece is unbearably hot, with the country having it’s hottest summer for 30 years, she and her fellow animal rescue volunteers will continue to work.

‘It feels like you are melting,’ she says. ‘We were working in 45-degree heat. We had to wear a mask because of Covid.

‘But we are like robots. We forget to drink, forget to eat. We just come in at midnight, have a cold bath, sleep, and get on our feet at 7 in the morning again to get back to the fields. We have to.’

How you can help

If you would like to make a donation to any of the charities mentioned, you can contact them here:

Greek Animal Rescue

Dream Of A Safe Haven (DASH)


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