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Monday, June 27, 2016

SAWA Seeks a Permanent Home for its Shelter



Photo by SAWA. 

From harassment to a new home

Over a decade ago, I saw a photo of the blue roofs of Santorini overlooking a sapphire blue sea on the cover of a travel magazine. The scene was so mesmerizing, I wanted to learn more. Inside the magazine was a photo of a dark brown donkey with a red tassel hanging from its head and a multi-colored blanket across its back. The magazine’s article said visitors to the island would ride the donkeys up an ancient flight of steps to the old city of Thira, where the blue roofs awaited. I wanted to make that journey.

I began researching this mysterious Greek island and found it full of history and animals. Online were many photos of cats; cats roaming the streets, lounging on walls and doorways and hiding under restaurant tables.  Wondering who takes care of all these cats, I came across Santorini Animal Welfare Association doing a Google search. From them I learned not about the island’s cats, but about the hardships of Santorini’s donkeys.

The donkey has a special place in the history of Santorini. Santorini is located in the southern Aegean Sea as part of the Cyclades island group.  The island is famous for being the very top of a large ancient volcano and the cities that grew here are perched precariously on the edge of the volcano’s cliffs. These cliff-side settings make Santorini one of the most picturesque places to visit and have been enticing travelers for decades.

Hundreds of tourists riding donkeys clog the steps from the port
to Thira. Photo by M. Light.
A century ago for those living on this vertical island before cars and navigable roads, donkeys were invaluable. Donkeys carried supplies and people. They helped till the fields that now hold grape vines and olive trees. They helped move building materials for homes and farms. Then in the 1950s when the island was “discovered” by Europe’s traveling elite, the donkeys would carry guests and their luggage from the ship port at the bottom of the caldera up to the capital city of Fira (Thira) through a series of 600 winding steps. Back then riding the donkeys was considered “romantic” and “exotic.”

Flash ahead a few decades and Santorini’s tourism numbers have increased (According to the Greek Tourism Board even during the economic crisis of 2015, the island experienced a record number of visitors.). With the help of a local wealthy benefactor in the 1960s, a cable car was built to ferry visitors to the top in only three minutes. In 1972, Santorini International Airport opened. By the 1980s newly paved roads help cars and trucks crisscross the island.

Now in a new millennium the “traditional” practice of riding the donkeys of Santorini up the port steps is still as popular as ever. Sadly though, some people are not convinced this is a good thing. While the scenery surrounding the caldera steps from the port is gorgeous, the hordes of tourists on donkeys crowding the steps make for a bit of ugliness. For the few who chose to walk the steps, they are messy and slippery from donkey urine and feces. It is also no secret to the locals that the donkeys are pushed to the brink of exhaustion continually carrying people up and down the port steps along with their luggage, with inadequate food or water and no shade from the sun. The animals often have saddle sores and cuts from ill-fitting harnesses. Many of these abuses are documented by travelers on Trip Advisor. And let’s be honest, the average weight of us humans getting heavier. The Donkey Sanctuary in the UK says the maximum weight a donkey can handle is 50kg (110 pounds) and a mule can handle 80kg (186 pounds). To compare, the average American man weighs 196 pounds and the average American woman weights 156.

Volunteers build the Donkey Arc. Photo by SAWA.
This is where the Santorini Animal Welfare Association (SAWA) comes in. What began as a group of people who came together to help the stray cat and dog population, they quickly learned that it was the donkeys who needed the most help. When I first emailed SAWA President Christina Kaloudi, I asked her about riding the donkeys from the cruise port dock up the mountainside. She flatly said no.

“I can show you all 12 donkeys and mules currently abandoned in the refuge [at the shelter],” she told me at the time. “Most are ‘broken’ by this treadmill…It should be noted that the donkey owners receive a share of the cable car profits so they are not losing out on income if people chose not to ride the donkeys.”

She then told me about the Donkey Refuge Center, a program run by SAWA that takes in donkeys too old or too sick to work anymore. Most of these donkeys are dropped off at the shelter overnight under the cover of darkness because their owners don’t want to admit they have mistreated them. Christina says very few mornings go by without some creature, dog, cat or donkey, tied up to the front gate.

