Spanish hunting season is almost over. Which, to anyone with a vested interest in prolonging the lives of animals, might sound like a good thing—except that in certain parts of the country, this is the time when the "greyhound holocaust” begins. This description, dreamt (nightmared?) up by local animal rights organizations, is not in the least exaggerated. Nearly 50,000 greyhounds, which are Spain's hunting dogs of choice, are expected to be abandoned in the wild or sacrificed brutally by owners who no longer need them.
If the dogs are too old to hunt, or too hungry to afford until the beginning of the next hunting season, then a greyhound owner might choose to hang them instead. Some throw them into wells or cremate them. Running them over with a car seems to be catching on too, while a few years back there were several cases of hounds being tied to the backs of trucks and dragged along the road.
Luckily, there are still people who fight every day to change this situation. Last week, Asociación Baasgalgo—a Spanish NGO devoted solely to the protection of greyhounds—banged its fists on the table. For the first time, a court in Toledo sentenced a local criminal hunter to seven and a half months of prison and disqualified him from owning or attempting to make money from animals for two years. Given that the guy had no previous convictions, he didn't have to do jail time, per Spanish law. But it's a start.
I spoke to the NGO's president, Beatriz Marlasca, to learn more about this case, as well as the issue of Spanish greyhound abuse in general.
VICE: Hi, Beatriz. Congratulations for the sentence. Could you tell me about the origins of this case?
Beatriz Marlasca: Thank you. Well, in February 2011, our volunteers found a female hound on a land plot in the area of Fuensalida, Toledo—a town notorious for being a hound-abuse hotspot. The dog had been hanged, and her micro-chip had been removed. Interestingly, when they searched the area, they found the earth beneath the animal had been stirred. After digging for a while, two more hound corpses appeared, and this time they both still had their chips. We immediately called the authorities
Through the data contained in the chips, they managed to locate the owner, who didn’t deny having hanged the hounds, although he claimed not to be responsible for the deaths of the buried ones. The autopsies revealed that the three animals had been hanged with the same rope, although it is hard to prove that the third dog was also his. We have the same problem with many of the reports we submit: We can’t prove who’s responsible for the killings, but at least we manage to put on record that this practice continues today.
How do you find the abused dogs?
We have mainly worked in the Toledo area since 2009, so we are already familiar with the areas where hangings are most likely to happen, or where you can find pits with bodies. When the hunting season is over, we actually lead raids in the lands where we think we will probably find corpses or simply abandoned animals. For better or for worse, we find them.
Is Fuensalida a black spot as far as greyhound abandoning and killing is concerned?
It is indeed. At dusk, greyhounds in Fuensalida gather around rubbish bins looking for something to eat. The problem is massive. Just to mention some figures, this summer we collected ten hounds from around the bins in Fuensalida, not during the hunting season.
Lately, an increasing number of greyhounds can be seen in Madrid, Barcelona, and other cities around Spain. This breed is being adopted by many people, which could mean a change of attitude towards these dogs. Have you noticed that?
We have certainly made progress in making people see greyhounds as pets and not just as hounds or racers. When people get to know them and see that they behave very much like cats, sleep almost 12 or 14 hours a day, never bark, and are very well-behaved, they just fall in love with them. Of course, if you take them to the beach they will run around. But they are very quiet at home and don’t need to go out often.
It’s a sort of very nasty joke. They are so physically powerful and at the same time well-behaved. That's what's earned them a most terrifying destiny. It's like a curse.
Do you think this sentence will be of any use? The hunter will not go to jail, since he has no criminal record.
We believe it will be useful. This is the first sentence on that matter, so it will establish case law. Seven and a half months of imprisonment is nothing, and certainly he will not go to jail for not having a criminal record, but as of now he does. He has been banned from breeding and trading hounds, too, which might be a persuading argument for other hunters.
Through our success we would like to encourage other associations to denounce and report these killings. Although reporting might seem an insignificant measure to take, it may contribute to bringing about a change in the criminal code to make sentences tougher.
This is a very tough task you've taken on.
Sometimes you feel like you’ve had enough, but then you realize that you can’t give up. What would become of them, otherwise? We go through a wide range of feelings in the process: indignation when we find a particularly terrible case and horror when we think how much the dog must have suffered. But the bond between the dogs and those who take care of them grow. And despite all the suffering, the hounds learn to trust men again. Then they’re adopted, and you feel proud and happy to think there’s one fewer dog on the streets. We’ve had countless cases, some of them really miraculous.
Tell me about one of them.
Some time ago, we found a female hound that had been hanged but was still alive. The rope had cut her trachea, so she could breathe through the cut. She had to have 30 stitches. After a month under intensive care, she fully recovered and was adopted in France. That happy ending is what drives us. It’s priceless to see the dog with a new family, sitting on a sofa, after all she went through. It’s hard and beautiful at the same time.
You can follow Juanjo Villalba on Twitter: @juanjovillalba