The last thing Paola Mieli expected when she first visited the Greek island of Amorgos was to end up founding a non-profit to help ease the island’s stray cat problem.
She first visited the idyllic Greek island as a tourist and fell in love with its beauty, laid back lifestyle— and cats.
To most, Greece’s cats provide cute instagram photos, topics of wall calendars and wonderful memories of felines rubbing at you, waiting for that scrap of left over fish at the seaside taverna.
The reality for the animals, however, is much different. Locals often treat them like rodents and sometimes use poison to rid their villages of the overpopulation of cats.
In the summer months they may be well-fed by the unsuspecting tourist but thousands starve during the winter months when the tavernas close and the tourist seasons come to an end.
Paola founded Animal Zone International in 2007, a New York City-based non-profit organization to focus on the stray cat problem on Amorous, which she eventually returned to year after year, hoping to do something positive and constructive about the terrible condition of cats and other animals on the island.
In addition to the stray cat problem, AZI has worked to alleviate the abuse of donkeys and horses, as well as neglected and abandoned dogs on the island.
The organization has made tremendous headway, hoping to build a successful model that can be transplanted to other islands in the future. AZI brought veterinarians to the island to sterilize cats and help control the population on the port side of the island, but on the other side of the island, overpopulation was still rampant.
Paola reached out to Paula Fasseas, who founded PAWS Chicago in the 1990s after she and her family met and adopted a stray terrier they named Pippen while on vacation on her ancestral island of Crete.
Today, PAWS Chicago is the largest no-kill shelter for stray dogs and cats in the Midwest and a model facility that emphasizes a combination of education, spaying and neutering, adoption, as well as training of animals to ensure that none ever need to be euthanized.
When PAWS Chicago was founded by Fasseas, the City of Chicago was euthanizing upwards of 45,000 strays. Today, thanks to the work of PAWS Chicago, that number hovers less than 10,000 and soon, Fasseas hopes Chicago will be a No-Kill city.
Fasseas offered her organization’s services to Mieli and together, AZI and PAWS Chicago have been able to control the population of stray cats on Amorgos.
Using the knowledge and expertise from PAWS Chicago’s existing “Trap-Neuter-Return” program; and funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the Peter and Paula Fasseas Foundation, the two organizations combined their efforts and headed to Amorgos.
A group of volunteers and two PAWS Chicago staff traveled to Amorgos to implement the Aeigiali Sterilization Project, a coordinated approach designed to spay and neuter as many of the feral and stray cats living near the village of Aegiali as possible before kitten season.
All in all, almost 200 cats were sterilized in a week. Incredibly, 86 of the 94 female cats were already pregnant.
“With no veterinary options on the island, this group brought in two vets from Athens and transformed an old slaughterhouse into a spay/neuter clinic right in our target area, said Laurie Maxwell, a PAWS Chicago community outreach manager.
“Trappers were climbing steep stairs into remote villages, and waiting patiently outside town dumpsters for cats while the clinic team prepped, cleaned and sterilized all of the cats.”
AZI acquired valuable insight from the experienced PAWS Chicago team, which runs a similar program in Chicago’s inner city. This way, the locals can follow a humane way of trapping cats, sterilizing them, and releasing them back into their natural habitat, while stopping the endless cycle of thousands of kittens being born annually, many of which end up starving or dead.
As it turned out, some Chicagoans fell in love with three cats from Amorgos and ended up bringing them back to the United States with them.
Just like Pippen, the terrier from Crete, who inspired Paula and her daughter Alexis Fasseas, to launch PAWS Chicago, the Chicago team hopes these three Greek cats will inspire their new American owners to do something to make a difference.
The Chicago team named the cats Litsa, Anastasia and Giorgos in honor of the three AZI staff who served as hosts, translators, guides and friends during the week on Amorgos.
One of the cats, Litsa, who is blind and required eye surgery through PAWS, has already been adopted. Most importantly, many thousands of kittens will not be born on Amorgos thanks to the collaboration of the PAWS Chicago and AZI teams.