Expats Love Affair With Animals

December 2010 The Expat Telegraph published an article I had written called Thoroughly Modern Expats.

For a number of years following I was a regular monthly columist for them.

Reading through the original articles that I submitted recently, I was taken by a) how relevant many of them still are today, and b) I had no online record of them of my own.

So I have added the original submissions to this blog, so if you want to read more of them just search for telegrapharticles, and while you are at it you may want to search for expatarticles as well to see other columns I wrote in the past for various newspapers in Spain.

Years ago, before the recession dimmed the dream of many of an expat, the ‘old hands’ in our part of the world used to say that you hadn’t committed to your new life in Spain until you had adopted a stray dog or cat.

In that case I reckon that we are now fully committed (and many will tell you we should be committed) as we have now adopted five cats and through our project to re-home and transport cats to Germany, ALStrays (www.alstrays.com), have re-homed in excess of 250 cats, working with the exceptional German charity Katzenherzen (www.katzenherzen.de)

We are not alone in our endeavours.

We work with a number of Spanish and English foster homes and cat rescue centers like Paws Patas (www.paws-patas.org) in Mojacar, along with a whole host of exceptional individuals such as Pam, Jenny, Jean & George, Diane, Matt, Tracey, Mandy, Miguel Angeles & Isabel, Tracy & Bob, and many many more. We are fortunate to receive unbelievable support from 2 Spanish vets and have created fund raising partnerships with a number of local bars such as the Stumble Inn, CK Lounge Bar and Cafe Bar Ankara, who hold regular weekly, monthly and annual fundraising events ranging from ongoing book sales, BBQ and Book Sale evenings, Quiz Nights, Charity Days and weekly scratch cards. Events raise between 30€ and 250€ and without them it wouldn’t be impossible to re-home and transport as many cats. We have even managed to find a sponsor, Central Contracts (www.centralcontracts.com) who also sponsor this monthly column.

I have mentioned the bars above not only to give them some well deserved public acknowledgment, but because they represent how something that starts off as a problem can become a significant part of a solution.

Let me explain.

As I mentioned above adopting a stray animal was almost seen as a ‘right of passage’ for many an expat, and the local bar was often the place to be adopted by your stray cat or dog. As a source of food and people, the animals naturally gravitated towards the welcoming terraces, where many a new expat fresh out of the UK was more than happy to take pity and share the remains of their meal, or even sneak some food down in a bag. The bar owners didn’t like this, but what can they do ….. the customer is always right!

The problem with this approach is that it encourages unnatural colonies, which leads to higher levels of breeding and infection, so more strays require more food. Initially this wasn’t too bad as many an expat would adopt the strays, but supply always outstripped demand, especially when the local Spanish figured out these ‘mad Brits’ and started dumping unwanted pets at the bars.

To make things worse as some of the expat community has returned back to the UK, many have left their adopted pets as more often or not they hadn’t bothered to register, vaccinate, sterilise and passport them. In many cases they have returned to live with family members, having no residence in the UK, and no chance of selling their Spanish dream home.

Our project started off raising funds to sterilise the stray cats, in an attempt to keep the population under control, and the spread of diseases to a minimum, but the reality is it was like shoveling water up hill, the more we sterilised the more got dumped.

Fortunately we were able to find the German charity Katzenherzen to work with and so had an option to re-home and transport the cats, so long as we could overcome the logistical, financial and operational issues: fostering the cats until they were ready to travel, freeing up space in rescue homes for the cats requiring long term care before they could travel, funding the vaccinations, sterilisations, treatments and transport.

We have been exceptionally lucky that a number of the local bars have stepped forward and helped us: not only do they fund raise, but they spread the word, help find foster homes, explain to the visiting tourists about the work that we do and encourage the second property owners to get involved.

Of course we are not unique in our endeavours, as many an expat across the world has got involved in animal rescue, and trust me it is a huge help to have other to turn to for advise, a chat, a laugh at the sheer absurdity that our lives have become, and to share in the sheer unadulterated joy that re-homing an abandoned, and given up for lost, animal brings to your life.

“I have been helping Nuria Blanco of Amigos de los Galgos since 2008…the asso is based in Madrid, works with refuges in both Madrid and Toledo. I help by being a Famille d’acceuil, foster family…and have adopted several dogs also. I drive to the border near Irun to meet with Nuria and collect dogs from time to time, and have also done some fundraising and awareness activities here in France.” A familiar story from Joanna Simm in France who works with Beryl Brennan on Galgo News (www.galgonews.com) and put me in touch with the amazing 112 Carlota Galgos whose story is also far too well known to many an animal rescue expat.

