Georgian activists spearhead efforts to control the country’s rampant stray animal population

Author: Giga Beruashvili

For the past six years, Dato Didebashvili has donated his time and skills to building dog houses for stray animals in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

The hobby—inspired by a social media post he read in 2018—has coincided with the exponential increase in homeless animals in Tbilisi and across the country. While no one knows the exact number of stray animals in Georgia, the estimate is around a half a million, with 30, 150 in the capital as of February 2023, according to a study done by the British NGO Mayhew International in collaboration with Animal Monitoring Agency. 

[Facebook Page] - Animal Project /პროექტი ცხოველებისთვის

As the numbers grow, so does public concern: a 2023 study by the National Democratic Institute (conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Center) found 68 percent of the 2,068 respondents said stray animals were an issue. 

The government’s response, both locally and nationally, has been limited. In 2015, 

the city of Tbilisi created the Animal Monitoring Agency, which operates a trap-neuter-release program for stray animals. Its resources and mandate are limited and there are even fewer resources in municipalities elsewhere in the country; some even lack spaying and neutering facilities.

Over the past several years, activists and community groups have formed to fill the gap. One of the most active, the Animal Project, started out as a facebook group chat in 2020, when the country was on lockdown due to the pandemic. With severe limitations on personal movement and all restaurants closed, stray animals that relied on restaurants and similar places for shelter and food, were left without. “One of our friends, Keti Oragvelidze created a group chat on Facebook, where she gathered us, animal lovers, 50 people overall, and asked what we could do to help the animals,” Natia Chikovani, one of the co-founders of the Animal Project, recalls. 

Once the initial enthusiasm faded, around eight or nine people remained. They decided to create a Facebook group “For Animals Left Alone” (მარტოდ დარჩენილი ცხოველებისთვის) to reach a wider audience and better raise funds for the activities they were planning. “We started raising the funds individually, which received positive feedback from the society. Money was raised, the media took interest and people from other regions started volunteering to help,” Natia said, noting regional volunteers were crucial since movement was still limited due to pandemic restrictions. 

Following their carly successes, the group’s co founders (Natia and Dato as well as Nini Oniashvili, Mariam Tsertsvadze) decided to formalize the organization so they could play a larger role in policy advocacy and public education.

[Facebook Page] - Animal Project /პროექტი ცხოველებისთვის

“It’s very time consuming what we do,” Dato notes. “I’m lucky I have a lot of help from my workplace - they’re very forgiving when it comes to being late, or leaving early, things of this sort, but the work we do takes a lot of energy and time on our end.”

While stray animals living on the street—and coming in conflict with their human neighbors—has become the calling card for Georgia’s homeless dog and cat crisis, animal rescue is not the Animal Project’s main mission. Instead, it works to provide funds and aid to people who rescue, or care for homeless animals; raise awareness and raise money for animals; and work with the government to tackle the issue on a more administrative level.

Our main goal was to help our companion animals living on the streets, be it with medical assistance, food or shelter. We wanted to make their lives on the streets easier and also to reduce the population in general in the long run,” Dato explains.  

One of their earliest events, now an annual tradition, is the “Feel the PAWer of Love”, raises awareness of the issues animals face and promotes adoption from streets and shelters. For instance, the Wonderful Mutt Pageant, which includes categories that play off purebred competitions, like “most similar to its owner” and “shortest.” There is also a photo exhibit of “Before” and “After” photos of adopted dogs.

[Facebook Page] - Animal Project /პროექტი ცხოველებისთვის

The Animal Project frequently organizes events to promote spraying and neutering, such as  “Winter for Caring for Cats,” during which 120 cats were sterilized. 

Funding for the Animal Project’s activities increasingly comes from companies, such as the taxi start up Bolt and Meama, the Georgian coffee company. The funds from Bolt have gone to pay for 10 more doghouses; Animal Project has built 60 around Tbilisi to date, mostly through crowdfunding and have distributed 38 of them throughout the city.
We receive a request from citizens for the dog houses with the information about the dogs - their sizes and needs, then we place these dog houses in the care of responsible citizens, so the houses aren’t stolen or vandalized,” Natia says.

