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Surrounded by dogs

One woman not only runs a dog shelter but also keeps around 20 animals in her own home. THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman so deep into looking after them there is no way out

I park outside the sun-bleached, neglected-looking house on the road into Tseri, just outside Nicosia, and walk to the gate. The front yard is cluttered and dusty, the outside wall topped by a thin, foot-high wire fence; a sign above the gate reads ‘Beware of the Dog’. This is something of an understatement (to put it mildly), then again a sign saying ‘Beware of the 25 Dogs’ might be too conspicuous. I pause at the gate and call Constantina Constantinou’s number, as instructed. She prefers to come and meet me at the gate, then sit outside on plastic chairs; a stranger walking in on so many dogs might cause pandemonium.

There are indeed (approximately) 25 dogs here, almost all of them inside the house – in the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, and two rooms downstairs leading out to the garden. “The living room doesn’t have a sofa, or a table or anything!” she reports gleefully. Much of the house looks deserted. The only TV is in the bedroom, though it doesn’t get much use; Constantina watches the occasional show – “just to relax, and not think about dogs” – but generally falls asleep within minutes.

The number of dogs is approximate because it varies: 14 are permanent residents – 10 are hers, the others she fosters – then the rest come and go. The high-water mark was 42 dogs in total; it’s now (perhaps) 23, though she loses track when she tries to list them all. Two left the house a couple of days ago, adopted by new owners in the UK, then two more arrived last night – one found abandoned, the other a six-week-old puppy whom she cradles inside her jacket as we talk. Most of the temporary guests come from Saving Pound Dogs Cyprus (SPDC), the shelter she co-founded with Elena Papaleontiou four years ago: most are either puppies awaiting vaccination or else dogs with health problems, staying at her place till they’re cured “so that the child – I mean the dog – can be put up for adoption again”.

That child/dog slip of the tongue may seem significant. There’s a stereotype here, and not a very nice one: the lonely, embittered ‘dog lady’, lavishing attention on her mutts to compensate for having no life of her own. This is not the case with Constantina. For one thing, she has actual children – a son and a daughter, both now in their 20s – as well as dogs. For another, she has a partner, a brave man named Andreas who doesn’t mind sharing her life (and home) with two dozen animals. She also had an excellent job, having been an advanced instructor in Thai therapeutic massage – she even gave college seminars – before packing it in to concentrate on strays. Above all, she doesn’t seem angry or embittered, an effusive 47-year-old with sharp green eyes, a loud clear voice (a useful tool when talking to animals), and dog hairs all over her black top.

Activists often come across as frustrated, lashing out at the world – but the most attractive thing about Constantina is her positivity, seeking solutions instead of bemoaning the problems. She’s assertive, to be sure. She’s no shrinking violet. One example: her street is wrongly marked on Google Maps – it says ‘Tseriou’ when it should say ‘Strovolou’ – and she pestered Google for ages, trying to get them to change it (only stopping when she realised, regretfully, that Google are too big to care about some street name in Cyprus). Another example: her dog was stolen four years ago, and she went all-out trying to get him back. “I put paid ads on Facebook. I notified the UN, all the vets, all the police stations”. It’s not wholly clear why she got the UN involved – but the incident of the lost dog still turned out to be life-changing. Searching for her pet made her aware, for the first time, of the chaotic, ever-increasing number of stray dogs in Cyprus; shocked by the extent of the problem, she co-founded SPDC in order to help, and the rest followed naturally. “I got in so deep,” she recalls with a shrug, “that I couldn’t get out”.

It’s not just a question of housing unwanted dogs (though some 35 dogs are indeed housed at the organisation’s shelter in Psimolofou); SPDC, which is registered in the UK as well as Cyprus, also arranges the transport of dogs for adoption, working with British charities to find likely owners. Many strays are saved in this way, maybe 100 a week from all over the island – yet “the dogs keep coming,” she marvels, shaking her head. “They just keep on coming”. Whether abused or abandoned, escapees from hunters’ cages or puppies left to fend for themselves, our population of lost canine souls continues to grow – which is all the more depressing since it could be contained, and quite easily.

Constantina isn’t dogmatic (no pun intended!) about this; the steps which could be taken “might not be as simple as I make them out to be,” she concedes – yet she’s convinced the problem could be straightened out within five years, if the authorities would just get their act together. The basic solution is simple enough: an island-wide neutering programme, financed either through municipal dog-licence fees or a small contribution (five euros, say) from each of the 50,000 or so hunters’ licences. Compulsory neutering is apparently unconstitutional – but there’s surely a simple solution in viewing owners who refuse to sterilise their dogs as breeders, the much higher fee being a powerful disincentive.

That would take some political will, I point out.

“There’s no will,” she agrees gloomily. “They’re not interested.” She shrugs, with an air of having heard it all before: “You’ll say to me, there’s so much unemployment, so many illnesses. So many social problems. I agree with you! There are, and they’ll never disappear. But this problem, the problem of the stray dogs, can be solved!… I mean, do we have to fix all the other problems first, and ignore this one? If it can be solved, take action. Do it!”. So much money could be saved, all the money now being spent on ferrying animals and importing food and medicines; so much suffering could be avoided, too. “No-one listens,” she admits. “The [draft] law on animal welfare just keeps going around like a ping-pong ball, from Parliament to the Attorney-General’s office to public consultations to the Ministry of Agriculture to the Ministry of the Interior to Veterinary Services…” Constantina shakes her head, stymied – at least for now – by our infamous bureaucracy.

