Q&A with Laura Schenone, author of The Dogs of Avalon

By Claudia Kawczynska, June 2017

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?

LS: Back in the 1980s, Johanna Wothke was an ordinary schoolteacher and mother of two young children living in a small village in Bavaria. She began taking stray animals into her home, and raised funds for their care by writing a little newsletter that described her work. Over the years, she got such tremendous support that she was able to expand and start sanctuaries all over Europe. Her daughter Natascha now runs Pro Animale with her. Today, they have 30 sanctuaries that give safe haven to abused and abandoned horses, cows, sheep, cats and dogs. These places are in beautiful settings and highly enriched; the level of care is extraordinary. Each sanctuary is a utopian paradise for animals. When Johanna learned about the plight of the Irish Greyhound, she called Marion to ask if she needed help. She is a very unusual person, greatly influenced by her father’s persecution under the Nazis. Marion calls her a miracle worker.

BK: How did Ireland became the leading breeder of Greyhounds and why/how does the government support this industry (including the race tracks)?

LS: Greyhounds have been in Ireland and England since the Celts brought their ancestors thousands of years ago. Because of the agricultural nature of Ireland, with its farms and open spaces, it became the leading Greyhound breeder. In the 1950s, the government got in the business and invested huge amounts of taxpayer money to subsidize it and create jobs. This continues today, even though there have been many reports and exposés about corruption,  misguided financial decisions, dog abuse and doping. Somehow, the Irish parliament manages to protect the industry and make it untouchable even when it’s losing money. Most critics say that this is because so many high-ranking politicians own racing Greyhounds themselves and are personally and emotionally involved in the industry.

BK: What changes can you attribute to Marion’s work?

LS: When Marion became involved in the 1990s, she was a lone voice. Now, there are many more advocates, and several Greyhound adoption groups in Ireland now find the dogs homes in Europe. Because of this, the Irish Greyhound Board cannot ignore welfare issues, and has made greater investments in adoption. And that’s great. I do believe that the government will eventually have to give up its addiction to Greyhound racing if for no other reason than it simply does not make financial sense.

BK: It seems that the U.S. is ahead of Ireland in making these improvements in the lives of racing Greyhounds. Is that true?

LS: Yes. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, tens of thousands of dogs who couldn’t run anymore were put down in the United States, England and Ireland each year. People didn’t think that Greyhounds were suitable pets. They were considered high-strung and possibly dangerous. But then some people—largely women—in England and the U.S. began to change that, diverting the dogs from death into family homes. As more Greyhounds showed up on leashes in parks and on streets, people began to understand the dogs better and see them differently. Greyhounds have a natural prey drive, but otherwise, they are docile and sweet creatures and make great pets. This still hasn’t happened in Ireland for many reasons, some of which are related to the fact that Ireland didn’t escape British colonialism until 1922.

BK: What’s your goal for the book—what would you like readers to pay special attention to or help with?

LS: I hope the book will surprise people and make them think in new ways about how much animals contribute to our lives and the planet. I would be happy to know that people are inspired by the Greyhound advocates in my book and take some kind of action to build a more compassionate world. I include the web addresses of the organizations I wrote about so that my readers could learn more if they want to help.

BK: Since finishing this book, do you have any news (ideally, good) to share with us?

LS: More Greyhound tracks have closed down in both the U.S. and England, and even in Ireland, one track has been shut down. Overall, the world is moving toward a dramatically improved understanding of animals. I have complete faith that people like Marion Fitzgibbon will continue to carry us forward. 

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.