Hounding Misery / Part 3

March 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

In search of a greyhound trainer

Soon after publishing the second part of this report, comments and messages pour down on me. On one hand, I am congratulated by dozens of people who are deeply touched by this issue and who demand a change in certain practices. I’m pleased to see that this group is made up of all sorts of people, including housewives, artists, photographers, the odd Member of the Spanish Parliament and citizens from Slovenia, France or Germany, among other countries. On the other hand, I understandably receive reactions from a good number of greyhound trainers, from different places in Spain, who express their opinion in communications of different kinds. This is how, bearing in mind unique personal variations, I start to differentiate various general trends in how the issue is approached.

The first group is made up of those who remain silent and only express their opinion within trusted circles, probably tired of the controversy and bad press that surrounds their very existence. A second group, as I understand it, includes those who express their outrage angrily, using defamatory remarks, insults and even some threats, possibly because it hurts them to read a few truths peppered with some exaggerations.

The third group, which my work is aimed at, is made up of those trainers who vigorously while respectfully defend their collective, but who also acknowledge the need to improve certain aspects and change some damaging behavioural patterns. Luckily, and through determination and dealing with members of the second group, I manage to establish contact with some members of the third one, in my desire to find some middle ground and open a door to sensible and reasonable dialogue.

The difficulty of an easy task

As I explained in the previous chapter – The Business –, quite a number of media professionals have been subjected to questionable treatment by the Federation. Thanks to the Internet, in just a few minutes I come across one of the most famous cases, because of the professional prestige that bathes the steps of the man affected: Cesáreo Martin, a well-respected journalist with a long career, who runs the programme “Linde y Ribera”, a hunting and fishing programme that is emitted on Sundays on Onda Cero radio station. After exchanging a few messages, Cesáreo puts me in contact with one of his trusted colleagues, Sergio Ocaña, who quickly contacts me and explains a number of facts and figures, while he also serves as direct contact with the leading character of this third part of my project.

To be honest, I must underline the difficulties gone through to reach this point, and my surprise at the difficulty of doing something as seemingly simple as visiting the installations of a greyhound trainer and photographing their story. For days I visit a specialized forum and chat with some members of this collective, using my real name. In exchange I receive some polite words, some respect, quite a bit of outrage, and a good dose of angry attacks. I do understand it, partly, considering the content of the previous sections of my report. But the fact is that, over a number of days and with hundreds of people reading my request, not one of them offered to open their doors so that I could see and show the lives their greyhounds lead.

Eugenio’s place

Accompanied by Sergio, with whom we chatted extensively about some things I will mention later, we arrive at the home of Eugenio Álvarez. Cesáreo and Sergio are both intelligent men, a fact proven by their willingness and their decision to show an open attitude to the subject. It is also evident by their choice in showing me a decent and positive example of the collective they represent. I, of course, am most thankful to them.

Just a few minutes after meeting Eugenio, the look in his eyes and his ways awaken my sincere appreciation. His weather-beaten, dark-skinned face shows a seriousness that soon gives way to an affable warmth and a direct, unassuming and effective ability to communicate. In his outdoor installations, I count a total of 10 greyhounds, among which I see two older animals and an injured bitch, with a broken leg whose operation, in spite of a steel plaque, has not been successful. “She is a good young specimen, she’d make a great pet – he says, moved –. I’ll have to give her away to someone”.

With these hopeful words begins a pleasant visit that will last a few hours. Something as simple as this, it seems, is not that easy for another part of the greyhound collective, although they may refuse to recognize and accept this fact. According to another greyhound trainer, whom I know quite well, in some places these animals are frequently sacrificed when they are injured or can no longer run or hunt. “It makes sense – says A. authoritatively –. We cannot keep that many dogs and we are interested in those that run well. For us, the concept is different to yours. These animals are destined to an activity, and they are treated differently to household pets.”

Da Vinci amongst greyhound trainers

Throughout the morning, Eugenio shows us round his space and explains his view of things. Sergio follows suit, very politely offering interesting figures about a controversy that seems never-ending. Once we get to know the outdoor area that is fitted out for the greyhounds, it’s time to see the more private indoor sphere. Within his large garage, which really could be the setting for a movie, ten cages make up the dorms for the dogs. A short distance away, amongst artifacts of all types and ages, an old fridge contains a host of medicines that are needed to face all sorts of ailments. There is also a portable case that serves as a mobile first aid kit in order to deal with any difficulties that may arise while travelling.

