by Katerina Lorenzatos Makris ~
Springtime in Greece can be heavenly, especially on the Ionian Islands. Newly sprouted wild herbs and flowers team up with pines, firs, and the tang of the salty sea to perfume cool breezes. Winter tempests are on their way out, leaving those azure seas in peace again. Gentler storms bring rainbows and birdsong while they bathe and freshen everything from the marble blocks of 3,000-year-old Mycenean walls to leafing vineyards to blooming olive orchards. Slowly rousing from the winter quiet, villages perk up to celebrate Easter, then prepare for the onslaught of summer tourists.
But for anyone who cares about animals, springtime in Greece can be hellish. Legions of homeless cats and dogs are pregnant, or have just given birth, or are already struggling to nurse and care for their little armies of helpless, hungry young.
In spring 2008 I had three such litters on my hands while on the island of Kefalonia. There were five puppies who I had found wandering in the middle of a busy road at only eight weeks old. There were three newborn pups I had heard crying in a garbage bin, their eyes not even opened yet. And there were three kittens produced by the dainty, green-eyed, orange tabby, barely past kittenhood herself, who had shown up on my doorstep starving, plaintively meowing, and very pregnant.
Spring is a time for new beginnings, but how to create safe, happy new lives for so many animals, by myself, and all at once?
Rescues upon rescues
The problem was that I wasn’t there to rescue animals. I wasn’t even there on vacation. I was supposed to be rescuing a house—my elderly aunt and uncle’s beloved old home. It was busily falling apart, due to the fact that they, at ages 86 and 97, respectively, had both developed severe dementia, and could no longer care for themselves, much less their property, financial affairs, or anything else.
We had already rescued them, thank heavens. On a visit a couple of years earlier in 2006 I had discovered their desperate situation and persuaded my husband that since no other relatives were willing or able to help, we had to do something.
We took Aunt Kallie Kouvielos and her husband Cpt. Mimi (Demetrios) Kouvielos back to the U.S., where they had lived for decades before they moved to Kefalonia for retirement. Using our own future retirement fund, Hubsy (a.k.a. the Saint) and I financed their pricey but well-deserved private care, until they both passed away six years later. As partial compensation, we received title to their home.
Hard to fight nature
Their house was a former elegant queen turned decrepit mess, and that’s putting it mildly. To save it was a full-time and complicated job, but it was the job I’d promised The Saint I would do while he stayed behind at our home in California to care for our pack of rescued pooches, oversee the caregivers for my aunt and uncle, and keep working at his own job so as to keep our whole ship afloat. I had absolutely no business taking on multiple litters of critters, whose care required most of my time.
But it’s hard to fight Mother Nature. If you follow Greek myth, that would be Demeter, with help from her daughter Persephone. These deities of earth and of spring do not fool around when they bring bounty and abundance, including abundance of homeless animals.
I couldn’t fight my own nature, either. It’s not in me to ignore puppies about to get hit by cars, nor canine infants in the rubbish screaming for help, nor the pleading look in the emerald eyes of a sweet feline mama-to-be.
As a mere mortal, how to cope with all those needy creatures? Keeping everyone fed, clean, healthy, and safe was no small feat. After a couple of weeks of trying to look after the eight orphaned puppies, in addition to the mom kitty, her boisterous brood of three, and several other cats left behind by fellow animal-lover Aunt Kallie, exhaustion slammed me like a freight train.
The older pups were now three months old and bursting with energy. In addition to mopping up after them and feeding them several times a day, I had to escort them out into the yard for supervised romps to tire them out.
The mama cat, an enthusiastic mouser who I had named Artemis after the Greek goddess of the hunt, along with her rapidly growing kittens were all determined to explore every inch of the house—even the unsafe parts from which I tried, mostly in vain, to bar them.
Finally, the round-the-clock bottle feedings for the infant trash puppies were the coup de grace. Running on just a few hours of sleep per night, it became a struggle even to think straight. I needed help.