[Facebook Page] - Animal Project /პროექტი ცხოველებისთვის

[Facebook Page] - Animal Project /პროექტი ცხოველებისთვის

Meama, a Georgian coffee company, provides the funds that the organization gives to citizens, activists and organizations that care for the animals - medical bills, food and whatever else they may need. 

In addition, grants from various organizations fund the Animal Project’s outreach activities, like lectures in Tbilisi schools on caring for pets. 

The Animal Project is also working with the UN on a campaign to promote animal adoptions from the shelters and the stray population. Another funder, the Center for Strategic Research and Development of Georgia, helped the activists raise money for Zero Strays Georgia, led by one of the members Mariam Shekiladze. 

Zero Strays Georgia is based in Zugdidi, in western Georgia, and helps rehome stray dogs with families in Europe. Given the limited demand for adopting stray dogs in Georgia compared to other parts of Europe, the Animal Project collaborates with European animal welfare organizations to find loving homes abroad. “There’s not a high demand for adopting stray dogs in Georgia, whereas in other parts of Europe, it’s the opposite,” Natia explains. “It’s quite common for people living in Europe to adopt dogs from Eastern European countries, it was very commonplace to rescue animals from Ukraine amidst the war,  as well as Belarus and other countries.” 

Since 2015, Mariam has found homes abroad for more than 120 animals and locally for more than 150 animals. Apart from benefiting the animals, her work also serves the community by operating a foster home system. She has approximately 40 beneficiaries housed by 6 foster parents, some of whom are socially vulnerable, providing them with financial income. 

Dato notes that over the years, the organization has sensed the population’s growing empathy with stray animals. “In the past, when we were going around in the streets, feeding stray dogs, people would often be hostile with the comments that we should stop what we were doing, take care of children instead,” he says. “Now people have a more positive attitude to what we do.” 

But safety remains a major concern in cities and villages alike. Stray dogs can become a public danger, especially when they live in packs. Risks to animals are also increasing due to heavy traffic and more people moving to the suburbs, which have traditionally served as a dumping ground for unwanted pets. 

“There are a lot of car accidents involving stray animals, as well as health concerns and zoonotic diseases spreading. Some dogs may also pose danger to citizens, as they usually group together and go after people,” notes Natia Chikovani.

Situation is more dire in the regions, where resources for neutering/ spaying and other animal population control measures are lacking or nonexistent. In some regions, like Racha, no facilities are equipped for the operations. Natia notes that to significantly reduce the number of animals living on the streets, 70 percent of the female population has to be spayed or it will keep rebounding and growing. 

To address the issue, the Animal Project has been working with the government on Georgia’s first law to regulate pet ownership. 

[Facebook Page] - Animal Project /პროექტი ცხოველებისთვის

“We’ve been involved in the process of preparing the law the ruling party is starting to implement since 2022. We, as well as other organizations have proposed changes and have given notes regarding it and to our surprise, it was received very openly,” Natia says. 

The legislation uses a multifaceted approach to manage the pet population in the country, including mandatory registration and strict fines for pet abandonment. The law is projected to be implemented after a series of hearings and presentations in June 2024. 

Natia cautions that effective enactment will be key to the law’s success—and a nation-wide count of the stray population will be critical. She also favors subsidies for neutering and spaying to ensure cost is not a barrier for pet ownership. 

It’d be best if the government started an educational campaign to better inform people and avoid the risk of misinterpretations,” she says.  “People, aside from knowing about the law, need to also know how to act and where to go when they need help—be it reporting abuse cases, or anything else.

We are a non-profit media organization covering the topics and groups of people that are frequently ignored by mainstream media. Our work would not be possible without support from our community and readers like you. Your donations enable us to support journalists who cover underrepresented stories across the region.