Eugenio opens the medicine boxes and explains, amongst other details, how delicate it is to apply certain medicines to a dog before competing. Due to the drug tests that are carried out, only a couple of homeopathic creams which are quite inefficient are allowed, in order to avoid a positive test result which would stop the dogs from continuing in the competition. Apparently, he’s an expert regarding greyhound bone and muscle structures, and his hands are well-respected for their ability to detect injuries and offer comfort, wherever possible. He therefore has many stories and anecdotes to tell about the ins and outs of the world of greyhound competitions.

One of them relates to a recent case, and confirms how hard this discipline is and the suffering that top-level animals sometimes endure.  “After the race I was called over to take a look at her – he tells us referring to one particular bitch –. She had a number of muscular injuries and her chest was sorely damaged. I don’t know how she is doing now.” He is very clear about the fact that the problem with this case and other injuries is people’s ignorance, since few are able to detect such injuries before it’s too late.

When asking a vet who is an expert on greyhounds and who is involved in their racing, she tells us that this is quite logical and very common. “Remember that, in order to reach an important race final, they’ve had to go through many local competitions. They may have hunted up to 90 hares to get that far.” Sergio, on the other hand, invites us to consider the issue as if they were athletes. “Just the same as with racing horses, the lives of greyhounds are generally not as long as those of other dogs. It’s very normal to suffer losses and injuries.” 

Hours go by during which I receive more and more information. Eugenio shows  me, next to the door of each kennel, the lists where he notes down the information related to births and vaccinations. Everything is tidy and makes sense, so the lasting impression is positive and very pleasant.

A bike for seven and other inventions

The visit continues and my interest in Eugenio grows as his ingenuity and inventions are revealed to me. While he tells me about his working life and his valuable contributions to the creation of certain industrial artifacts, he shows us some of his recent creations. On the one hand, he unveils a machine aimed at the months during which hunting hares is forbidden until the next season. Made up of a false hare, a long string and an ingenious motorized mechanism, this artifact allows him to recreate the races and keep dogs in good shape – and owners entertained – all year round.

Secondly, and generously giving in to my request, he presents us with his customized bicycle, created to cover the need that arises due to some training practices being illegal. It has to do with training the animals using motor vehicles, which has raised intense debates due to the undesirable consequences it can have on the health of the animals. Although this practice is punished with fines, not all greyhound trainers have the creative mind that our man of the day has, or perhaps they don’t want to invest time in modifying the traditional method.  “It’s forbidden, true, but there are people who continue doing it secretly – says A.-. My cousin in the village trains his dogs tying them to the back of a quad, for example.”

The debate around this issue, as with all else that surrounds the world of greyhounds, is complex. Some experts alert to the dangers of training animals with motor vehicles. Others, such as M., a vet, consider that the risk is not that high. “Over 25 years – she says –, I have only seen three cases of dogs that have been run over while training.” As always, in such cases, for some this figure is too high, for others it’s low, and for others it’s enough. What is obvious is that other methods are possible, if the motivation is there and the desire to improve is constant and honourable.

About theft, abandon and other devils

For a long time I discuss with Sergio the issue of how greyhounds are abandoned and neglected. No matter how much some people deny it, or lash out with insults to try to hide the evidence, it is obvious that there is a problem related to this, as the figures, the images and the testimonies show. It is possible, and I do believe so, that the figure of 50,000 greyhounds sacrificed each year may be an exaggeration, as it is possible that the problem, while serious, may be less severe than some say. Following the suggestion of a greyhound owner, I check the figures that the brand Affinity handles in its study about this issue.

In 2009, it seems to state that the number of hunting dogs that are abandoned, after the season ends, is around 13,000, which makes up 11.5% of the cases of abandoned dogs. Within this number, one assumes, are included the abandoned greyhounds. Logically, or so I imagine, there is no accounting those that disappear or suffer other fates, due to a lack of effective control over this aspect.

