When the race is over

 

It is late afternoon on a boggy, flat-topped mountain, and Helena Pampus and her 46 greyhounds are listening to Strauss. The Blue Danube waltz and the wind blowing up from nearby Lough Derg echo gently around the house until a lone yelp, answered by a cacophony of barks, is topped by the shattering bellow: "Quiet. Quiet. QUIET!". Harmony and howls are doing battle again at what may be the most unlikely dog-house in Ireland.

Pampus (63), formerly a businesswoman in Dusseldorf, shares space with around 50 goats, sheep and horses at an old cottage in Co Galway. The cottage has been remodelled, and was opened last year as Ireland's first greyhound sanctuary by Pro Animale, a German group which runs animal shelters in a variety of countries including Turkey, Greece, Poland, Spain and Russia.

Avalon, on 38 acres at Woodford, near Portumna, Co Galway, is elegantly designed, standing out from its muddy mountain setting. The airy, stone-floored rooms and wide corridors are cleaned 10 times a day in rainy weather. Industrial-sized washing machines, driers, cookers and freezers work constantly. Greyhounds start out in the "trauma centres" - Pampus's convent-like bedroom and sitting room. Those who have reached the next stage lounge on brown woollen blankets on tiered steps in rooms with names such as Patience, Tolerance, Faithfulness, Honesty and Strength.

Pampus is tickled to have a visitor who, for once, isn't bringing more rejected dogs (she has already taken in 60-odd greyhounds this year). I'm only here to ask questions, even if they are the slightly disconcerting questions of someone who grew up never knowing a greyhound, but certain nonetheless that they were ferocious, hare-gobbling speed machines. Strong men kept greyhounds muzzled and close to their hips, because - given a chance - the weird-looking hounds would rip a child into bite-size chews. Every kid knew that. So it doesn't quite fit the standard scenario when nine wide-jawed hounds leap from their lairs in one of the rooms - to attack with a barrage of wags and playful head-butts.

Ireland's negative attitude toward greyhounds was revealed on US breakfast TV in May, when viewers heard the rags-to-riches tale of three skinny, damaged, but cheerful greyhounds receiving a hero's welcome at Charlotte airport in North Carolina.

Ashling, Saoirse and Bupa were among 200 Irish greyhounds, exported to Spain, who were found living in appalling conditions at a track which had just closed in Barcelona. Advanced neglected glaucoma had caused Bupa's left eye to swell to three times its normal size - the effect on the dog would have been like a continual migraine, an American vet said. Ashling had sternal hygromas - bags of saggy flesh caused by living on hard concrete. Saoirse was taken to a vet to relieve the dreadful pain caused by molar abcesses.

Audiences for three US TV shows and four East Coast newspapers heard that frantic efforts to

re-house the dogs in Europe and the US had been made by Marion Fitzgibbon, president of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Her efforts were necessary because Ireland makes little provision for unwanted racers, and Irish people don't see greyhounds as pets. Similar stories have appeared in Der Speigel and other national media in Germany.

THE idea that the Celtic Tiger lags behind on enlightened compassion for its animals hardly tallies with the tender relationships suggested by the rise in sales of expensive pet foods and toys. Yet on this isolated mountain, 18month old Beth and her companions offer eloquent evidence of the tougher world inhabited by one breed. Scabby and mangy, Beth shakes and sometimes urinates with fear when a stranger enters the trauma room. Her former owner took her to a Galway county dump in mid-winter, tied her to a rock and left her to die. She was found 10 freezing nights later beside an old fridge and a stinking rubbish bag. The young dog's muscles had withered along with her spirit. Her eyes are still horrible - their mix of fear and milky hope is wrenching, and horribly moving.

If Beth recovers sufficiently, she may bunk in with other rejects such as Darius, found in a miserable condition in Belfast; or with a pair who'd been starved before ending up at the dog pound in Ennis. So far, she's receptive only to three-legged Arras, a gentle old half-collie.

Rehabilitating and re-housing Ireland's discarded greyhounds in continental Europe and the US is a frustrating and costly business. It's hard for a young Avalon volunteer to accept that greyhounds have become so disassociated from other dogs in the minds of Irish dog-lovers, that they are almost never considered as pets. Until a few years ago, even the national airline classed greyhounds as cargo, while other breeds enjoyed the check-in perks associated with being called excess baggage.

In reality, greyhounds are gentler than chihuahuas and Yorkshire terriers. They don't need lots of exercise - in fact, they're inclined to laziness. They can be trained to hunt and race, but most would prefer to hang around with their head on your lap.

The extraordinary gap between the common perception of the greyhound and the praise heaped on the dogs by those who know them, appears to have come about through the rise of the Irish greyhound industry. Ireland is now regarded as the world's foremost breeder, exporting more than 10,000 dogs every year.

Removed from ordinary people's direct experience, greyhounds developed an image problem. It became easy for people to be repelled by a breed only ever seen with muzzles and only known for killing hares. We forget that people, not greyhounds, organised things that way. The transformation from pet into product has been disastrous for the greyhounds' welfare, according to the ISPCA.

Most people in the industry are adamant that breeding and racing the dogs is a labour of love. The majority of owners are farmers. The camaraderie, competition and small-time betting have become a way of life for thousands, who shower the best food and attention on prize runners.

But some owners, who don't wish to be identified, admit that sentiment and business "don't mix", since dogs are regularly culled - as unpromising pups; if they fail as runners or coursing dogs; after suffering injuries on the track; and as racers past their prime. Many are put down for free in dog pounds. Some are abandoned, tied up and left to die, while others are drowned. Last August, 17 pups described by Clare dog warden Andy McDonald as "walking skeletons", were put down at the Ennis pound, which sees an average of 60-80 greyhounds a year.

Other hazards for racers include a painful leg-burning treatment designed to speed recovery after injuries, and the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The ISPCA estimates that up to 11,000 greyhounds are unaccounted for each year. John Garrahy, Regulations Manager for Bord na gCon, the state board for the greyhound racing industry, says annual turnover of approximately 6,000-8,000 dogs is due mainly to "natural wastage" - dogs catching diseases or being put down due to injury.

Bord na gCon has been slow to follow the example of racing boards in other countries, which help re-house thousands of dogs. This year BnaG announced a £50,000-per-annum trust for retired racers - eight dogs have since been placed in kennels. It has started an advertising campaign to encourage people to take retired racers as pets, says PR manager Paddy O'Dwyer. BnaG is also offering £10,000 to the ISPCA to help ongoing rescue efforts.

"It's a pittance compared to what BnaG is spending on tracks and facilities," says Marion Fitzgibbon of the ISPCA. BnG earned £10.6 million for the sale of a portion of its Harold's Cross site this year, and has embarked on major track improvements in a bid to attract younger customers. It is also set to benefit from changes in the upcoming Horse and Greyhound Racing (Betting Charges and Levies) Act 1999.

Garrahy says a "gradual approach" is being adopted on welfare issues. "A year from now we'll assess progress and see where we can do better."

Persuading Irish people that skinny, mean flying machines are actually cuddly and lovely is going to be tough, but not impossible. In Mountshannon, Helena Pampus and her assistants Sean Minogue and Noreen Conway, are preparing for an open day to mark the sanctuary's first year in operation. A Midlands family turned up a few days ago, fell for greyhound Glen, and will be taking him home to start a new life as an indoor pet. A single dog re-housed in Ireland in one year isn't much.

"It's great. It's a start," adds Pampus.