Alix Norman meets the man who’s single-handedly caring for the island’s most frequently abandoned animals, and discovers how desperately he needs help
‘We currently have absolutely zero volunteers! If you can spare just a few hours a week, the dogs would love to meet you!’
A few weeks ago, this was the message Graham Shackleton posted on Facebook. As the founder of Rescue & Rehome Cyprus, he’s been struggling for a while. But with Covid, Brexit and the rising cost of living, help is now much harder to find – especially for a shelter that specialises in a different type of dog…
“From the very start, we’ve taken in the bigger dogs; the dogs that are always harder to rehome. In Cyprus especially, most people prefer small dogs. But at R&R, we specialise in rescuing and rehoming the larger breeds, Pit Bulls, Huskies, Rottweilers, Dobermans, and Mastiffs that have been abandoned by their owners and often end up in the pound.”
Bigger dogs are notoriously the most abandoned animals. Shelters worldwide report that they’re the most misunderstood of pets, often bought as an extension of the owner’s ego and then kicked to the kerb when they don’t fit conveniently into the lifestyle.
But there are countless other reasons, says Graham.
“Large breeds often have longer lifespans and specific needs – things that irresponsible owners rarely consider. Then there’s the cost: big dogs are amongst the most expensive pets to own; €1,000 each year at least. And with the money problems on this island – prohibitive rents and low salaries – it’s often these pets that are the first to be pushed out.”
Graham also takes in hunting dogs – “if they don’t ‘perform’ as their owners wish, they’re often left in the mountains to starve!” – as well as dogs whose owners have relocated.
“People repatriate, discover it costs €1,200 to transport their pet, and simply dump it. Or perhaps they’re moving into a new home and the landlord isn’t pet-friendly. Maybe the dog gets sick and the treatment is expensive. There are so many reasons,” he sighs, “and in Cyprus, big dogs are the first to be abandoned.”
The latest figures suggest that there are 200,000 stray dogs on the island. How many of those are larger breeds is anybody’s guess. But Graham is doing sterling work to reduce the problem.
“What we do is actually take in larger breeds, and give them the care they’ve been lacking,” he explains. “That could be anything from nursing them back to health, to basic socialisation and training, as well as all sorts of other stuff. We rehabilitate, retrain, and rehome – usually to the UK, Germany, or the US. And that takes a lot of work.”
Graham launched R&R in 2017 with help from kind-hearted sponsors.
“I’ve always loved big dogs,” he smiles. “When I was a kid in West Yorkshire, our neighbour had a boxer I doted on! So as soon as my wife and I settled here in Cyprus, we got our own boxer pups. And both of us began to help out at the local pounds and sanctuaries, fostering whenever possible.”
Today, Avdimou-based R&R has 30 big dogs – never more.
“Any more than that, and you can’t help,” says Graham. “You can’t find out who they are in terms of character; you can’t afford to feed or treat them; and you don’t have the time for training.”
R&R takes dogs from pounds all over the island, and are often contacted by the animal police and vet services. And every animal goes to Graham’s house before the sanctuary: “I’ll assess them, spend a couple of weeks on basic training and socialisation, make sure they can walk on a lead and sit on command.
“The better trained a dog, the more chance it has of finding a home,” he adds. “And many of the dogs that come to us have been neglected or ignored by owners who clearly didn’t have a clue.”
Over the years, Graham has rehomed well over 1,000 dogs. But that’s slowing down as help becomes harder to find.
“Four years ago, we had volunteers coming out of our ears! There were at least 30 regular helpers, mostly Germans and Brits. But Covid and Brexit have a lot to answer for. So does the cost of living in Cyprus: many expats have repatriated because their salaries or pensions don’t go anywhere near as far as they used to,” he suggests.
All of this has left Graham sadly lacking in help. “My wife and I are basically running the shelter alone while holding down full-time jobs. It would be incredible to have a few volunteers who could come up for just an hour or two each week.”
You don’t have to be familiar with big dogs to help out, says Graham. “By the time they leave my house and come to the sanctuary, all our dogs are respectful. But they still need walking, socialisation, feeding and cleaning. They need taking to the vet too,” he says, mentioning that most days he’s up at the shelter by 6am, and finishes the vet runs about 12 hours later.
“We’re doing our best for the big dogs of Cyprus,” he sighs. “But we need help. And who wouldn’t want to spend a bit of time with these gorgeous animals?
“We’ve got four Cane Corsos who are all complete goofballs! There’s Bailey and Mira, our two Rottweilers – both teddy bears. And Marlo, our retriever mix, is a dream: when he first arrived, he’d stand at the back of his kennel and shiver in fear when anyone approached. Now, he’s turned full circle; he’s such a confident boy, always looking for strokes and cuddles!”
Marlo is off to his new home in the UK very soon, along with Dexter, a Labrador mix.
“He’s a gem, is Dexter,” grins Graham. “A lovely old boy who came to us from a sanctuary in Polis. He’s found a great family in London; it will break my heart to see him leave. But the animals’ needs have to come first, and finding forever homes is what we do.
“If we just had a bit more help, I’m sure we’d have even more success stories,” he sighs. “In the past, our dogs would be with us for about three months before they were adopted. Now, it’s double that. We would be,” he concludes, “so grateful for any volunteer help. Please.”