The ‘barrel dogs’ still shame the Greek island of Ikaria

Dozens of dogs are used as ‘living fences’, tied to tin barrels, exposed to the elements, and often left with an inadequate supply of food and water

A different kind of dog breed lives on the Greek island of Ikaria. The breed’s name is a common secret shared by the islanders: the barrel dogs. Many people wonder about the origin of the strange name. Do these dogs carry little barrels tied around their necks like St. Bernards? Does their tail, or their legs, or some other part of their anatomy resemble the shape of a barrel? The answer comes as a surprise to those who have never visited the island.

A ‘barrel  dog’ outside the village of Droustoula, Ikaria, in its ‘natural’ environment: a tin barrel, a chain and filthy water inside an old tire

The ‘barrel dogs’ got their name from the…rusty barrels that they live chained to on various parts of the island. The animals are used as ‘live fences’, since their barking deters goats and other animal’s entrance into cultivated fields and courtyards. The barrels offer no protection from the elements. In the summer they become burning ovens, and in the winter they function as refrigerators. Even when the animals have access to wooden doghouses other problems remain: most of the dogs go without fresh water and food, they live in isolated locations without companionship, and few are properly vaccinated. If very breed of dog has a certain prominent characteristic, then the ‘barrel dog’s’ most obvious one is abuse.

Carol McBeth is a veterinary nurse and director of the local chapter of British NGO “GWAF”, the “Greek Animal Welfare Fund”. She was born in Great Britain where she met and married a Greek. In 1988 she accompanied her husband to Greece, she became a permanent resident and has been active in Greek animal rights initiatives ever since she began working for GWAF in 1996.

Ms. McBeth has made regular visits to
Ikaria over the last few years in order to perform exhaustive research on the situation of the so-called ‘barrel dogs’. She spoke to the Vima of abusive conditions that unfortunately, remain out of control. “On every visit we recorded more than 50 dogs restrained on very short chains in rural areas or in close proximity to country roads. Their only protection from the elements was afforded by the tin barrels they were tied to or flimsy wooded shacks. They were completely abandoned and alone, with no sign of human care or attention. Every time we return to the island we record the condition of their health and photograph the new additions to the ‘barrel dog’ breed. Some of the animals lose a large amount of muscle mass; others have gone blind or suffer from illnesses. Many of these dogs are living without water, or with water that’s green with algae. They frantically gulp down any food we bring them. The most upsetting thing we find from one visit to the next is that many of the animals have simply disappeared. We can only assume the obvious, which is that they have died as a result of the abuse.

Ms. Carol Mc Beth discovered this ‘barrel dog’ in November 2009. In February 201 its health had deteriorated and in May 2010 the dog had disappeared. In September 2010 another dog was tied to the same barrel.

Rotten bones, excreta and blackish water is the ‘barrel dogs’ food.

The ‘barrel dogs’ go… to court

“The island residents have been aware of the situation for years, but no one speaks up. The livestock breeders use the ‘barrel dogs’ as living tools and if anyone dares say anything they take offense and make threats, Ms. Viki Stamouli tells the Vima. In 2007 Ms. Stamouli, in collaboration with more than 100 of the island’s residents, recorded and photographed dozens of ‘barrel dogs’ which they filed along with an official compliant to the Samos District court. “Two years went by before the police investigation and veterinary evaluations began. It took another year for the case to reach trial. In the meantime I was receiving serious threats. It got to the point that I filed to sue two livestock breeders who were purposefully terrorizing and harassing me. They were sentenced to jail with the option of parole but the problem didn’t go away,she concludes.

The residents who had filed the suit hoped that the first conviction of criminal animal abuse would send a message to all the residents of the island. However, in March of 2010 the court found the two men innocent of the charges citing doubts over the evidence. I believe that the judge wasn’t ready to make a conviction on the grounds of animal rights. The defendants made a case based on their lack of resources and financial straights that had forced them to usebarrel dogs’. By the time the case was tried the living conditions of the dogs in question had been greatly improved and the defendants contested that the problem had been resolved. The root of the problem is much deeper, however. The abuse of animal rights is only one part of a problematic mindset that governs animal husbandry on the island. The breeder sits at home, leaving the ‘barrel dogs’ to do his job of protecting the flock. The mindset of most of the island’s livestock breeders is both unsustainable and inhumane,” comments Mr. Vasilis Theodorakis, a veterinarian who works for the Ikaria Veterinary Service. Mr. Theodorakis was the person who put together the official report that was submitted to the district prosecutor.
Many ‘barrel dogs’ are blinded due to lack of care. This dog’s left eye was infected in May 2010. In September 2010 it had already gone blind.

This dog was found with no water or food, tied to its barrel. It was so scared that it remained immobile, with a characteristic empty look in its eyes.

A month ago a new decision was issued that renewed the hopes of Ikaria’s animal activists – who make up the majority of the island’s population. Three ‘barrel dog’ owners were convicted and sentenced to jail with the possibility of parole, for the conditions they were inflicting on their animals. Still, one judicial decision doesn’t change things overnight for the hundreds of other ‘barrel dogs’, not just those on the island of Ikaria, but in areas all over Greece. “The conviction is certainly an important first step in the right direction, but the problem is not exclusive to Ikaria. Other areas with an active animal husbandry industry such as Skyros and Crete are also problematic. We have already submitted alternative solutions such as the construction of special goat fencing, which could be used in place of ‘barrel dogs’. We have committed ourselves to organizing adoption drives and finding other homes for the dogs if the owners agree to release them. All we can do is hope that the pressure of public opinion will force them to change,Ms. McBeth concludes.

Noting a car go by most ‘barrel dogs’ react in a frantic way, due to their prolonged isolation.

Some dogs are ‘lucky’ enough to live in perforate wooden sheds instead of barrels. They still suffer from lack of food, water and vaccination.

Ellie Ismailidou, published December 17th, 2010, ‘To Vima’ print and online edition
Photos: Greek Animal Welfare Fund archive
See original story in Greek here