A new documentary focuses on those volunteers around the world, including Cyprus, who help stray dogs
Tell me about your dog and I will tell you who you are.
I address the question to Christina Georgiou, the 39-year-old award-winning filmmaker and musician, who right now is in the middle of producing “The Stray Story: A dogumentary”.
Her 100-minute documentary aims to raise awareness of the plight of 200 million stray dogs worldwide.
Christina launches into an all too familiar story, one that many of this island’s animal lovers can identify with easily.
“His name is Leo. He is a six-year-old golden retriever/kokoni mix. Five years ago, he was on death row in a dog shelter in Nicosia. When I saw him I decided to foster him. So, I picked him up and had him neutered and called him Eddie. A week later, I had a phone call from a vet who told me that Eddie’s real name was Leo and that he had been already abandoned twice. No wonder he had abandonment issues! Every time he was put in a car, he would vomit. Why? Because a car to him meant he was about to be dumped again.”
So was Leo’s the love story that inspired Christina, holder of a PhD in music and an enviably talented multidisciplinary artist, to start working on her documentary about stray dogs and the volunteers who try to help them?
Christina shakes her head.
“As a volunteer, I had worked in many Cypriot shelters, those with a no-kill policy as well as those that put down the dogs after a certain period of time if they have not been re-homed.”
It was working at one of the ‘kill shelters’ that became the spur for the film.
“One day the person in charge came and asked me to help her put some of the dogs into a truck. She was crying at the time and it hit me that the dogs were being taken to a vet and would be put down,” she says.
“This really shook me up a lot. I had to find my own way of helping all these animals because I could not continue if I had to deal with experiences as traumatic as the one I described.”
Christina Georgiou hastens to add that she is fully conversant with the whole kill or no-kill shelter debate and that she understands very clearly that both approaches seek to deal with the same underlying problem of abandonment and neglect. She also realised that she could no longer serve as a volunteer in the kill shelters.
Instead, she determined to focus on trying to identify the key causes of Cyprus’ ever-growing stray dog population. Once she could fathom the underlying causes she believed she would be able to start finding solutions. That epiphany of several years ago is now the driving force behind her global research efforts.
Given her artistic background and experience in the movie industry, it comes as no surprise that Christina, who not only composes film scores but writes screenplays and produces movies, would look to the documentary format in order to make her impassioned plea for greater awareness and more compassion about how this world should address the issue of how stray animals are treated.
People worldwide need to be alerted and educated about how badly strays are dealt with, just as they need to be made familiar with the activities of the countless sympathetic volunteers who daily strive to redress the problem through their dedicated efforts. Christina’s documentary not only spells out the scale of the problem, but she shows people how individually and collectively they too can help improve the fate of millions of abandoned dogs worldwide.
“I thought a lot about what kind of film it should be. One thing I was certain of was that it has to have a positive approach because people, as a rule, don’t want to watch anything bad and feel bad about it. So I and some of my volunteer friends (e.g. well-known frontline cameraman and documentarian David Hands, and Paul Iacovou from the digital-branding agency Navajo) decided that the film will talk about what has been done about this issue and in this way show what the problems are.”
Summing up, she explains, “the aim is to bring people closer to the subject in a positive way.”
The documentary focuses on multiple locations – the United States and Puerto Rico, Great Britain, Greece, Cyprus, Holland and Romania. In each, the viewer is introduced to individuals who devote much of their free time to helping stray dogs.
In the Netherlands, the country that is most successful in solving the problem, Christina’s crew interviews some officials to learn how it has been achieved.
In Romania, where there are millions of strays, the Cypriot filmmaker meets Andreea Roseti, the president of Animal Life in Sibiu, who has been voluntarily helping stray dogs for more than a decade.
“Romania is a very interesting case because the issue of stray dogs there has become a business for some people thanks to legislation that requires the state to pay around 80 euros for every stray dog caught. Nobody cares what happens to these dogs afterwards. Some are killed immediately. Some are taken to dog pounds where they are kept in dire conditions. But the bottom line is that there are people there who make a living from catching stray dogs. Think of it – if they catch 10 dogs a day that’s 800 euros. Neutering the same dog would cost only 30 euros but you can imagine what is going on,” Christina explains.
