Greece, founder of western democracy, the birthplace of the Olympics and philosophy, is dying. Ironically for a country that also lays claim to the being the birthplace of mathematics, it's the numbers that are hurting the most. The Greek economy is predicted to shrink by 4.7 percent this year, this despite bailouts totalling 240 billion euros. Unemployment currently sits at close to 25 percent, and then there is the big one: $407 billion -- that's the amount of total debt the country is currently laboring under. In it's gamble with the euro the Greek money men mortgaged the future of the generations to come. The party is over, and the bailiffs are knocking at the door.
The youth of Greece have had their futures sold before many have even graduated high school. Corrupt politicians, tax evasion by the country's elite, and public sector wages -- which rose by 50 percent in the space of decade -- left Greece ill-prepared for the economic crisis which berthed in 2008. The young do their best to carry on. Many dance away their stresses at the local bars and clubs, but not all.
Nina Eleftheriadou is different. Her weekends are often spent in a peculiar way. Her long mane of wavy hair is tied back and she hides her pretty face behind an ill-fitting match. She'll emerge onto the streets of Thessaloniki as a polar bear. This is no weird fetish. Nina is a volunteer raising awareness and sometimes money for Arcturos, the Greek-based wildlife charity. Their name comes from the star, which in Greek mythology is the guardian of the bear.
Harsh economic realities are never far away from anyone's thoughts in Greece. Nina tells me that no one looks upon their future with any certainty. Life is stressful. Every week brings new stories of people taking their own lives because they cannot provide for their families. In these straightened times donations to charity are one of the first casualties. The support is there Nina tells me, but unfortunately people can't afford to give money like they used to. "They want, and they apologize, but the truth is that these are very difficult days."
Nina first got involved with Arcturos through her aunt, who is a member. This was early 2008, just before the full weight of the crisis was realised in Greece. The organization is not just about raising money. They also provide valuable education about wildlife. Visiting schools and organizing nature trips. Arcturos monitor more than 200 wild bears who populate the wild regions of the country, providing invaluable research and data.
Not all the bears have been so lucky. An Arcturos-run shelter in Frorina hosts 13 bears, many of whom are rescued from countries such as Turkey and Pakistan where the barbaric "traditions" of bear dancing and baiting still continue. The life of a dancing bear is a particularly cruel one. Orphaned at an early age by hunters who kill the mother, the young cub is then sold on to a trainer. He will then be victim to a sadistic training regime. It involves pain and torture. Whilst music plays, the young cub will have its front paws repeatedly burned. This causes the bear to rear up on it hind legs and move its front paws in such a way that it seems to be dancing. Those who don't dance often wind up being killed, either by the trainer or by a pack of dogs. Despite being banned in 1980, bear-baiting has seen a recent rise in Pakistan. Here the bear will be tethered to rope, it's teeth and claws removed. It is then set upon by a pack of fighting dogs. All in the name entertainment for the male folk.
Arcturos provide one of the few havens for Europe's largest land mammal. Here bears are protected by law and in an environment maintained through charitable donations. The European wolf, the Greek Shepherd dog, the Chamois, the European Otter, the Red Deer, the European Roe Deer, the Lynx, and the Golden Jackal are also protected by Arcturos. Greece, widely regarding the starting point of European civilization, is now at the forefront of protecting its wildlife. The future of the euro is not the only thing hanging in the balance should Greece go under.
It's a tragedy to think that an animal which has suffered for centuries because of man's inhumanity and fear, only to be rescued by man, may finally be finished off by man's inability to balance a checking account.