When New York-based Theo Moumtzidis and Silja Schiller first laid eyes on each other at a trendy restaurant in Mykonos several years ago, they could have never imagined the game-changing impact they would have on local animal welfare as a couple just a few years later.
Through their brainchild, the “Zero Stray Pawject,” they committed to creating a cruelty-free, sustainable project on the Greek island of Aegina which would reduce the number of stray dogs to manageable levels.
Currently nearing the milestone of achieving zero stray dogs in Aegina, they recall how adopting their own pet on Mykonos led them to the creation of a multi-faceted approach which they hope will serve as a pilot project for more zero-stray locations in other countries.
“The week of our wedding was when we adopted our dog, Caprice, from a makeshift shelter, and in doing so our eyes opened up to the problem of stray animals on the island of Mykonos,” Theo recalls. “It was quite heartbreaking, to see not just Caprice but also the other dogs sitting there and waiting hopefully for a person to pick them up before the season was over, and then God knows what would have happened during the winter.
“So just getting exposed to the plight of these animals, it was like looking under the carpet and realizing what a mess it was.”
“One thing led to another and then we got involved in helping to build a proper shelter on the island to try and manage the problem of stray animals there. That experience taught us that, while shelters are absolutely important in solving the stray dog problem, unless you go after the root cause, no shelter will ever be big enough to home all strays and there will never be enough families to adopt all the animals living in shelters either,” Theo adds.
“So we put our thinking caps on and realized that what we really had to focus on was the root cause, which really is abandonment, irresponsible ownership, and the anonymity of dogs which allows them to be abandoned.”
While they admit their assistance in the situation in Mykonos was running on “pure emotion,” Aegina, where the project has been focused over the past couple of years, is the first place where they went with a systematic solution in mind.
Being an island, Aegina provided the perfect test area as a contained environment. Implementing the pilot project and solving the problem on a mainland location would have been impossible, they say, because stray dogs wander between neighboring locations.
“There is plenty of existing public policy in Greece that is very powerful, just not leveraged. Of course there are things to improve, but what we are trying to do, in the case of Aegina, which is our pilot, is to bring the people together — the mayor, the municipality, other stakeholders, animal welfare on the island, the police, the Coast Guard, the citizens — under the existing legal framework and find a balanced solution to eliminate stray dogs,” Theo explains.
“Although Aegina is a small island on a gigantic globe, it is very important that we complete the project in this environment and to prove that it is possible to do it in a sustainable way, with the participation of society and without extraordinary measures like poisoning or killing,” he notes.
“Every stray dog that you see on the street was once someone’s pet, or the puppy of someone’s pet — and that is consistent across the world. What we do is a combination of de-anonymizing owned dogs, giving them a voice by getting them microchipped as dictated by law, then trying to work with owners who might not have thought about what to do when their dog has puppies. We also educate the population on responsible pet ownership starting from local schools,” Silja explains.
Thrilled by the enthusiasm for the project that she sees in the community, Silja gives credit for its successful outcome to every local stakeholder and the citizens of Aegina — especially the director of public health, Sofia Hatzina, who she brands “a local hero.” “It’s not us, it’s a community effort”, she declares firmly.
“The first step was when the police and Coast Guard started microchip controls; that brought a lot of owners to microchip their dogs. If you register them all, then you reduce the number of abandonments of all adult dogs.
“Then we are also doing target neutering campaigns, encouraging subsidized neutering, and on that we work with dog owners, on an individual level. Our objective is to have no more stray dogs, right now starting in Aegina, and hopefully at some point across Greece. Also, hopefully, we will have other organizations that copy our model so that we can achieve zero stray dogs in more regions,” she adds.
Greek authorities have helped the couple’s cause whole-heartedly, although unforeseen bureaucratic issues had to be resolved at the beginning, such as the acquisition of microchip readers which was being delayed by a long procurement process and regulations.
Among other initiatives, the Zero Stray Pawject designed, produced and funded a municipal dog tag system for Aegina with Welttierschutzgesellschaft, one of their three local grant partners. Every owned dog that is microchipped and registered into the municipal registry receives its own tag, which displays its unique Aegina dog registry number.
Just two years into the ambitious project, approximately 50% of all dogs in Aegina are now microchipped. Theo hopes that by this time next year, the abandonment of at least adult dogs will be greatly decreased, assuming police continue their checks and all stakeholders maintain the intensity with which they had been addressing the problem before the Covid-19 lockdown.
“Eliminating the puppy problem is a different challenge, but they tend to be easier to adopt and to manage”, Theo notes.
Of course, more peripheral contributing factors to the issue need to be addressed in the future, including the impulse buying consumer mentality often encountered at pet shops. “Responsible breeders advise owners, whereas at pet shops there is neither advice nor counseling, you just go and buy a pet like you are buying a carpet, and that’s a problem.
“In our opinion, dogs and cats should not be sold in pet shops. There is nothing wrong with breeding responsibly, but if someone would want to buy from a breeder, they should go directly to the breeder and acquire the puppy or the kitten. Pet shops can sell other animals, like parrots and goldfish, but puppies and kitten sold there are usually a source of a problem,” Theo points out.
Concerning the cruel practices of poisoning or putting down strays, he believes that “aside from unethical, these measures are so silly that they cannot even be called solutions.” Silja adds that there is no point in “killing the symptoms instead of curing the disease.”
With WHO estimates bringing the number of stray dogs worldwide to 600 million, one can easily realize the global proportions of the issue, and that is where the two visionaries and their allies hope that the Zero Stray Pawject can make an impact.
“That is why our board of advisors includes international public policy experts with a global outlook, because we are not just trying to solve a Greek problem, with Greek solutions, in a Greek environment. We are trying to find a model that could work as a public policy in most countries,” Theo says.
“Other municipalities and shelters have been learning about us and reaching out to us. We are not making money off it, we aren’t copyrighting, so we are happy to share the know-how with others. Certainly, in the future, the ZSP will not operate with the same intensity that we operated in Aegina, where we were the arms and legs of many of the efforts,” he continued.
“Our intent is to package the solution so that other municipalities can learn from us and emulate what we did. We might select some to be more involved, just for purposes of perfecting the model further.”