“However, in Sebiu, thanks to people like Andreea, the situation is improving. Local activists run spay and neuter campaigns there and they also try to educate people. You can see a difference in the streets of this town. There are not that many stray dogs roaming about any more. This brings hope.”
Other standouts in Christina Georgiou’s documentary include the former Greek dentist and night club owner Takis Proestakis, widely known as “the Saint of dogs”. In 2012, he quit his job and opened a private dog shelter in Ierapetra in Crete.
Then there’s Puerto Rican forensic neuropsychologist Norma Torres who lives in the US and who was responsible for introducing pet therapy into the most notorious of pounds, the American prison system, thus trying to help both abused dogs and inmates.
Cyprus is represented by air traffic controller Nicos Kountouris, the director of the NGO Zootropion Humane Education Society Against Animal Cruelty, who in his spare time visits schools on the island, educating kids about companion animal welfare.
“With the exception of Proestakis who runs his shelter full time, all these people are volunteers who have their jobs, families and social circles yet still find time to help animals. Each of them has found a different solution about how to do it,” Christina notes admiringly.
So out of all these disparate places, she researched in-depth for her film which would she rate as the worst? Christina says the answer is not that obvious.
“Starting this project I thought Cyprus is really bad but then after I looked around I realised other countries are horrible as well with some much worse than Cyprus…,” she explains.
“Of course, Romania is awful but if you think that, for example, the situation in Florida where we were filming is much better you would be mistaken. They have no legislation there to protect animals – people can breed them freely and abandon them just as freely as well…Even in the UK, where there is a good legal system in place, thousands of dogs are abandoned every year,” she continues.
“The best situation is in Holland. But that is not because their actual law is much better than here in Cyprus but rather that they enforce it. Plus they put very high taxes on dog breeders and sellers and even buyers… so high that people actually have no choice but go and adopt from shelters… Not to mention huge fines for abandoning or mistreating a pet. In Holland simply everybody thinks twice before doing anything like this.”
One thing that has become abundantly clear to Christina while making her documentary is that the way animals are treated does not depend on whether a country is rich and poor.
“The truth is that there are 200 million stray dogs in the world and lots of them don’t come from the underdeveloped or less prosperous countries. They come from countries where people are well off and there is no excuse as to why they are treated so badly.”
That is why Christina describes her movie as not only being about animals but also about humans and their social relations.
“This film has evolved into a social document about how we lost track of what is important and turned everything into a disposable product. Our relationship with dogs is also a symbol of this attitude. We feel we can reproduce them as we please and exchange them for different models or get rid of them if they don’t meet our expectations. We have commercialised everything and allowed everything to be measured in terms of monetary profit. The man who runs the dog shelter in Crete finds puppies in the trash – this is a very powerful message.”
The cost of the film production is being almost entirely covered by Christina’s own pocket while members of her team either work completely for free or for minimal wages. All travelling and shoots happen during Christina’s breaks from work – in addition to her artistic ventures, she also works part-time as a teacher at the University of Nicosia. At present, her documentary is almost 80 per cent completed. The aim is to finish the whole movie by 2020 and then disseminate it as widely as possible around the globe by sending it to film festivals, distributing it online and to TV stations, and by offering it to animal welfare NGOs for use in their public awareness campaigns.
In keeping with Christina’s intent of showing how we can all get involved in making this world a better place for abandoned animals, you too can help, should you wish, by making a donation, however small, to complete production of this documentary.
If you are interested, please donate at: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-stray-story-a-dogumentary?fbclid=IwAR0X0VLBjr0YK4E4NztB5mSZtE-NFtw_lR0z7vs76Z4rlaeOZLvmL#/
The deadline for this crowdfunding is August 9.
Also feel free to follow and share the film’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/thestraystory) or visit its website (www.thestraystory.com).