Laura Schenone, author of The Dogs of Avalon: The Race to Save Animals in Peril, was not always a dog person. Afraid of most animals, she couldn’t understand those who devoted themselves to animal welfare causes, especially in light of the number of people who needed “saving.”
But then proded by her sons and a chance meeting with a dog rescuer, she adopted a Lurcher from Ireland and was inspired to learn more about sighthounds—in particular, Greyhounds and their mixed-breed relatives. In exploring Greyhound rescue, she has written a work that merits high praise and appreciation.
In this country, the phrase “dog rescue” is almost synonymous with Greyhounds, an elegant breed that until about 50 years ago was rarely seen as a pet. Now, it would be hard to find a pet Greyhound who has not been rescued. Many devoted rescue groups focus on rehabilitating and rehoming these dogs and, as importantly, on exerting intense political pressure on the racing industry. As a result, many U.S. tracks have been closed, a development I heartily applaud. According to the author, this movement, “by and large created by and led by women,” has its origins in both the U.S. and England.
I learned many interesting factoids in this book. For example, I live within a stone’s throw of the world’s first Greyhound racetrack, which was constructed in 1919 at Emeryville, Calif., by engineer Owen Patrick Smith. Smith developed the mechanical lure that took the blood out of the coursing bloodsport and made it less horrifying to watch. By 1931, betting on dog races became legal in many states, especially in Florida (one of the six remaining states that still has active racing).
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As Schenone writes, “Greyhound racing took a feverish hold in England, Ireland and Australia.” She also notes that Ireland quickly became the European leader in breeding as well as in exporting dogs to tracks in other countries.
The Irish Parliament established the Greyhound Racing Board (Bord na gCon), which, since 1958, has funded all aspects of this industry. It was, after all, a business that provided people with jobs and “entertainment,” regardless of what it did to the dogs. As an unfortunate consequence, the breed was stigmatized as high energy and fierce, making it hard for them to be considered as suitable companion animals. Thus, even within humane communities, their plight was easily overlooked. Until, that is, 1974, when the Retired Greyhound Trust was established in England and became the first formal Greyhound adoption organization in the world, funded in part, it must be noted, by the industry itself.
While adoptions became popular in this country and in England, Ireland was a holdout. Enter Marion Fitzgibbon of Limerick Animal Welfare. For years, Fitzgibbon had worked tirelessly, tending to animal welfare cases, but it wasn’t until 1994, when she was asked by Louise Coleman of the Massachusetts group Greyhound Friends about the welfare of Ireland’s racing Greyhounds that those dogs came into her purview. Friends cautioned Fitzgibbon that “the Greyhound thing is just too big,” but even though she was recovering from cancer surgery, she was game to take on their plight.
In her book, Schenone describes just how severe that plight was. The Irish racing industry was responsible for killing thousands of dogs (in some truly grisly ways) as well as multiplying the dogs’ misery by selling less successful racers to tracks in Spain. But as the press published exposés, increasing numbers of people joined the rescue ranks, volunteering to help the dogs. Fitzgibbon was the lynchpin. As the Schenone notes, “Once Marion got started on the Greyhound cause, it was as though she had a fever inside her brain.” What she and her colleagues were able to do with scant resources is truly remarkable, and makes for a very compelling read.
The book’s title references the sanctuary funded by another admirable woman, Johanna Wothke, former schoolteacher and founder of Germany’s Pro Animale. After reading a report about the Irish racing industry, she offered Fitzgibbon her assistance. Almost singlehandedly, Wothke rallied donors to contribute more than 200,000 euros for the construction of a paradisiacal, cage-free sanctuary on 38 acres in Ireland’s County Galway. Marion named it Avalon and they created a shelter in the truest sense of the word. In bright airy rooms grouped under names such as Patience, Tolerance, Faithfulness, Honesty and Strength, rescued racers are cared for until new homes can be found for them (oftentimes in Germany).
Work continues for Ireland’s animal protectors, who have accomplished a lot in a country where, as the author notes, “the government gives the racing business so much money.” Let’s hope that momentum for the Greyhound cause continues to build. With people like those profiled in this engrossing book still very much part of the effort, and with the publication of this book itself, things just might change. Schenone does a splendid job in providing a history of a movement that has important cultural significance worldwide. The stories of animal welfare leaders who have been able to achieve so much powered by their love for dogs is truly inspirational and definitely worthy of your notice.