Rescuing the rescuer
Fortunately, I’m not the only animal lover in Kefalonia. The island is blessed with a whole tribe of folks who work hard to save as many as possible. Or sometimes they have to rescue the rescuer, as in my case.
Several teams took turns, one week each, to foster and bottle-feed the infant puppies for me. Yianni and Zoe Gnesouli, Jean and Julian Spooner, Mary Cox, and a nice couple named Linda and Eddie all pitched in. Then Julia and Keith Preston took the three babes in for boarding at their pet hotel, continuing the round-the-clock bottle feedings till they were weaned.
Thanks to that rescue teamwork, I was able to get decent sleep again and focus on re-homing the animals. In that department, too, I was lucky to have a network of contacts who came through with much-needed help.
First, veterinarian Dr. Amanda Micheletti found excellent forever families for the three kittens.
Next, a wonderful rescue group called Praying for Paws in Atlanta, Georgia offered to accept the five older puppies into their adoption program. Flying the little rascals to Atlanta was quite an adventure, but that’s another story. Ultimately Praying for Paws partnered with another group in Maine to find them forever families there.
The younger pups were not old enough yet to be re-homed, so the Prestons kept them at their pet hotel for a couple of months until I was able to fly them to my husband in California. (The plan was to find the pups homes there, but within about two minutes of meeting them, Hubsy fell in love and wouldn’t let them go. Today, at this moment, they are all three—Plato, Periklis, and Ajax—snoozing right here a few feet away from me in our family room.)
As for the mama kitty Artemis, I got extremely lucky. Finding an adopter might have been a huge challenge, regardless of her prettiness and affectionate nature. Adult cats are in such plentiful supply that there’s a lot of competition for spots in good homes. In Greece nearly everyone who wants a feline already has several. Same for other European countries. In the U.S., shelters overflow with unwanted kitties, many of whom end up euthanized. But in an amazing bit of good fortune, someone had already spoken up for this little girl, and was ready and waiting for her.
Shelley to the rescue
One afternoon while Tika was still pregnant, and when the pups were all napping, I sat in the dining room of the house in Kefalonia composing an email to my friend and writing partner Shelley Frost. We were in the thick of planning promotion for our book Your Adopted Dog: Everything You Need to Know About Rescuing and Caring for a Best Friend in Need. Usually Artemis enjoyed snuggling in my lap while I wrote, but it seemed that the bigger her belly grew, the more restless she got. On that day she decided she needed to walk on my laptop keyboard and intercept my fingers with gentle nibbles every time I tried to type.
“OK,” I told her, “have it your way. I’ll just Skype Shelley instead.”
During the Skype call Artemis roamed over the table top, knocking over the pen jar, swatting at paper clips, and setting all my papers askew. That is, until I started talking about her. Then she came and sat quietly next to the keyboard.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” I told Shelley while I rubbed Artemis’s velvety orange ears. “Remember the little pregnant kitty I told you about? I need to find her a home but— “ That was all I got out of my mouth before Shelley interrupted.
“Send her to me,” she said.
“What?” I thought I must have heard wrong.
“The little mama. I want her.”
“I have been planning to adopt a second kitty. Stevie needs company.”
“You have?” I was stunned.
“Yes. And why not a Greekie? After Artemis has her kittens and they’re weaned and everything, I’ll be waiting for her. Now, how will we get her here?”
Bronwyn to the rescue
It’s not often in life that our wildest dreams come true, but this was definitely one of those moments. There could be no more loving and responsible forever family for a kitty than long-time animal advocate and rescuer Shelley Frost, along with her husband and son. Shelley is co-founder of the Center for Animal Protection and Education, as well as the Animal Film Festival. The sweet orange tabby had hit the jackpot.
Her adopters eagerly awaited her, even selecting a new name. A Greek friend from the island of Crete had told the Frosts that “Tika” is a term of endearment for kitties there. So “Tika” she became.