Although I am encouraged to contrast the information and to use the data provided by Affinity, I still cannot understand how these figures can be a consolation or a case in favour of greyhound trainers. Of course, the figures are not kind either towards the owners of other types of dogs, since the number of them that are abandoned is absolutely shocking. This point has to be clear, since the figures for the rest of dog breeds are much higher than those affecting  greyhounds. This does not, of course, soften the harshness of the case we are dealing with.

Having said this and, with the idea in mind that any figure, even a low one, is still too much, I talk about it with various people. As I question him, Sergio does not hesitate to relate the figures regarding abandoned dogs with the hundreds of thefts that happen every year. He very sensibly explains that a good number of the greyhounds that appear on the streets or alongside roads have not been abandoned by their owners, nor do they belong to the area where they are found. “The problem arises from the thefts – he explains -. Someone orders the theft of a particular dog, or a number of them. Whoever carries out the theft, who knows little about them, steals a group of dogs, among which the desired animal is included. Once the person who ordered the theft obtains what he wants, the rest of the animals are dumped somewhere.”

His theory, which I share from my own experience, is that the proof of this can be found in the animals’ behaviour. “If you set a greyhound free a certain distance away from his home, it won’t take him long to find the way back to where he belongs. These dogs could have been stolen in one area of Spain and let loose somewhere else.” I say I share the theory because a few days ago our much-loved Gitano got lost one night. We searched around for him for two hours, to no avail. To our surprise, and although we had gone along a route he had never been on before, he had made his way back home, where he anxiously awaited our return.

The shadow of mistreatment is long

I insist on asking about the mistreatment of greyhounds and certain practices which have motivated this investigative report. Since the views of greyhound protection groups and individuals are well known and obvious, I ask people involved with the greyhound world about this, to find out their version of events. Some tell me that these shameful actions – such as hanging greyhounds to death, shooting them or throwing them down holes – used to happen in some villages of what is considered the depths of rural Spain (la España profunda). However, A. quite easily tells me that the sacrifice of greyhounds is common. “It’s no longer as it used to be, nowadays a simple injection solves the problem. We can give some away, but there’s just not enough demand for that many dogs.”

A recent testimony from someone who is close and totally trustworthy, an expert hunter who is very knowledgeable about this issue, confirms that this sort of thing continues to happen. “A few years ago, in Toledo, I was hunting with a friend. From a distance we saw a man doing something strange under a tree. We approached but the guy was quick and disappeared down a lane. When we reached the tree – he tells me in outrage –, we found the greyhound hanging, already dead. Although we looked for him to give him what for, we did not find the man.” He was lucky, I can assure you, because some people show no tolerance at all before certain unfair actions like that.

Others, like Eugenio and Sergio, assure me that this hardly happens nowadays, and see no need for such maneuvers. They understand that there are many ways to deal with the process and that there are plenty of people – both in Spain and abroad – who are prepared to take on a greyhound in their home, as a pet, when the trainer reckons the animal can no longer fulfill what is required of it.

As I continue with my work and, in response to the enquiry from a greyhound trainer – who questions my security in affirming there is a problem with animals being abandoned –, I attach a photograph. It was taken just a few days after beginning this research, near Madrid. As well as this bitch, who was finally rescued by an animal protection agency, I also witnessed another abandoned greyhound and yet another which was run over, all in barely one week. They could have been, as Sergio says, animals who were stolen from another Spanish city. They could also not have been.

I hope to complete this report with the next chapter, as I trust that common sense and an effective control on the birth and sacrifice of greyhounds may be applied in our country.

Instead of approaching the issue from a negative and extreme perspective, I will leave you now with the example of Eugenio, a man who shows that common sense is possible and that one cannot judge a whole and widespread collective based upon the actions of a few. In the same way, I consider that the ways to solve this issue must come from within this group, in a firm, rigorous and determined way.

Read Part 4 / One Battle, a Thousand Sides

Hounding Misery
Part 3 / In Search of a Greyhound Trainer
Text & Photography Nano Calvo
Translated by Ana Digon

Any reproduction or other use of all or part of this article is expressly prohibited, unless prior permission granted by the author.
Please feel free to post the link in your websites and social pages. Spreading the word is the best way to change injustice.

Should you be interested in publishing this article, please contact me via email. Thanks!

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