Story by Emma Ross-Thomas
SPAIN: February 11, 2003
MEDINA DEL CAMPO, Spain - A gory sight confronts walkers
in a Spanish wood - a dead greyhound hangs from a tree near the remnants
of a noose. Bones, including a dog's jaw, lie under a nearby tree,
evidence of other animals that have met the same fate.
The slain dogs are a violent by-product of rural Spain's
fascination with hare coursing, a sport in which owners often regard
their animals as disposable. Tens of thousands of greyhounds run hare
coursing races in rural Spain each year. At the end of the season many
are hanged - slung from trees with a piece of twine - and if their
owners think they have run badly they sometimes hang them with their
back paws on the ground for a slower death.
Fermin Perez, head of a dog sanctuary at Medina del
Campo in central Spain, says he has been told of these methods by racing
dog owners. The British-based World Society for the Protection of
Animals (WSPA) also describes them in a report.
"I've seen dogs hanged at every angle you can imagine,"
Perez told Reuters.
Owners have invented grim terms to describe the
different execution methods. Hanging dogs with their back feet on the
ground is called "the secretary" or "the piano player," referring to the
scrabbling of the dog's front legs as it tries to reach the ground,
according to WSPA and locals in Medina.
"If they're not running, they hang," said Angel, a
21-year-old former hare courser from Medina del Campo. "Greyhounds are
for racing. What else are you going to do with one? You wouldn't exactly
take it for walks around the plaza," he said with a giggle. "For stupid
people, it gives them a kick," he said, referring to hanging, adding
that some owners also shot or abandoned their dogs.
The WSPA said in a recent report: "Hanging is an age-old
tradition and the most popular method of 'disposing' of these dogs."
Other methods include stoning and staking dogs in a pond to drown.
STARVED, NOSES DOCKED
The WSPA also says the greyhounds - slightly different
from Italian greyhounds and known in Spain as "galgos" - are typically
treated badly during their short life - fed on bread and sugar and
neither vaccinated nor wormed.
A greyhound arrived at the end of January at Perez's
shelter with a deformed nose. Perez said the former owner had explained
that in his village owners always chopped off the end of their dogs'
noses to make them run faster.
Traditionally, according to the WSPA, greyhounds were
used by poor people for hunting meat. Owners could not afford to keep
the dogs once they had outlived their usefulness and so they killed them
in the cheapest possible way.
Now the greyhounds - docile and trusting - race, and the
WSPA estimates that 50 percent of dogs die by the age of two, with
owners reluctant to pay for their upkeep after they have run one season.
They run their first season at 12 months.
A Medina-based veterinary surgeon said putting down a
dog cost around 30 euros ($32) - a price aficionados are unwilling to
pay. "There'll be more than one out there," said a local man when told
of the dog hanging in the wood. "It tends to happen, when the season
ends, dead greyhounds start turning up." Remains of hanged dogs which
have been later burned have also been spotted by the WSPA.
The season lasts from October 1 to January 31 and races
are held from dawn until dusk two days a week in the Medina area. The
first dog to grab the hare usually wins and prestige is the reward for
the owner rather than prize money or gambling winnings, locals say.
OLD LAW, NEW LAW
A local law was passed in 1997 in Old Castile and Leon
setting a 15,000 Euro fine for dog-hanging but it has never been
enforced, according to a local government official.
"The police receive reports that the animals are
there... but they never find those guilty so there can't be a
prosecution," the official said, adding that prevention was impossible
and no extra measures were being taken to put an end to the tradition.
Spain - famous for bull-fighting - made cruelty to animals a crime
earlier this year but the question remains as to whether the new law
will be enforced any more than the local one.
The Castile-La Mancha Greyhound Federation says it
opposes hanging and that the practice is on the decline. Medina del
Campo, a medieval town on the Castilian plains, is the centre of Spanish
galgo racing. Signs of the craze - which Perez says has become even more
popular over the last decade - can be seen in photography shop windows
and on car bumpers. The town boasts a sculpture of two greyhounds about
to chase a hare. Locals say nearly everyone in the town races.
But Perez says hanging is not peculiar to Medina and
with the shelter, dogs that would probably otherwise be killed are
saved, at no charge to the owner. He reckons that in other parts of
rural Spain, for example Andalucía, hangings are much more common.
This year some 200 dogs have been handed over to Perez's
shelter. Two men turned up at the end of January with an injured dog and
asked to swap it for another one. Perez says people ask if there is a
charge for handing over dogs and suspects if the answer were "yes" he
would not have an overcrowded kennel.
Go on to Job
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