Symi Animal Welfare was founded in 1997 by Jacqui Davies in response to the critical condition of the island’s feral cat population. At that time a virulent venereal disease was rife amongst Symi’s cats, causing many kittens to be born with, among other things, infected or missing eyes. These poor mites stumbling blindly around the streets and dying were a distressing and pathetic sight and something needed to be done urgently. The town hall was aware of the problem but at that stage was also faced with the more urgent problem of providing adequate medical resources for the island’s human population (Symi had a new clinic but no medical personnel and if the lone doctor on the island had to accompany a medical emergency to Rhodes there was no one at all) and it was agreed that if Symi Animal Welfare could try to tackle the animal problem, so much the better.
A fund raising campaign commenced and a bank account was opened specially for Symi Animal Welfare. Virginia Vanderbilt, a foreign property owner with strong links to the island, made a generous donation which was augmented by contributions from visitors, day trippers and local residents. Harry, a Greek vet from Rhodes who continues to treat Symi’s animals, agreed to come over from Rhodes with a team of helpers for a long weekend with the objective of trying to neuter as many feral cats as possible. As the disease was spread through tom cats and neutering the males required less time and post operative care, the focus was on catching and processing as many tom cats as possible. At the same time any females that could be caught and were known to be in areas that could be monitored were also spayed. The first surgery was held at the Valinidia taverna on the Pedi road in October 1997 and with the assistance of volunteers from the resident expat community as well as tourists on the island at the time a large number of cats were neutered.
At the same time the first winter feeding program was instigated in the hope that more regular meals during the cold winter months when dustbin pickings are lean would help improve the feral feline population’s resistance to disease. This marked the beginning of a cycle of veterinary visits from Rhodes and winter feeding programs. The fact that today it is rare to see a diseased or deformed cat on the island and tourists are no longer confronted by the appalling sight of dead and dying kittens in the street is testimony to the fact that the strategy worked. Visitors and locals contributed funds, food and equipment as well as their time. Interestingly, at the time of the beginning of the project, only one supermarket on the island stocked cat food on a regular basis and then only in the summer ‘for the visitors’. Thanks to the awareness raised by Symi Animal Welfare, not only does every supermarket and grocer on the island stock pet food but the range is wide and varied all year round.
At the end of 1999 Mrs Davies handed the running of the organisation over to Jenine Woodhall and Tina Bull. Laskarina Holidays became a major sponsor of the project, bringing over a British vet, Martin Bilson, who was prepared to give his annual leave time to the care of animals on Symi. This proved to be a more convenient arrangement as the Rhodian vets, though keen, found the unreliability of Symi’s ferry service difficult to correlate with surgery commitments in Rhodes and found themselves stranded on Symi more than once. Martin, coming for a week or more rather than just a weekend did not have this problem. The longer time frame also meant that there was time for the word to get round that there was a vet on the island and for locals to bring in their pets and post operative care could be controlled.
Kate Murdoch, co-founder/co-owner of Laskarina Holidays, provided one of the studios at her personal holiday home, Villa Hanni, as a venue for the surgery and once again the participation of local volunteers helped to make the vet visits fly. In order to facilitate treating animals in different areas it was decided to alternate this with Villa Katerina which is above the bus stop in Yialos.
Mrs Murdoch sadly passed away and Laskarina Holidays was wound up in 2006. At this time, Melanie Sharp took over the responsibilities but the future of Symi Animal Welfare was initially in some doubt. Luckily, a new base was found on Mavrovouni at Villa Stefanos. This was a villa belonging to an Italian vet, Marta Rostagno, who contributed the ground floor of her house as surgery premises. The last SAW vet visit was in 2007, this was sponsored by the Symi Visitor who provided the vet’s accommodation, Kalodoukas Holidays provided premises for the clinic and Manos Holidays sponsored the vet’s flights.