The outspoken woman seen on Facebook near the flames of the recent large fire tells THEO PANAYIDES about the dire situation facing stray animals in Cyprus
The pictures were shared all over Facebook, a young girl (actually 35, but she looks younger) cradling a dog on a scrubby dirt road. They were dated July 6, a few days after the deadly wildfire – “the worst forest fire in the history of Cyprus,” according to the Forestry Department – that ravaged several villages in the Limassol district. “These dogs are still in my possession, which were found in the fire,” wrote Kiveli Georgiou, giving her phone number for the owners to contact her. She and other volunteers rescued 70-80 dogs and cats, nearly getting killed in the process.
We chat in a café down the road from 4 Paws Paradise, the pet shop she runs in the Ayia Fyla neighbourhood of Limassol. She’s brisk and friendly, having first made sure that our table has an ashtray before sitting down (she’s a pack-a-day smoker; it’s her only bad habit), but in fact we’re talking at cross-purposes. I’m trying to find out about her life; her main concern, on the other hand, is to send out a message – more like a desperate plea – about the situation with stray and abandoned dogs in Cyprus, which is dire and getting worse by the day.
“It’s a huge problem,” she intones. “Every single shelter is full. And the state doesn’t help with expenses at all, all the expenses are down to us”. Shelters are barely keeping their heads above water, volunteers – including her, though she’s not with a shelter – work multiple jobs trying to make money for their canine charges. Kiveli has the pet shop, which is also a grooming salon – but she also works as a waitress a few times a week, and also has a stake in a fast-food place called Mr Burger in Ayia Fyla where she spends the evenings serving customers. In between she goes home, home being a rented house with a big garden (and accommodating neighbours) in the village of Kivides where she currently lives with – wait for it – 28 dogs, 16 of her own plus 12 temporary lodgers who’ve been rescued from the streets or their previous owners.
Can’t be easy, looking after so many animals.
“I’ve devoted my whole life to dogs. I even have nine babies in a special room, I raised them – they’d been tossed in the garbage – I bottle-fed them, they were five days old at the time.” The puppies needed feeding every three hours so she’d take them along – all nine of them – everywhere she went for a while; they’re a month old now, able to eat on their own, parked in an air-conditioned room with food and water (she cooks them chicken). Kiveli actually has three ‘special rooms’ at her place, designed for dogs who need privacy from other dogs – and a group of new guests are actually arriving on the day of our interview, a mother and six pups from a shelter in the mountains.
Sounds very virtuous – and it is, of course. “You’re like Mother Theresa for animals,” raves a gushy comment on Kiveli’s Facebook page. Unlike Mother Theresa, however, she’s not much for meekness and piety, and would probably make a very bad nun. She smokes, she gets angry; she loves music, and playing the bouzouki. She was – and presumably still is – mad for motorbikes, and owned four of them as a teen (more like scooters than Harley-Davidsons, but still). “I like getting wild,” she assures me. “I like parties, I like having fun. I’m a positive person.” On her Facebook, in between the heartwarming doggy pics, she makes funny videos skewering some of the bizarre behaviours she sees in her work, a case of laughing to avoid getting furious.
“Yes, hello,” she says in one video, taking a phone call in the car (the video is called ‘Toppouzokypraios taktika gegonota’, roughly translating as ‘Bonehead Cypriot, a regular occurrence’). “Two dogs on the highway?” she says to the unseen caller, keeping a straight face throughout. “Did you pick them up?… Oh I see, you can’t, you’re on your way to work… No, no, I’m here by the café, I’ve got time. Where are they?… Skarinou?” she repeats with a frown. (Skarinou is almost halfway to Nicosia.) “No, it’s just that I need 25 minutes to get there – so, since you can’t pick them up yourself, just tell them to go sit down by the bench and wait for me. After all, we don’t want them getting hit by a car… Tell them to wait for me there, when you tell them Kiveli’s on her way they’ll wait for me, they won’t move a muscle… Okay? Great.” She nods grimly; the sarcasm goes without saying.
The phone call is fictional, of course – but that type of call is surprisingly frequent. Whether because she’s a bit outspoken and people know her, or just because she leaves her number all over Facebook, not a day goes by without some stranger calling to report a stray-animal sighting (this is in addition to the shelters with which she collaborates, like the one sending the mother and six puppies). What’s frustrating, of course, is that most people feel they’ve done their duty just by reporting it – taking care of the problem is someone else’s business – not to mention those who call to say they no longer want their dog, and could she come take him off their hands. “There are people who get a dog, then say ‘I don’t want him anymore, he’s grown too big’,” she fumes. “It’s not that simple. A dog is like a child, it’s a member of the family!”
Her life has changed radically in the past five years, since she started rescuing. Her pet shop is a small, rather dark shop, its shelves stacked with bags of pet food. Kiveli’s dog Biscuit takes a few wary steps towards me, dragging her body along the floor (Biscuit was found on the street, presumably hit by a car; her hind legs are completely paralysed), while a mewling, scrawny, extremely friendly kitten extends a tiny paw through the bars of a small cage. The kitten – who’s recovering from an injury – is an outlier; ordinarily the shop is just for dogs who’ve been brought here for grooming. The rescue side of things is kept separate – by design, since it tends to take over emotionally.