She doesn’t seem too downhearted, though; her energy is too buoyant for that. She doesn’t even seem especially fazed by living in a house with two dozen dogs – even though her career change four years ago has completely upended her life (and you can’t even call it a career change, since she doesn’t get paid; her only salary from SPDC is a stipend for the dogs she fosters). “We don’t go anywhere,” she admits. She and Andreas don’t even go to the beach, let alone on holiday. She did briefly visit her daughter in England three years ago, but those few days took a month of preparation. Her replacements – volunteers from the shelter – had to note down everything: which dogs eat when, how much they eat, who takes what medicine, who goes out (to the garden) with whom. “Because when you have more than two dogs, it becomes a pack. So you have to be careful”.

Constantina takes precautions. The dogs eat in groups, not all together. Toys are only handed out in her presence, to avoid fights; food is removed as soon as her charges have eaten. Still, her life sounds insane. “Everything is done on a schedule. I usually wake up between 5.45 and 6.15 – and I’m not a morning person, not at all. I hate waking up early.” (Her phone goes off every night at 11, to remind her to go to bed.) The dogs go outside and she starts preparing food for them, only then making a cup of coffee for herself to drink while she watches them eat, two dozen yapping mutts having to be coaxed and corralled first thing in the morning – then it’s off to the vet’s, or the shelter, or the airport, spiced with a daily assortment of life-or-death crises.

The phone keeps ringing throughout our conversation, two emergencies going on at once: “We’ve lost a cat,” she explains (dogs have to be certified cat-friendly for adoption purposes, so the shelter has a number of cats to accustom them), and meanwhile an adoption’s gone wrong in the UK, a dog hasn’t gelled with his new family and a new home must be found asap. A volunteer calls, seeking advice; “It’s a Thomson flight, and you’ll need two copies of each trace,” she explains, a ‘trace’ being a dog’s official document. Two more dogs have been rescued. A beagle is poorly.

The house, when I venture inside, is spacious but dark and inevitably smelly, with some equally inevitable puddles on the floor. (Keeping it clean is a constant battle.) The dogs, on the other hand, are incredibly quiet – we barely hear them bark from outside, which presumably explains why the neighbours accept this unusual arrangement – and seem calm and happy. Constantina lets them out briefly and two of them cluster around me, a pointer named Leda and a little-bit-of-everything named Toni; Leda sniffs at me trustingly, putting her face next to mine, while Toni puts her head in my lap, swooning as I stroke her and tapping me with her paw – as if to say ‘No, don’t stop now!’ – every time I try to move on.

Animal lovers will call Constantina a hero; others may wonder why anyone would inflict such a complicated life on themselves, for no obvious reward. Her childhood offers possible clues, having been unusual and rather solitary. Her mother was twice divorced, and had her at 44 (she has two much older siblings, from her mum’s first marriage). Mother and daughter were uprooted from Famagusta and settled in Limassol, where Mum worked as a cleaner – but the neighbourhood (around Heroes’ Square) was disreputable so the girl was confined to the house, reading voraciously, her only company being three cats named Shakespeare, Moliere and Psathas (after the Greek comic writer). She and her mother appear to have clashed often. She worked for two summers picking grapes then used the money to buy a motorbike, at 14; “I was not an easy child”. She already knew, based on all the history books she’d read, that the world was an ugly place and she didn’t want to bring children into it – but her mum had the last word, marrying her off at 18, an arranged marriage that limped on for a decade, produced two kids, and led to her “losing the plot” in her early 20s.

All this serves as preface to her current chapter, and may go some way towards ‘explaining’ her. She’s always been a bit unconventional. She’s always – despite her bubbly, extrovert nature – been a little withdrawn. She’s always stood up for animals. When Shakespeare and Co. turned out to be females (with kittens), her angry mother issued an ultimatum: “Either those cats go, or you go!”. The teen’s response was to stalk out, cats in tow, and move to the carob tree at the bottom of the garden, refusing to come down till her mum (who’d come after her with a broomstick) relented, and allowed her to keep the kittens.

It’s a cute story – but in fact there’s no greater arc to her life, no inevitable dotted line from A to B to C. Things just happen. She and Elena were merely volunteering at the dog pound four years ago, recalls Constantina, “it was never in our dreams, or our goals, to launch our own shelter and get into debt – because right now we have a debt of some €70,000 to pay”. The plan is to buy the current place in Psimolofou, and a loan’s been taken out for half the price (the other half was met through donations, mostly from the UK though they have some Cypriot patrons too). Money is tight in general, adding to the stress of constant canine emergencies. Time is even tighter. Everyday chores like cooking and laundry often get neglected; she once had to go out and buy Andreas some new socks and underwear, just so the man would have something to wear. “You’ll tell me, ‘It’s your choice’,” she shrugs, once again pre-empting criticism. “Fine, my choice. But someone has to care. I don’t care, you don’t care, he doesn’t care… Who’s going to care?”

That’s the point, in the end: it’s not (just) about dogs, it’s about compassion. Constantina notes that the animal lovers she knows tend to be charitable in general, helping those in need whether two- or four-legged. After all, “doing an act of kindness, for an animal who needs you or for a human being, is also what makes you human. We all complain about other people’s behaviour – that they’re rude, they’re demanding and I don’t know what else. But change starts with us, not with other people”. She doesn’t come across as self-righteous – more a kindly, feisty, cheerful, impulsive woman who got in so deep, as she says, that she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get out. I leave her to it, brushing Toni’s fur off my shirt as I head back to the car.

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