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   Inside Out - South: Monday January 23, 2006

The couple who loved dogs too much...

Stray dog
Helping abandoned dogs - a tough challenge in Greece

Maureen Samaras lives in Bournemouth, but her whole life has been turned upside down by her efforts to help stray dogs in Greece.

Her sanctuary has recently been criticised on Greek television.

Inside Out tells her story.

When Maureen moved with her Greek husband Jimmy to Thessaloniki, nearly 40 years ago, she had no idea her life would be dictated by dogs - thousands of them.

The couple were both physiotherapists, running their own private sports centre.

Eventually, they had three sons, and acquired some dogs as family pets.

Then people began abandoning dogs outside their door.

"If they see you have dogs, they'll leave you the ones they don't want any longer," says Maureen.

She and Jimmy never turned an animal away.

Helping stray dogs

There is no real animal welfare structure yet in Greece, as there is in the UK with its long established animal charities and shelters.

The problem for Maureen and Jimmy was exacerbated by the Greek reluctance to neuter their pets, and lack of money so to do.

And Maureen says she found other Greek attitudes hard:

"They'll buy a puppy for the children at the beginning of the long summer holidays - then when the children go back to school, and the puppy's bigger, out it goes."

It's a seasonal variation of the British tradition of buying a puppy for Christmas - but without national dog homes to take them in.

When the Samaras family moved to a big modern house on the outskirts of Salonica, the number of dogs grew.

"The police started asking Jimmy to collect dogs - from road traffic accidents, or dangerous dogs, or dogs that were being a nuisance … looking after one dog is easy, two dogs okay - when it's 350, you just cope."

The couple also made room for horses, ponies, goats and donkeys.

Most had several things in common -they had been badly treated or abandoned, and they were sick.

Looking after them all over decades cost the couple dearly, says Maureen:

"First you lose your jobs, because you only have time for the animals. Then, with the food and the medication, you lose your house. Our house is now owned by the bank."

Animals well enough to leave were rehomed.

Foreign animal charities and some newer shelters in Greece took large numbers.

Greek house with dogs
Too much to cope with - the villa with its dogs

Maureen and Jimmy were left with the chronically sick: the reason, Maureen says, why their shelter seems so open to criticism.

On top of which, neither Maureen or Jimmy believe in euthanasia.

"You can treat them, use tranquilisers, care for them - but euthanasia? Only God has the right to do this." says Jimmy.

This goes against the thinking of the majority of animal charities that visited them, including the RSPCA, and certainly did not make life easier for the couple or for the dogs.

Family troubles

Maureen fell desperately ill and returned to Bournemouth two years ago, leaving Jimmy to cope on his own.

Family concerns - her mother too was ill - kept her in England.

Inside Out went back with Maureen on a flying visit to check on the dogs, Jimmy and the house.

Maureen was devastated. "It's terrible, Jimmy, why?" she asked.

At 74, Jimmy appeared to have lost control.

There were perhaps only 100 dogs left at the shelter, but they had free run of the house - and the mess was incredible.

The dogs were fed, and Maureen said that bar one or two, they seemed to be healthy.

Vets were due soon to check them out. But Jimmy himself felt desperate.

Greek tragedy

European charities had offered to sort out the sanctuary, deal with the current dogs and let Jimmy leave.

Maureen
Maureen Samaras - worried about the future

He obviously longs to have a better life than living in the one room of the house he has to himself.

"I want to die with dignity, with my family in England," he says.

But it's not enough for him to have the existing dogs removed.

He says he won't leave until someone takes over his unofficial job, collecting unwanted dogs from all over northern Greece - and that is not likely to happen soon.

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In search of Vecti Succhus

Chris Packham with fossils
Journey through time - tracking the fossils

The sedimentary rocks of the Isle Of Wight were laid down millions of years ago.

And along Compton Bay and the south west side of the island clay and sandstone sedimentary rocks have preserved some of the best dinosaur remains in Europe.

Amongst them are an Iguanadons, a Hypsilophodons, a Neovenator, a terrasaur and, most recently, part of the giant plant eater brachiasaurus.

Chris Packham investigates what's happened to all the fossils that were found here and hunts down a very special long lost crocodile.

Crocodile fossils

Vecti Succhus or Isle of Wight Crocodile was sold in 1980 by a private collector on the island and it ended up in Germany as part of a very important comparative collection of crocodile fossils.

Britain doesn't have any laws to protect fossils, so collectors can keep whatever they find.