“It’s a lot more soul-destroying,” she admits. “You see animals abused, neglected… I’ve seen dogs being beaten, dogs who are just skin and bones, half-dead. I’ve seen dogs with their legs cut off.” Kiveli sighs, reciting a well-worn mantra: “Unfortunately they don’t give enough fines in Cyprus. They don’t enforce the laws as they should. We find dogs thrown in the trash, especially babies. In fields. Dogs with their legs bruised and battered. I once found a dog who’d had acid thrown at him.”
Her experiences are by no means unique, in fact all volunteers have similar experiences; unsurprisingly, a community seems to have sprung up. She seldom goes out in the evenings, says Kiveli – her days are so long, it hardly seems worth the trouble – but she logs in to a chat group every night where local rescuers (around 30 people in all) decompress by sharing about their day. This was the group that came together during the forest fire, springing into action like the proverbial well-oiled machine.
Kiveli hadn’t planned to confront the flames. She was near Moni, where a shelter briefly looked like being in harm’s way, when she got a call from a friend – a cat rescuer – in Melini, one of the villages in the midst of the conflagration; “She was saying she was surrounded by fire and couldn’t leave her house”. Kiveli instantly posted an alert on Facebook – and, within minutes, a group of volunteers had arrived at the site, along with a couple of trucks from animal shelters. They couldn’t get through to Melini (their friend fortunately managed to escape anyway) but decided to do what they could, roaming the area – mostly driving, sometimes on foot – picking up hurt or stranded animals and taking them back to the trucks, assailed by smoke and the tang of burned flesh. “The wind was so strong,” she recalls. “The fire came down the hill like a river, it was that swift, it was unbelievable… It’s the worst thing I’ve seen in my life.”
She was reckless, she admits it. She went perilously close to the flames, and twice came close to dying; the second time, walking near the fire, “I couldn’t breathe from the smoke”, and might easily have passed out (a Civil Defence car picked her up and drove her to safety). That’s just her style, shrugs Kiveli; she’s always been a risk-taker, one of those naturally fearless people. (She has no particular fear of Covid, either.) It might even explain why she’s so good with animals. What’s the secret of bonding with beasts? “Not being afraid of them,” she replies instantly. “Otherwise you transmit your fear to them.” So much cruelty to animals may be linked to some moment in childhood when a well-meaning parent sowed the seeds of fear, pulling a child back from a friendly dog because it was ‘dirty’ or ‘dangerous’.
Her own parents were apparently not like that – though we don’t talk much about her family, and in fact it sounds like her early years were marked by some tension. (Were the animals an escape, I wonder?) “I’ve been working since I was 12 years old,” she declares, that early independence being part of the reason why she grew up so fearless; she’d help out at the veterinary clinic down the road from her house – and I thought she meant a couple of hours after school but in fact she worked there till late, even as a child. “I got out of school and went straight to the vet’s. I didn’t go home. Due to – certain situations, I didn’t want to stay at home. I preferred to work.”
She doesn’t elaborate – but it’s also true that she wanted to become a vet herself, and left school with good grades, but again “due to certain family situations I wasn’t able to go and study”. (Instead she became a dog groomer, having worked at a grooming salon since the age of 15.) Then there were the bikes, and a certain wild streak; she and her friends were “the special ones, let’s say”, the cool kids, the fast crowd. She was also a competitive swimmer, on the team of the Limassol Nautical Club – then shattered her knees in a motorbike accident, which put paid to that. Her teenage years sound decidedly turbulent.
Then again, it’s hard to know – because I want to talk about her life but Kiveli Georgiou wants to talk about more important stuff, pleading on behalf of the thousands of stray dogs in Cyprus and the harried volunteers trying to take care of them, battling abuse and indifference. Many have now given up, exhausted – but meanwhile the problem keeps growing. Even the recently created ‘animal police’ hasn’t made a difference, she sighs; the cops mean well but they’re ill-equipped and have nowhere to put the strays, so it comes back to shelters again. If only more people helped out, she pleads – even just for a couple of hours on the weekends, to walk the dogs and contribute a few tins of food. It would make such a difference.
And what of her own future? She’s only 35; doesn’t she want to find a human (not canine) partner, and perhaps settle down? The stereotype of the elderly ‘dog lady’ looms on the horizon, talking to her animals and never going out of the house. “Well, I already talk to my animals,” jokes Kiveli – but no, she’s not particularly looking to find someone; she’s happy with her life as it is. Besides, she adds thoughtfully, she can understand why a ‘dog lady’ might end up withdrawing from life, if she’s been hurt once too often. People hurt each other, that’s a given; she, Kiveli, has been hurt too – but quitting isn’t her style, and she’s not ready to withdraw just yet. She rescues strays, works three jobs, nurses puppies, dabbles in satire, smokes like a chimney, and lots more besides. In the end, the description on her Facebook page says it all: ‘Animal lover’.