Set against Ireland’s green and rocky beauty and its harsh economic realities, The Dogs of Avalon is the story of a determined group of women who fight for the well being of ex-racing Greyhounds. Marion Fitzgibbon helped to found the County Galway sanctuary she named Avalon, is a model of compassion in action, and author Laura Schenone journeyed to Ireland to learn more about her work and what motivates her to do it.
The next day, Marion picked me up in the rain. On the way out of town, as we sat at a traffic light, I saw a monstrosity by the side of the road, an ugly conglomeration of cement and steel which was evidently a huge construction project abandoned before it was even halfway built. I asked Marion about it.
“Isn’t it terrible? It was going to be a shopping mall, but they ran out of money.”
It felt unnerving to look in and see the unfinished floors and concrete walls, steel beams reaching up to nowhere, as though the workers had dropped their tools and fled due to some catastrophe. In fact, this is exactly what happened, though instead of the volcanic ash of Pompeii or the huge waves of a typhoon, it was an economic disaster. This was just one of many incomplete real estate projects left behind from the boom years of the Celtic Tiger. With hundreds of years of poverty behind them, the Irish had been rich oh so briefly—and now they were poor again.
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It receded behind us as Marion continued north. In Ireland, it never takes long to get from city to countryside, and soon we were surrounded by green, leafy trees on a road that ran alongside the Shannon, the longest river in Ireland.
After more than an hour, we turned west and crossed into County Galway. That’s when the terrain changed, as though we’d entered another dimension. The bright green landscape was gone, and suddenly the car was climbing a rugged small hill that led to an open plain of brown untilled fields on one side and a bog on the other. The sky hung low and grey, and the vista was gloomy yet beautiful, with brown moor grass and rushes dotted with yellow wildflowers and heather.
In the distance, the hills rose up into the Slieve Aughty Mountains. Patches of dark earth lay in small heaps of broken rectangles left behind by local turf cutters. I remarked on the untillable soil and Marion said, “To hell or Connacht,” with an ironic laugh. We were in the rocky, harsh part of Ireland’s west, the place to which Cromwell banished the Catholics after he stole the fertile land in the 1600s and gave it to English Protestants.
“I remember when Beverly and I first came here and found this land,” Marion said, changing the subject. “It really shook my foundations when she left. I thought we’d be saving dogs together until we dropped.”
We turned down a dirt road that led to a large wrought-iron gate flanked by a wall of round, smooth stones, beautifully placed by hand.
A sign hung in front, bearing the word “Avalon” inscribed in Celtic-style letters.
“Whenever I come here, I feel happy because I know Avalon will be here after I am gone. Kilfinane, I cannot be sure. Maybe they’ll turn it all into condos someday after I’m dead. Or maybe they will knock it down. I don’t know. But Avalon will always be here.”
Marion had been one of Avalon’s directors from the start. And though she felt responsible for helping bring Avalon into existence, it was very clear that Avalon was Johanna Wothke’s project. It was part of Pro Animale. Marion didn’t have to tell me what she was thinking: How could it be that she and Johanna had both been doing this for thirty years, and now Johanna had more than thirty sanctuaries while Marion couldn’t even complete one?
We drove up the road, passing through a stand of trees, and then beyond to open meadows and rolling fields for grazing and running. We had arrived at an animal heaven. The long necks of horses came into view, bent over to graze. Sheep stood in distant, misty fields. The most dominant presence was of Greyhounds, dozens of them, barking aggressively. In their paddocks, they came leaping toward us and jumped up, forepaws to the fences, pink bellies and fangs showing, ears up, barking so forcefully that I felt afraid and checked the height of the fence.
The entry road led to the main building, covered in climbing roses and vines. Inside, every wall was hung with art—paintings, woodcuts, and sketches of animals. The floors gleamed with stone tile.
There were a few humans here, mostly Polish men, walking horses between fields. An Irishwoman named Noreen was in charge. She’d studied animal science and spent her life on farms before coming here. She sat us down at the kitchen table and made tea. She and Marion began to talk about Johanna’s high standards, how everything had to be just so.
In 1996, a year after Johanna Wothke, Rosie, and Marion first met about their Greyhound adventure, Wothke invited Marion to Germany to see some of her sanctuaries. Marion and Johanna were similar in age and had started their animal work at around the same time, by bringing dogs into their homes.
