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Greyhounds of Avalon

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.”

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Photograph courtesy of Pro Animale

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