Jezebel’s What’s the Buzz, September 2023

Photo Credit: Andrew Mars

As part of the local entertainment scene I’ve known and admired singer Kim Verkaik for several years and been aware that her mother ran an animal charity – one I’ve supported regularly through the fundraising shops and occasional events. This month I finally got to interview Nieske, but I wish the circumstances had been different.

Neiske De Jonge moved to Cyprus from Holland ten years ago with her mother and Kim (now performing on cruise liners). Nieske had worked for the Dutch animal ambulance service and has an affinity with animals, and planned to enjoy the sunshine and ‘maybe rescue a small bunch of dogs’. The bunch grew, however, and eventually Nieske moved to a large plot of land in Giolou, and built Stray Haven: a shelter which at one stage housed 160 dogs. A successful re-homing program brought the number down to 65, but then Covid, Brexit and the financial crisis in UK sent adoption rates way down, and with more puppy-dumping going on, the number had risen again to around a hundred when disaster struck on July 18th.

Nieske was down in Paphos town on the Tombs of the Kings Road, where Stray Haven are preparing a basement area where they plan to hold Sunday Sales to raise funds, when she received a phone call from Austin, who lives in a cabin on the shelter land and helps care for the dogs. Austin reported flames in the lower field of the shelter. Knowing how quickly fires spread in those hills, a panic-stricken Nieske told Austin to open all the cages and get all the dogs out, rang the fire brigade and posted the following plea on Facebook, before jumping in her car to hurry back to Stray Haven.

“There is a big fire near the shelter!
Please anyone that can help save the dogs!!!”

Between posting and making the 25-minute drive, the area was already full of cars and volunteers catching dogs and taking them to the safety of their homes, other shelters, vets, and the pound.

One of these volunteers was Doug Craig, who says: “We saw the smoke coming from the area of Giolou where we knew Stray Haven was located, and shortly after that my wife saw the appeal for help on Facebook. We immediately got in the car and went up there. It was, understandably, a bit chaotic but many dogs had been taken to safety and tied to a railing outside the compound, which was ablaze. I spoke briefly to Neiske and she said to take a dog to Peiga Dog Pound. So we grabbed the nearest one and got him in the car. We got as far as Stroumbi before deciding that we just couldn’t do that. We took him home, where our German Shepherd and he got on well. Next day we went back to the burnt out Stray Haven and saw the lad who works there, who told us Leo’s (we had given him the temporary name of Phoenix, for obvious reasons!) medical history and gave us his medication. Leo is a dear little dog, a cross, we think between something like a Staffordshire bull terrier and maybe a Golden Lab. He is a really well behaved and affectionate dog and we will give him the best possible life – our privilege!”

The fire brigade arrived and eventually put out the fire, but not before almost every part was destroyed, including Austin’s cabin, razed to the ground. One pen remains with around 20 dogs: the remaining 80 odd are currently lodged with foster homes, other shelters or vets, and five or six have been adopted by their rescuers – a silver lining to the tragedy. Sadly, four dogs died trying to burrow under a burning building, but the good news that all the other dogs released from their cages have been found and accounted for.

Neiske reports that the support from other shelters, charity shops, the general public and vets has been overwhelming – some vets were offering free treatment and accommodation to ‘fire dogs’, and all the shelters opened their doors despite all being over-subscribed themselves.

The cause of the fire is still unknown and under police investigation. Meanwhile Nieske and her team are searching for a new piece of land to build the new Stray Haven.

Financial aid is needed to maintain the current dogs and build the new shelter, as well as volunteer manpower: to clear the current land of debris and salvage, to care for the dogs, to create the new shelter, and for fundraising, including manning the charity’s four shops. Several fundraising events have taken place with more planned, including one with Neiske’s daughter Kim performing during a holiday visit.

Thanks to the community and the dedication of the indomitable Nieske, Stray Haven will rise from the ashes and once again become a haven for the feral and unwanted dogs of the island.

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