On that trip, Marion learned that Johanna had started with no great financial means—she’d been a schoolteacher. Early on, she’d had the idea to write a newsletter—first, for her friends and acquaintances —to let people know about her work, and also to appeal for donations. She continued to write these newsletters a few times a year, and her subscribers and supporters grew. In time, some donors left bequests to Pro Animale, which allowed her to build several sanctuaries in Germany. When the Soviet bloc fell, she bought cheap land in Poland and, later, in Russia, Austria, and Turkey. She kept a notebook for each sanctuary and spoke several languages, which helped. She ran these sanctuaries down to the last Deutschmark. Each one was designed the same way, with art on the walls, gardens and tiled floors. She was not a social being, but a workaholic. From what Marion observed, she slept only four hours a night.
They drove across Austria and down into Italy. Johanna had just acquired about ten acres of prime land in Assisi. At sunset, they reached a secluded valley. There was a broken-down mill and an orchard. A stream ran through the middle of the property, and at the center stood a farmhouse with thick walls and Gothic windows with deep ledges where you could sit and look out at the green valley. To Marion it was all incredible.
Johanna was about to open yet another sanctuary right there in the shadow of St. Francis, on this spectacular piece of land. She had raised her money by writing stories about the suffering of animals. People had responded. Germany was a wealthy country. Marion pushed away any feelings of envy.
The Assisi property came with a flock of sheep, which were still in their winter coats. While she was there, neighbors arrived with shears and got to work. They also brought a big feast and set out tables and napkins. Everyone sat under the stars, with lanterns hung from the trees. The magical experience imprinted on Marion an entirely new vision of what was possible.
At Avalon, the dogs lived in small social groups, and had large grassy fields to run in, contained by eight-foot-tall fences because there would always be those extra-talented Greyhounds who could jump a six-foot fence. Inside the main building, each pack had its own large room, much like a den. Wothke passionately opposed putting any dog alone in a cage or a pen.
I was peering into one of those rooms now. It seemed like a revolutionary design. Rather than four walls and a floor, the layout was a system of steppedup ledges wrapped around the room, except that each ledge was three or four feet deep and covered in earth-colored tile. If you stood in the middle of the floor, you were encircled by dogs, each in its own soft bedding on the ledges stacked halfway up the walls. Above the ledges, the walls were painted a soft yellow, and a hand-stenciled frieze of Greyhounds circled the room near the ceiling. It was more like a home than a dog kennel.
I stepped inside with Noreen as my escort. She was a strong-boned woman of middle age who inspired confidence, and yet, when the door closed the behind me, a wave of fear rose in my chest. Noreen stood in the corner and watched.
“I have to be very careful about introducing any new dog to a pack,” she said. “If one attacks another, then they all will. And they’ll kill a dog very quickly, you know.”
Six dogs circled round and began jumping on me. One managed to put its paws on my shoulders. The others nearly knocked me off my feet. They were exuberantly curious about me, sniffing my body and licking my hands. There was a wildness to them. They had never been tamed and had astonishing strength. As a pack, they were unified and powerful—and slightly terrifying. I sat down on a ledge, thinking it might calm them down, but this only gave them more access. Noses in my ears. A mouth around my hand. Tongues licking my cheeks, noses sniffing. One took my pocketbook and carried it to its bed. Across the room, three dogs remained in their spaces on the ledge—not interested. But the six around me could not have been more intrigued. My heart pounded fast.
Shortly after I came home from Ireland, I had a dream that Lily got out of the house and ran away. The last time I’d seen her was at a neighbor’s maple tree, and from there she’d vanished. I kept returning to that tree, looking for her, but she was never there. When I finally realized that she was gone and not coming back, I was overcome with the most excruciating grief—the kind of grief you live in fear of.
It was bottomless.
The next day, I was still rattled and felt a shadow over my brain. I told a friend about the dream.
“You do realize that you were dreaming about Gabriel,” she said. “Don’t you?”
Excerpt from The Dogs of Avalon: The Race to Save Animals in Peril by Laura Schenone. Copyright © 2017 by Laura Schenone. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.