Earlier this year, in New York, whilst on a short stroll in the uber chic Meat Packing district, I witnessed a textbook example of what can go wrong when pets are used as a surrogate for human offspring. Alongside me a middle-aged super-glam Sex In The City type was holding an extremely pampered dog, whose cute little manicured feet had probably never touched a sidewalk. Behind her she was pulling what I could only describe as a designer doggy go-kart. Inside the little mutt-mobile were two more powdered pooches, enjoying every minute of their luxury ride. In effect the dogs seemed to be taking her out for a walk.
I was reminded of this peculiar man/beast relationship whilst out for an afternoon stroll a couple of days ago. I’m back in the Mani, and the peace of the countryside is like a warm welcoming blanket after the hectic, humid, hum of Athens. In the villages, it’s not uncommon for householders to own a few ‘pets’. But these animals, have a very different relationship with their owners and environments than any city dwelling beasts I’ve come across.
For a start, because of the balmy climate, it’s rare for dogs or cats to be kept inside the house. Apart from the crazy ones, most of the village mutts in Mani have no need for leads, fences or other urbane restrictions. They are free to roam the streets and fields, popping in on their neighbours occasionally to sniff a bum or exchange gossip. Their human guardians are not so much ‘caring parents’, rather, ‘landlords’ who happen to provide free food as well as lodging.
Cats in Greece have even more liberties. Unlike much of the Western world, who enjoy posting pics of cute anthropomorphised moggies all over the internet, the feline of the species occupies an arguably more healthy place in the affections of Greeks. Most of the cats here are strays. But unlike your typical image of a sad, scrawny, mange-ridden creature, these strays tend to be proud, feisty, well groomed and often surprisingly fat. Stray dogs are also a common sight. At the hospital in Kalamata, several large mongrels proudly patrol the grounds like they own the place.
So in a country where resources are stretched, to say the least, you would think that there would be little love or tolerance for these four-legged waifs. On they contrary. Many Greeks seem to love cats and dogs, but not in a share-my-bed, slobber-over-my-face kind of way. Most of the strays hang around because humans actively like to feed them. Spend time at virtually any taverna or restaurant and you’ll be courted by armies of cute kittens and their parents. Tourists try to pick them up like they’re house pets, but these creatures have only one thing on their minds, your dinner. Rather than try to exterminate the cute scavengers, the proprietors tolerate them and feed them scraps from the kitchen. Likewise with the hospital dogs. They only hang around because some folk actually take the time to regularly leave food out.
In Mani, we have our own West Side Story-like gang of vagabond cats. After meals we often take our leftovers across the road, where the furry fellows hang out. But they certainly don’t depend on our good will in order to survive. If we didn’t feed them, they’d end up chasing mice, snakes or maybe a bird or two. These semi-wild creatures have a respect for us humans as we’re seen as part of their food supply chain. But that’s where the relationship ends. Maybe I’m falling into the trap of assigning human qualities to these animals again, but just as people of the Mani have a reputation for being tough, the cats and dogs here seem to have a similar steely disposition too.
Words of the day
- γάτα – cat – (gatta)
- σκυλί – dog -(skill-ee)
- εστιατόριο – restaurant – (ess-tee-o-tor-ee-o)