By noon on a late-May day, Tina Solera of Galgos del Sol (GDS) had already had what she termed three “cardiac arrests” related to her work of saving the abandoned hunting dogs of southern Spain. First came news that paperwork requirements had suddenly changed for the 12 Galgos—Spanish Greyhounds— about to travel overland to England to find homes. Then, there was an unexpected arrival of a truckload of dog blankets from Belgium, which needed to be unloaded at the second-hand shop she runs to benefit the dogs. But the real blow was finding that someone had slapped a flyer on the store’s entrance promoting a huge Galgo hare-coursing competition. “This is just what we are fighting against,” she said. “And people either don’t realize it or they don’t care.”
Heart palpitations go with the territory when you’re an outsider taking on a cultural institution that dates back centuries. Ironically, Solera left her home in Bath, England, in 2007 in search of a quiet, stress-free life for her family (she had two toddlers at the time) in the dry and dusty outskirts of Murcia, a university town in southeastern Spain. What she found instead was unimaginable cruelty: Galgos dead along on the highways, starving and injured, dropped into wells, hung. Dogs who had been recklessly overbred to chase down hares in coursing competitions or used for regular hunting were disposed of like garbage at the end of the season. “There was no way I could not do something, so I started taking them home; soon one became two, two became 20 and 20 became 100,” she says.
She often spent hours on a single rescue, coaxing a dog out of a drain pipe, devising a pulley system to get a dog up an embankment, even working her way into a dumpster where one had been thrown to die. At night, she’d dress wounds, offer words of encouragement and clean up poop. Her commitment to the dogs, and the complete lack of support and infrastructure on the ground, put a great strain on her marriage and family.
But she couldn’t turn her back. Solera’s dream was to change the culture, but she knew that would take time. She also knew she could not effect long-term change if she never got beyond managing daily emergencies. As a first step, she needed a safe, legal and permanent shelter where the dogs she was rescuing could heal from their physical and emotional wounds. Such a structure would give her family some breathing room and give her a chance to begin to attack the problem at its roots through education, billboard campaigns, and outreach to the owners and breeders themselves, known as galgueros.
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A BLACK MARK ON A NOBLE HISTORY
Galgos were once bred by Spanish nobility and treated as prized possessions. Today, they are bred for both recreational hunting and hare coursing, a controversial, competitive event in which two Galgos run in tandem over a designated course on the trail of a hare that has been set loose to literally run for its life. A lot of betting is involved.
It’s an endurance event for the Galgos, who bear a strong resemblance to American Greyhounds. Galgos tend to be more suited to distance running—smaller than their American cousins, they have deeper chests and longer tails— while American Greyhounds are better at sprinting. Both are extraordinary athletes who can hit speeds as high as 43 mph.
Yet for all their talents, they are treated terribly. During the hunting season (September through February), they are typically kenneled every minute they aren’t on the job, totally deprived of interaction with other animals and people. They are fed lowquality food, their injuries go untended and they are beaten for disobedience. This happens during a time when they are considered to be at least somewhat useful. The real horrors start at the end of the season, when the pressure’s on to get rid of them. Given that galgueros breed their dogs indiscriminately, each may have 20 to 30 to get rid of, putting an unfathomable number of dogs at risk every year. (A request for comment submitted to the Federacion Española de Galgos was not answered.)
“The Galgo situation is a terrible black mark on Spain,” says Christine Dorchak, president and general counsel of GREY2K USA Worldwide. The Massachusettsbased organization was formed in 2001 to combat Greyhound racing in the United States, and has since expanded its mission to advocate for Greyhounds internationally. “They, like all Greyhounds, are among the most abused dogs in the world.”
Though official statistics are hard to come by, the rescue group Galgos 112 (112 is the Spanish equivalent of 911) estimates that about 100,000 Galgos and Podencos (another sighthound commonly found in Ibiza and the Canary Islands) are bred each year, and of those, 75,000 are disposed of inhumanely. Galgos 112 is based in Girona, about 400 miles north of Murcia, and often collaborates with GDS. “There are more rescue groups now in Spain,” says Nuria Murla, co-founder and secretary of Galgos 112 (for example, Scooby Protectora de Animales in Valladolid, Galgos en Familia in Málaga and others). “So now when we have a problem with an abandoned dog in Murcia, I know I can call Tina.”
That’s because Solera now has a safe place to house her new rescues. In 2011, she established Galgos del Sol as a legal charity in Spain and learned Spanish so she could talk to the galgueros in their own language. Two years later, she registered GDS as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in the United States, then found a deep-pocketed donor who agreed to triple any funds raised to establish the Galgos del Sol Education and Rescue Center. (Most of the rescues are Galgos, but GDS also takes in Podencos.)
Through creative fundraising, for which family members, volunteers and even the Galgos dressed in costumes and performed stunts, she raised more than 500,000 in under two years. Today, there are comfortable, airy kennels for as many as 200 dogs, most of whom move on to loving homes through partnerships with placement groups in Belgium, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Netherlands. Last year, GDS adopted out 164 dogs.
“The work Tina has done in the last couple of years is amazing,” says Carolyn Davenport, general manager of Greyhounds in Need (GIN), a nonprofit based in Surrey, England, that supports several shelters/rescue groups in Spain, including Galgos del Sol. “It’s very tough to start out. When we first visited her, she had just purchased the land and there was nothing there, and it looked like a huge project. Now she has two kennel blocks, an exercise area, accommodations for volunteers and an office.”
