In 2013 the Greek conservation charity Arcturos returned a controversial €5,000 donation made by the neo-Nazi party Χρυσή Αυγή (Golden Dawn). Golden Dawn had attempted to capitalise on their charitable activity, advertising the fact that their founder was an “animal lover” – presumably not in the sense that they claim Pakistani immigrants “love” their goats, but in the manly, shirt-off in the woods, bonding-and-defending-the-Lebensraum-shooting-at-road-signs sense. Arcturos founder Yiannis Boutaris responded that no amount of money would be enough to “launder” the reputation of the party whom he described as Nazis and killers (he added for good measure that he would happily accept a donation from the Greek Communist Party). Barely a month later, a couple of dozen members including the leadership of Golden Dawn were arrested and charged with being the latter, if not the former.
Whatever Golden Dawn’s motivation, this recent photo demonstrates that they reacted to rejection with typical good grace, respect and above all… love. And they memorialised it with the visual equivalent of kicking a puppy.
Being something of a professional cynic, I was prepared to be sceptical about Arcturos, with its slick anthropomorphic branding, its stylish merchandise and its painfully cute videos of rescued bear cubs. But on our recent visit to the bear sanctuary that Arcturos set up over twenty years ago outside the village of Nypmphaion, in the mountains above lake Kastoria in northern Greece, we were impressed by their efforts. We were given a brief, informative and refreshingly unsentimental tour by a volunteer. The sanctuary houses bears that have been rescued from captivity, either as dancing bears (a common form of entertainment throughout the Balkans, outlawed since the 1960s) or from zoos, or have been hurt in motorway accidents or shootings. The bears in the sanctuary are maintained purely for public awareness purposes, we were told – the only other rational alternative would be euthanasia, since they lack the life skills to survive in the wild or raise cubs. This is certainly not a zoo, and you may or may not see bears on the mountainside when you visit (we definitely saw one and caught a fleeting glimpse of another).
The sanctuary though is only the tip of the iceberg. The charity’s efforts are mainly focussed on studying and protecting the wild population of bears, wolves and other endangered and protected species in the Greek countryside, as well as preserving the Greek sheepdog breed. Their innovations include the devising protective measures for farmers who would otherwise come into conflict with the bears (electric fencing for beehives, effective insurance cover for farmers among others), and intervening to reduce deaths and habitat fragmentation caused by the new high speed road network in the area. Arcturos is only the most public face of an active local conservation effort that is finally starting to reverse the catastrophic population decline of the last century.
In a country which, let’s face it, does not have the best tradition of environmental consciousness or volunteering, it is good to see a cause like conservation entering the mainstream and appearing (even momentarily and controversially) on the political radar. So, thank you, Golden Dawn, for the gift of publicity, and thank you again for the reminder.
Image: photo by Atlantis Host, December 2015.