“Sadly, despite the effort the Spanish galgo finds itself the most punished breed of dog there is in Spain. Over 50,000 galgos are left abandoned each year and the numbers are soaring. These are figures of rescues, the rest we dont know. While kept by galgueros, few are kept well. They are fed on stale bread, mouldy and live in their own dirt. Skinny hungry bodies, no beds but just cold concrete to lie on. The hunger reigns, the cold chills and the body aches, but still they try their upmost. The inevitable just isnt an option.

If regarded as a tool and no longer wanted they are just left to their own devices, abandonment for others like ourselves to take on the broken bodies we find on the roads, or atrocities seen. “Well its a galgo, they can hunt for their food” a phrase said by some who see a galgo abandoned!! Not a thought for rescuing it.

The main way a galguero will rid a galgo, is by either dumping a truck load at the local municipal perrera, or hanging his galgo. This has a name, its called “playing the piano” for the way in which the galgo is hung. Reaching death, takes hours and hours of suffering. Many an atrocity happens, burnt, tendons pulled out, dragged behind a vehicle for not having run fast enough …. the list goes on. ” A heart wrenching story from Charl de Rio (www.112carlotagalgos.blogspot.com) and you can read more on these magnificent animals plight and ways in which you can help at www.almerimarlife.com/spanish-galgo

Of course it is hard and depressing at times, but the satisfaction to be gained is immense, and how else would I have become the proud owner of a White Van which I drive 4,000km every month with an ex Royal Marine (Mick) to Germany transporting up to 36 cats at a time. I doubt I would have found myself sharing a car to Malaga with one of the largest German lorry drives you could ever wish to meet, who also happened to have one of the largest hearts you could ever want, and was kindly flying back with 4 kittens to Germany. A comical pair we made indeed me 6ft 4ins and him 22st as we checked in and fussed over the four 6 month old kittens for 2 hours!

On one transport we were pulled over and breathalsyed in a small village in northern Spain at 4am, although the Guardia seemed somewhat bemused as to what he should do with the 30 cats we had in the back!

On one of our early transports a cat escaped and then spent 6 hours curled up asleep on my knee as my co-driver rose to the task and put in an extra long shift at the wheel.

We have called the local fire brigade out to rescue a cat from the roof of a apartment hotel that were for sale and the owner was refusing us permission to have access to rescue the cat, and we once kept vigil 24/7 in our apartment for 16 days on a small kitten with a badly broken leg, Sands and I ensuring that one of us was in the apartment at all times as the leg had been pinned and we couldn’t let the pin come out ….. we subsequently adopted Fleur.

As you will have guessed I wouldn’t want it any other way. While re-homing and transporting abandoned, rescued and stray cats was the last thing I thought Sands and I would be doing, it is exactly why we moved away from the UK to live in Spain: to do something with meaning, that felt real, that we could do together and get immense satisfaction from. It has given me a better insight into the culture and workings of the country we now live in, and while I don’t agree with much of what they do by way of (non) treatment of their animals, we have learnt to work within their culture rather than battle it, and have been relieved to find that a huge number of Spaniards are thoroughly decent and want to help, a perception I would never have got if we hadn’t got involved. We have met some great people both here in Spain and in Germany, and it is heart warming to know that there are so many exceptional people doing what they can to help these animals, who after all ask for little more than warmth, security, food and love, yet in return give so much back.

I once explained it to a sceptic that it wasn’t about giving the animal a life, you were giving it it’s world. Our own worlds are vast, with numerous options and opportunities, but for these animals what we are able to give them, a new home, is their whole world, and that is a amazing gift to be able to help in some small part to give.

People say that the cats are lucky that we able to help them but I don’t see it that way. I think it is Sands and I that are the lucky ones, to be able to help in some small way give these animals an second chance.

I will leave the final word to Tina Solera the founder of Galgos del Sol (www.galgosdelsol.es) as she says it perfectly:

“To be honest we moved to Spain for a quieter life but I got to the point that I couldn’t close my eyes anymore to the suffering of these dogs, especially galgos, once I had done the first rescue I couldn’t stop. I used to rescue them and try and find them places with other charities but more often than not there were no places. This then developed into me forming the charity Galgos del Sol as I needed to raise money to fund each galgo/dog and also to re-home them. The problem is galgos usually arrive injured or ill so they cost alot of money to treat with the vets. It’s something that has taken over my life and not always for the best. It takes it’s toll on family life and the emotional pressure gets too much. Today I may have to put a 2 mth old puppy to sleep… where’s the justice, but his condition is non treatable. On the other hand the happy endings always make it worth it.”

Reference Sites:

ALStrays (www.alstrays.com)
Galgo News (www.galgonews.com)
Galgos del Sol (www.galgosdelsol.es)
112 Carlota Galgos (www.112carlotagalgos.blogspot.com)

Please feel free to search on Google for the published versions of these columns.

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