Founded in 1998 to advocate for Greyhounds being bred in Ireland and sent to Spain to race, GIN now focuses on Galgos. The group provides funding for several shelters in Spain to support veterinary costs, infrastructure and overland transport. GIN also works with groups and individuals throughout Europe to promote adoptions. Davenport, who says that Europeans are generally aware of the appalling situation for Galgos in Spain, also notes that the rescued dogs are in high demand across France, Italy, Germany and Belgium.
“Galgos are very popular pets in Europe,” she adds. “Once you’ve adopted a Galgo or a Greyhound, you tend to come back for another and another.” Part of their popularity may be due to their “cheekiness,” she says. “They like to steal things with those long noses.”
They are even popular in parts of Spain. “From Madrid north, Galgos are seen as family pets,” says Xabat Molina, on a walk with Gamba, his rescued Galga, through the streets of Girona.
“But in the south, they are seen as runners and hunters.” Molina intended to foster eight-year-old Gamba for Galgos 112, but ended up falling in love. “She’s the best dog I’ve ever had.”
LENDING A HAND
Thanks to groups like GDS, Galgos are becoming popular in the United States as well. GDS placed 42 dogs in the U.S. last year, including Chica, who now lives in Rochester, N.Y., with Wendy Barry. Chica, a four-year-old female, was found wondering the streets of Fuente Álamo in southern Spain.
Barry flew to JFK in September 2016 to meet Chica’s flight from Madrid, then rented a car and drove her new family member seven hours upstate. A Whippet aficionado, Barry learned about the plight of Galgos in 2014 from a posting on a Facebook Whippet site. She was immediately struck by the extent of the cruelty. “People think of the U.S. as being bad, but Spain is so much further behind. I just had to do something.”
Barry has now fostered two GDS rescues at her home in Rochester, helping them learn to (among other things) navigate stairs and walk on grass before moving on to permanent homes. She also traveled to Murcia in February 2017 with a few friends to volunteer at GDS for five “exhausting but amazing” days. And she plans to go back.
In fact, the volunteer program is the real cornerstone of Solera’s efforts, attracting people from across Europe and the United States. Only two or three volunteers can be accommodated at a time, and spaces are booked through 2017. Volunteers, who work 11-hour shifts, are typically assigned to spend quality time with dogs especially in need of extra attention and encouragement, and to help with the walking routine, as each dog at the facility gets two outings a day.
In May, Lynsey Finney from Staffordshire, England, spent hours sitting in a kennel with Troy, speaking to him in soothing tones. Troy is one of the “Sensitive Seven,” Galgos who came from a breeder shut down by police for abuses that included throwing unwanted dogs down a well. Understandably, Troy and the others were traumatized. Another volunteer, Chantal Hamann from Bielefeld, Germany, took her charge, Valentino, through a series of enrichment activities that included grooming time at the brushing station; a walk on an agility course with a ladder and tires; and brain games, in which Valentino ferreted out treats by moving wooden blocks. Valentino was skin and bones when he came to GDS after spending time on his own on the streets.
“What the dogs get out of this time with a volunteer is invaluable,” says Solera. “Some of these dogs just have not been socialized, and you can see the difference after an afternoon. It really speeds up the process, because we can’t send dogs for adoption who are overly shy or traumatized.”
Currently, volunteers sleep in trailers on the property, usually snuggling up with some of the sadder cases, like the bonded 11-year-old Podencos pair, Mana and Odin, whose owner had just died, and Lotus, a small brindle, who arrived at GDS with a parasitic disease that left her blind. In the next phase of construction, Solera hopes to have more comfortable volunteer housing and an education center where school children can come, meet the dogs and learn about responsible pet ownership. (GIN recently donated 43,000 toward that goal.)
Hope for widespread, lasting change may lie in the next generation. There are already signs, says Solera. “I simply do not see the dogs on the streets every day that I used to.” Galgos 112’s Murla agrees that progress is being made. “There is more awareness now, and more concern in Spain,” she says, pointing to the fact that a seizure of 58 dogs from a single galguero in 2013 was covered on national television and made front page news in many newspapers after her organization was alerted by the Guardia Civil.
“At least in the north of Spain and in the big cities, there is the realization that we have to stop some of these traditions. It’s more difficult in the countryside, but step-by-step, people are coming around. It’s a bit like bullfighting was 40 years ago. No one thought we could change that tradition, and yet it’s happening.”
A galguero in Murcia was recently prosecuted for abandonment, something that almost never happens; though there are laws on the books against abandonment and abuse, they are seldom enforced. Mandatory microchipping makes it possible for a Galgo who has been dumped by the owner to be returned to that same owner—who usually claims that the dog had run away or been stolen. In this case, a witness saw the breeder open his car door and force out the dog, an 11-year-old female who had cancer. The car sped away, leaving the Galga (now named Anita) disoriented and alone on the highway.
But Solera quickly intervened, and Anita now lives in England, where she is a treasured member of the family. She is receiving all the medical care she needs and so far, after several months in this nourishing environment, the cancer appears to be in abeyance. As for Lotus, the small brindle who went blind from a parasitic disease, she found a wonderful home in the Netherlands. Thanks to GDS, these two—and the hundreds more placed into loving homes—are restoring the breed to its original stature as prized possessions.