The Donkey Arc. Photo by SAWA.
The best way to describe the Donkey Refuge is as a retirement home for donkeys. When the donkeys can no longer work (and no longer valuable in the eyes of their owners), they come to SAWA to live out their “retirement” years in peace, free from work with plenty of food and water. Last summer, a group of volunteers from England and Germany came to SAWA to build a permanent barn for the donkeys to protect them from the elements. Called the Donkey Arc, the refuge currently has 16 donkeys in residence. SAWA does receive help with the donkeys’ care from The Donkey Sanctuary, an organization based in the UK.

Besides donkeys the Santorini Animal Welfare Association is a typical animal shelter in that they care for homeless pets and work hard to adopt them to loving, safe homes. Visitors to Santorini can easily spot the stray animals roaming the streets. When Kaloudi first moved to Santorini in the mid-2000s, she saw the problem firsthand. She says back then “packs” of dogs or cats would follow tourists around hoping to receive food scraps. Kaloudi joined SAWA shortly after and is now the organization’s President. The organization has been around since the mid-1990s and was formed by a group of expats and a local veterinarian originally to help control the stray dog and cat population with spays and neuters. Over the last 20 years, it has grown to into a physical shelter holding, caring for and rehoming dogs and cats.

Photo from SAWA's Facebook campaign during the court case.
Photo by SAWA.
Last fall the organization came under duress. The shelter was purposely built on a dry plot of land in the middle of the island with few trees for shade and no permanent structures. Since a large group of animals can be quite noisy, the organization wanted to be away from people. With the exception of the Donkey Refuge, most of the Shelter was built with metal sheets and tarps and makeshift wire fencing tied together. Kaloudi said the location was picked because no one wanted the land and it was away from residential areas. That didn’t stop a town mayor from trying to force the shelter to close. Anastasios-Nikolaos Zorzos, the Mayor of the nearby village of Katerados, took SAWA to court to force the shelter to close. He said the shelter was unhealthy and too loud and that the dogs would be better off on the streets. After a very strong showing in court last March by the shelter and its supporters, which included the Santorini Fire Department and the island of Santorini’s municipal government (which does provide a small amount of tax money support), SAWA won the court case, but sadly still has to move from its current location. The Mayor, even though he lost the court case, is now threatening to bulldoze the only road to the shelter to keep food and water trucks from entering. Water is delivered by truck daily on a dirt road that often gets washed out during heavy late summer rains so bulldozing the road would be quite easy to do. Zorzos has also threatened to poison the animals.

The shelter is now in the process of raising funds to buy land and build a new shelter. According to spokesperson Debbie Spillane, if the shelter owns its own land, no one can harass or remove them. The land Kaloudi has selected has to remain secret until she has the money to purchase, but is also in the middle of the island away from towns and people.

Kaloudi posted this to the organization’s Facebook page shortly after the court decision:

“Winning the court case does NOT mean we can stay where we are, but it does give us time to find and buy our own site – land that the local authorities can’t take away from us, land where we can host the 300+ dogs that need our help each year, land that can offer refuge to worn out, retired donkeys.”

The legal process of securing and purchasing land will take some time. Kaloudi expects the purchase to cost upwards of 110.000 EUR (that’s about $125,410 US). To help raise funds, Spillane set up a GoFundMe.org page for the shelter. The goal is to raise 50,000 EUR and is currently at 12,800 EUR. There is also a Paypal button on SAWA’s Facebook page for direct donations. Keep in mind that both Paypal and GoFundMe accounts for SAWA accept credit cards from all over the world, however, the pay amount is in euros. So, if you enter the number 100 in the euro donation box, a US-based cardholder will be charged $114 US, or whatever is the current exchange rate.

Volunteers from Animal Action provide veterinary and
farrier care for the donkeys.
Photo by SAWA
The shelter relies on the help of volunteers, many of whom arrive as tourists during the busy summer months. Tourists from all over the world visit the shelter helping to feed the animals, clean kennels and stalls and take the dogs on hikes and beach walks. Many animals are adopted to families from overseas and the organization does have a program to help visitors who want to take a Santorini cat or dog home. SAWA’s sister organization Tierschutzverein-Santorini based in Germany helps assist people wanting to adopt the island’s dogs and cats.


Santorini Animal Welfare Association has come a long way since I first found them in 2010. I continue to root for their success and spread word of their mission to help the island’s animals. And when I finally visit Santorini, I will not be riding the donkeys.

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