First, though, there was the hitch of geography. We were in Greece. Tika’s future awaited her 7,000 miles away in California. But thanks to A. Bronwyn Llewellyn, another friend and fellow writer who came to my rescue, that gap was bridged.
Bronwyn packed up her laptop so that she could continue working on her writing and editing projects, then flew from San Francisco to Kefalonia to help me clean and repair the house, care for the animals, and assist in transporting them all to where they needed to go.
Tika’s trip home
While we boarded Tika at Keith and Julia Preston’s pet hotel, Bronwyn served as my co-pilot and critter wrangling partner on a ten-hour, hair-raising journey through Greece. We drove a huge cargo van full of animals onto a ferry boat to cross the Ionian sea, then over half the mainland to the airport in Athens. There, we sent the three trash puppies plus two more rescued pooches (yet another story!) off to their futures in the U.S.
It wasn’t till a few weeks later that Tika finally got her ticket home. When Bronwyn flew back to California, she took Artemis on the plane with her.
The planning and preparations for all these transports were somewhat akin to a NASA space launch. I held my breath until each one was completed, including Tika’s.
As it turned out, Tika almost didn’t make it to Shelley. But that wasn’t for the reasons one might imagine. What happened was that Bronwyn had long since fallen head over heels for the little orange cat, and wanted to steal her.
“Are you sure Shelley wants her?” she kept asking.
She confessed that on the plane she held Tika’s carrying case in her lap and opened its door a bit so that she could slip one hand inside, petting and reassuring the cat for almost the entire trans-Atlantic flight.
Ultimately, despite her temptation to run off with the charming Greek feline, upon arrival at the San Francisco airport Bronwyn dutifully delivered Tika safely into new mom Shelley’s loving arms.
The princess life
Things just don’t go much better for a kitty than being adopted by the Frost family. She lived the princess life.
Shelley sent me numerous updates over the years, detailing how the diminutive and formerly mild-mannered Tika had quickly taken over as ruler of the Frost roost. A little Greek tyrant, she bossed around the other animals and commanded the family’s attention.
Nevertheless, “Tika was a contented cat who made sure to spend several hours a day on my lap,” Shelley told me recently. “What I love remembering about her was after her hours-long naps, she would stand and stretch, then leave these darling reddish paw prints on my bare skin. I even took a picture of them because they looked so cute – like a kitty tattoo!”
The goddesses would be pleased
Tika has passed away now due to a congenital kidney disorder, but those of us on her rescue team will never forget her. Nor will I forget that spring of 2008, when she and so many other desperate, furry little souls came into my life, and when so many kind-hearted rescuers on two continents rolled up their sleeves to help me save them.
I think Demeter and Persephone would be pleased to hear how things turned out for at least one extraordinarily lucky, jackpot-winning kitty among their multitude of springtime creations.
As spring approaches again this year, I pray that we rescuers around the world will be able to accomplish the same for many more.
Better yet, I hope we can stem the flow of unwanted puppies and kittens with more spaying and neutering. Because sometimes, with some help from veterinarians, we can—and must—fight Mother Nature.
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Katerina Lorenzatos Makris is a career journalist, author, and editor. Her fiction includes 17 novels for Simon and Schuster, E.P. Dutton, Avon, and other major publishers (under the name Kathryn Makris), as well as a teleplay for CBS-TV, and a short story for The Bark magazine. She has written hundreds of articles for regional wire services and for outlets such as National Geographic Traveler, The San Francisco Chronicle, Travelers’ Tales, NBC’s Petside.com, Animal Issues Reporter.com, and Examiner.com (Animal Policy Examiner).
ogether with coauthor Shelley Frost, Katerina wrote a step-by-step guide for hands-on, in-the-trenches dog rescue, Your Adopted Dog: Everything You Need to Know About Rescuing and Caring for a Best Friend in Need (The Lyons Press).