Fossil
Germany has laws to protect valuable fossils

In Stuttgart however, where Vecti Succhus ended up, there are laws protecting fossils - anything found locally can't even leave the state let alone the country.

So although the cliffs of the Isle of Wight are constantly eroding and revealing their fossilised gems the trade in such finds is a bit of a free-for-all.

Chris meets Martin Simpson who has 45,000 fossils in the garage of his bungalow near Black Gang Chine plus 50,000-year-old woolly mammoth tusks lying on his living room floor.

He's adamant that he sells nothing from his treasured private collection.

When shown a vertebra from a brachiasaurus Martin says, "It's part of my own collection if you sell any of that you might as well not collect".

Dinosaur museum

Meanwhile the Dinosaur Isle museum in Sandown has just 35,000 fossils.

Dinosaur model
Fossil free for all - there are no laws to protect fossils on the island

Curator Martin Munt would like to encourage people who collect fossils to at least show them to the museum to see if they are scientifically important.

A couple of years ago a retired teacher from Ventnor tried to sell a valuable fossil in an online auction but later saw the benefits of giving it to Dinosaur Isle for a fraction of the price he might have got online.

Martin Munt says:

"It would be great if people would bring it to us… it's only by bringing it to a public museum that it can be recorded as something new to science."

And Sir David Attenborough adds, "I would rather fossils were collected than not collected - and it's exciting and rewarding. To denigrate the private collector is something I wouldn't go along with".

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Bustards

Bustard
Rare bird - the Bustard is back from near extinction

Dave Waters is on a quest. In fact, you might say he’s a man obsessed.

He dreams of watching a rather special bird fly over Salisbury Plain – a bird that died out in this country over 170 years ago.

The Great Bustard is the heaviest flying bird in the world and became extinct in Britain in 1832.

Although changes in farming played a major part, ironically it was the bird watchers of the day who finished the UK population off,

If you were a “twitcher” then, you had to produce the carcass to prove you had actually seen the bird.

Sadly the last British Great Bustards were only viewed down the barrel of a gun.

Bustard chick
Return of the heaviest flying bird

But Dave, from Wiltshire, has made it his aim in life to bring the Bustard back.

He’s given up his job as a policeman, sold his beloved motorbike collection, forgone holidays - all in attempt to try to establish a self-sustaining Great Bustard population back on the plains.

Dave feels that they are a missing piece of our wildlife heritage.

They’re especially important to Wiltshire, featuring on the county crest and local place names, so it’s fitting that they return here first.

Spectacular birds

In fact, it’s been Dave’s dream to see Bustards back here since he was a young lad.

GREAT BUSTARD

The Great Bustard is the largest flying bird in the world - some males weigh over 20 kilograms.

Males usually have to be five years of age before they are able to breed.

Males gather in groups called 'leks' to attract females.

The bird's diet is seasonal and quite opportunistic. They eat insects such as grasshoppers in the summer and cereal seeds in the winter.

Until the end of the 18th century, Great Bustards were widely distributed in England on open chalk downland, grassy heaths and agricultural land. The intensification of agriculture led to the bird's decline.

As a prized game bird, heavy persecution led to their extinction by around 1830.

At their height, the bird's stronghold was Wiltshire, especially on Salisbury Plain and the extensive chalk downs in the north of the county.

The last records of British Great Bustards are recorded in East Anglia.

Source: RSPB

In the 1970s, Dave saw a captive flock from Portugal being reared just up the road at Porton Down.

The birds appealed to Dave’s boyish sense of humour… there’s obviously something in a name!

They’re also known for their spectacular mating display - the adult males inflate special throat pouches and twist their feathers, turning from their normal brown colouring to almost totally white.

Thirty years on, Dave’s quest has taken him all the way to Russia, where the Great Bustard still survives on the plains of Saratov.

The Russian authorities have allowed Dave to collect eggs that are abandoned by the female birds and would otherwise perish.

This is the project’s second year and back in the summer, Dave hatched out 37 chicks.

Then came the tricky job of transporting the chicks back to Salisbury Plain. After a month in quarantine, the chicks were ready to be released.

The birds were released into an open topped pen to give them some initial protection until they were happy to fend for themselves.

Of course, it’s still early days – Dave expects that it will take up to ten years to establish the Great Bustard properly and for us to be rewarded with the wonderful breeding spectacle.

But so far so good, and the latest news from Dave is that there is now a big flock of Great Bustards happily flying over Salisbury Plain – so keep your eyes peeled!

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