Laura Schenone’s new book, The Dogs of Avalon, is a quite departure from her two previous works, both of which focused on food. (Her first, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, won the James Beard Foundation Book Award for culinary writing.) When she adopted an ex-racing Greyhound-mix from Ireland, all that changed. Bark editor-in-chief Claudia Kawczynska talks with her about the humane activists she profiles.
Bark: Why did you write this book, which is basically about the recent history of the Greyhound rescue movement?
Laura Schenone: When my oldest son was around 10, he really wanted a dog, but I had been putting him off because I didn’t want the trouble. Then I happened to meet a woman who was bringing Greyhounds over from Ireland and finding them homes in the U.S. because, as she explained, no one wanted them there. It seemed very strange to me, and I wasn’t interested.
But she got my attention when she sent me an email about a dog named Lily who needed a home. Lily had been found in terrible condition on the side of the road in Cork and brought to a sanctuary. The email came with photos chronicling her recovery from a bloody mess to the most beautiful dog in the world. I was captivated, and agreed to adopt her.
Later, I had the chance to meet Marion Fitzgibbon, former head of the Irish SPCA and one of the people responsible for Lily’s recovery. Marion told me about her decades rescuing animals and her fight against the Greyhound racing industry. When she said, “Every living being has the right to live and die with dignity,” I was quite taken aback. I’d never considered this. In many ways, the book is my effort to understand whether or not such an idea could possibly be true.
BK: What did you find most surprising about the movement’s Irish leaders?
LS: How brave they are. Marion and the women of Limerick Animal Welfare received calls on an emergency hotline that sent them to dangerous places to investigate reports of abuse. They found themselves in housing projects where there was frequent gunfire, and they went into camps of Irish itinerant people known as Travellers. I was also surprised by how big their concerns were. There is a stereotype of animal-rescue people being interested in helping animals to the exclusion of humans, but this wasn’t the case at all. Marion was clear that animals were her priority because they are at the bottom of society, but she saw people as a responsibility, too, and she demonstrated this in some very surprising ways.
BK: What did you find the most difficult to write about?
LS: The suffering of animals was very difficult for me. I had not been aware. But I really believe that if we look away from abuse, we continue the cycle. I coped by focusing on the compassion of people who were trying to make a difference, and also some of the comic foibles I found along the way.
The other difficult topic was the complexity of rural versus urban culture. I met dogmen who had very traditional values and believed, without reservation, that they were doing nothing wrong by breeding and racing dogs. A lot of these guys had grown up in racing and learned from their fathers, so there were deep emotional connections to the whole business. Many dogmen and women treat their animals well. I wanted to be fair and give them their due as human beings, but still be true to the reporting, which revealed enormous and needless animal suffering.
BK: Avalon sounds like an ideal sanctuary. Can you tell us more about Johanna Wothke and her Pro Animale organization, which helped fund and develop Avalon?