Photo by Lee Woolcock
Anna Clements - SOS Galgos
Anna Clements has been rescuing abused greyhounds for more than 10 years but each new case is as heartbreaking as the first. You don’t get used to cruelty of this magnitude.
The word abuse is really an understatement. The dogs are found hanged by their necks from trees, or with their throats slashed, burned alive or thrown down deep wells. And, most shockingly, these are not isolated incidents of cruelty. Every year as the hare coursing season comes to an end in February, thousands of the dogs, galgos in Castilian, are either abandoned or killed by their owners in rural Spain.
Some of the luckier ones end up being treated by Anna and her husband Albert Sordé de Uralde at their veterinary surgery in Esplugues de Llobregat, just outside Barcelona. Anna, 41, originally from Manchester in the UK, and her Catalan husband set up the charity SOS Galgos in 2000 to help rescue the animals and place them with adoptive families. They live with their two greyhounds, William Shakespeare and Lisa, in the flat above the Tres Vet surgery, finding new homes around the world for some 350 dogs each year. The galgos, which are slightly smaller than English greyhounds and marginally slower, are used in hare coursing around Spain, especially in the autonomous regions of Andalusia, Castilla-La Mancha, Castilla y León, Madrid and Extremadura. Hare coursing was banned in the UK in 2005, at the same time as fox hunting, but is widely practised in Spain, where there are 634 clubs with 14,000 members each owning between five and 20 dogs, according to the Federación Española de Galgos, which says the blood sport is no longer practised in Catalunya.
Animal rights campaigners say there are up to three million greyhounds used in hare coursing around the world. Two galgos compete against each other pursuing a hare across miles of open countryside until it is either caught or escapes to a safe refuge. The dogs, followed by hunters in cars or on horseback, reach speeds of up to 40 miles per hour and the animal that catches the hare is considered the winner. The season runs from October to the beginning of February, when Anna’s charity becomes snowed under with work as they try to rescue as many abandoned dogs as possible.
Anna is a former English teacher who now works full-time running the charity as well as giving talks in local schools. She was born in the UK, brought up in Canada and then lived in France and Switzerland before settling in Catalunya, where she met her husband while he was treating her pet dog.
The galgos they treat are usually passed to them by vets or concerned members of the public, but they are occasionally contacted directly by hunters who no longer want their dogs. The animals are often terrified of human contact when they first arrive, and some have taken weeks to catch because of their fear of humans.
Anna and her husband place the dogs with a foster family for a temporary period until a permanent home can be found. She told Metropolitan: “What the hunters do to the dogs is heartless and barbaric, and it will be happening this month all over rural Spain. I have hunters ringing me up saying ‘come and collect my dog or I will string it up from the nearest tree’. It is heartbreaking. They would rather kill the dogs than have to feed and look after them until the following season. They really have no sympathy whatsoever towards the animals. The galgos are beautiful, noble and docile animals and they deserve to be looked after properly.
“Spain has a very bad reputation for animal cruelty, but few people outside the country are aware of the treatment these animals are going through.” She added: “Some of the animals we rescue are extremely traumatised and it can be a long process getting them to trust humans ever again. The only real solution to the problem is to ban hare coursing. We have found homes for thousands of greyhounds all over Europe, but it really is just the tip of the iceberg. They are very peaceful animals, and make wonderful family pets. People assume they need large open spaces but they are very happy living in a small flat, and they don’t need any more exercise than any other kind of dog.”
The dogs Anna treats are usually aged between two and five. She says many hunters consider their animals worthless after two seasons. Reports claim some hunters revel in killing animals that have “embarrassed” them by their slowness during the season. They are said to string them from nooses with their paws barely touching the ground. The hunters allegedly describe the dogs as “tocando el piano” or playing the piano, as they die slowly while frantically trying to steady their paws on the ground.
Victor is one of the success stories. He was hanged then left in a ditch, but found barely alive by a passerby. He was taken to an animal hospital in Lleida where he spent two weeks before SOS Galgos found a foster home for him. He was then adopted by his new owner, Seija, in Finland.
Animal rights campaigners claim that up to 50,000 galgos are abandoned or killed as each season comes to a close in February. It is impossible to verify the figure, but the London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals, a charity which has investigated the mistreatment of galgos in Spain, puts the figure in the tens of thousands. The hunters themselves dispute that figure and insist only a small minority of animals come to harm.
Carlos Sanz Calvo, chairman of the Federación Española de Galgos, condemned any cruelty to the animals but insisted the problem has been exaggerated by animal rights groups. He told Metropolitan: “Hare coursing is a properly regulated competitive sport with its own rules and a long tradition in Spain. Our members treat their animals properly and with the respect they deserve. We do not accept that there is widespread mistreatment. The figures that are put around by animal rights organisations about the number of abandoned dogs are hugely exaggerated.” Prosecutions for cruelty to galgos are almost non-existent but animal rights campaigners hope recent amendments to the law will change that. On December 23rd last year, Spain amended its animal cruelty laws, first introduced to the Penal Code in 2004, to make it easier for courts to punish people guilty of abuse.
But it did not increase sentences for offenders. Animal rights campaigners say it is a step in the right direction but does not go
To make a donation or find about more about adoption or fostering of the galgos please go to the website www.sosgalgos.com. To read about two of the charity’s success stories, Mia and Victor, go to our website: www.barcelona-metropolitan.com/galgos