A four hour drive from the tourist magnet Malaga in Andalucia in Spain, you find the desert landscape of Almeria. An area famous for popular spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood: windy, deserted and dry. We are no longer in the big city, but in a rural area where the culture of using the dog breed galgo for racing with real or mechanical hares is strong. Having the fastest dog really matters – the one who will win the big prizes.
The prize exceeds all else. Dogs are consumable. They are bred, trained, and used in competitions until they are one or two years old. When finished as competition dogs, they are brutally killed, dumped, or used for breeding – hoping they will secure the next big winner.
Galgos Rescue Almeria
We drive past the small town of Cuevas del Almanzora and continue towards the GPS coordinates we have been given. Out in the dry desert landscape. A hare jumps quickly across the road and disapperes into the bushes. We pass a few buildings, then we arrive at our destination.
In 2015, John and Sandy Cortebeeck sold the house they owned in Belgium to be able to buy this property. They brought with them two dogs, two cats, and big plans. The place was to become a dog hotel. After extensive paperwork – re-registration from farming, and extensive reconstruction of the house and building the kennel area, it payed off: the dog hotel turned operational. They ran it for a few months. Then they rescued Ana. After that, the plans changed – at first almost imperceptibly. Suddenly they no longer ran a dog hotel. They rescued dogs. Nurtured sick and starving galgos and podencos back to life. Vaccinated them. Cleaned their wounds. Obtained them passports and arranged for new owners – often in other countries. The dogs had filled their hearts, and they were soon working around the clock for them. The named the organization Galgo´s Rescue Almeria.
The river of dogs needing help was overflowing
The first things we notice when we get to the kennel is how quiet it is. Even though the kennel is full of dogs, there is little barking and noise. This is how the galgos we have met earlier also behaved. They are social, but quiet, gentle and careful. Suddenly they stand next to you and gently push their head into your hand. It is difficult to comprehend the brutality to which these animals are exposed.
Sandy and John brings us into the shade on the porch. As we walked over there they tell us that they sent 27 dogs to Italy a few days ago. To new owners and a new life. As pets. As soon as the dogs were sent, new ones arrived. One of them was pregnant and had 10 puppies the day after she arrived. It’s always full here. The flow of abandoned and abused dogs is never-ending.
– Podencos are seen as rubbish
– Many have heard of galgos now. Far fewer have heard of podencos. The galgos have at least some kind of value: the fastest get cash prizes. Podencos are seen as rubbish. When we transport podencos to the airport and send them to their new owners, people look at us. «Who wants that?» they say, shaking their heads. We think of podencos as the forgotten dogs, says Sandy.
Podencos are available in all sizes. The head, with large ears that stand straight up, is characteristic and makes them easy to recognize. They have a lot of energy, are smart – but often nervous.
Many of the dogs they take in are afraid of men. John points to two podencos that squeeze together inside the kennel.
– They quickly become familiar with Sandy. It takes longer before they trust me, he says.
Ana was found at the landfill
The family’s own dogs surround us on the porch. They sleep on the couch, lie in the shade, or seek out the people who are there. One of them is Eli, Ana´s puppy. The galgo that started this.
– We found her at the landfill, Sandy says.
The lady who discovered her spent a week before she was able to get her into her car. Shortly after Ana was rescued, she had a litter of 11 puppies. All the puppies got parvovirus. Three of the puppies died at the vet clinic. Eli and another puppy were at the clinic the longest. After ten days, there was nothing more the vet could do for them, and we took them home. One puppy died a few hours later, but Eli survived and stayed with us.
Sandy shows us pictures of dogs they have rescued. Terrible pictures of dogs with serious injuries, dogs that are so malnourished that the whole skeleton shows. One of the dogs was kept in a cage from the age of two until she was eleven years old. Her only task was to give birth to puppies. Her body is deformed. The video of her, when she finally got out of the cage where she could not even stand up straight, shows a dog that is unable to walk. She only staggered.
– Now she’s our dog. She runs around the farm, and behaves like a puppy.
Tears fill Sandy’s eyes as she shows us the various pictures. Those they were able to save. And those who did not get help in time.
– If you do not have a heart for these dogs… If you do not really feel for them, you can`t do this. The work never ends. And you do not get support from the locals, she says.
Gina – the dog in the cage, before and after. Photos: Galgo´s Rescue Almeria.
No normal days
– How is a normal day for you? I ask.
– No days are normal. There is always something new happening. We have to go to the vet, pick up new dogs. We get up at seven and let the dogs out in the yard in small groups. We clean the kennel, feed the dogs, give medicine and treatment to those who need it. At 12 o’clock we are done. Then the same job starts again at 16.00. In the evenings, we do paperwork, update the website, contact partners and talk to people who want to adopt, Sandy says.
The pandemic led to few changes in everyday life.
– We have lived in quarantine since we started rescuing dogs. If we are going to visit family at home, we travel separately. We can not leave all the responsibility to others, Sandy tell us.
Pictures of Lisa, before and after. Photos: Galgo´s Rescue Almeria.
Considered a tool
In the beginning they found and rescued the dogs themselves. Then others realized what they were doing, and began to bring dogs to them. Now they don´t have time to look for dogs. They have to say no to some of the dogs people bring them. The don`t have room for all of them. The first year they found new homes for a hundred dogs. Last year, they found new homes for 200 dogs.
Galgos and podencoes are used in hunting, and are considered a tool. They are not protected by animal welfare laws. Recently, changes in Spanish law have led to pets no longer being considered as things, but as sentient beings. These amendments does not apply to galgos and podencoes.
Requires a lot of work
Most dogs the Cortebeecks rescues are in poor condition when they arrive at the kennel. The dogs are treated for fleas and lice. Then they get a bath. They are taken to the vet after a day or two for blood samples to check the dogs for diseases. Depending on the result, they are vaccinated, chipped and given passports.
– All the dogs we have must be registered on us. Exporting dogs requires a lot of paperwork. Among other things, we must have a picture of the ID card of the previous owner. If the previous owner is dead, we can not get the dog out of the country because the ownership of the dog can not be transferred to us. If a registration is not correct, all the dogs will be confiscated. Then they are killed or sent to the perrera – the kill station, says Sandy.
Everything must be completely according to the rules. Treating sick dogs is expensive.
– Many do not know how much it takes for the dogs to be adopted by people in other countries. All the paperwork, blood tests and vaccines that need to be in order.
– They are like our children
The couple works around the clock. It costs all their energy. And money.
– In the beginning we struggled a lot. We used all our savings. We delivered dogs for adoption in Italy, but did not get a refund. Fortunately, we get donations and support now, they say.
They are tired from fighting alone.
– If you do not have strong feelings for these dogs, you can not do it. They are like our children. They are our responsibility. We do everything for them. All the dogs that come here gets a better life. But we know there are more dogs that needs our help, they say.
Usually gets 8-12 puppies
Pictures of Nico, before and after. Photos: Galgo´s Rescue Almeria.
Many of the dogs have lived on bread, water and chicken. Many are starving. At Galgo´s Rescue Almeria they get quality food. Prices are rising for veterinary treatment, vaccines, medicines and special creams for wounds. Special collars to protect them from parasites cost 26 euros per piece. Antibiotic cream, which they use a lot, has increased from 2 euros per box to 48 euros after it became a requirement that it must be prescribed to animals. Female dogs that come to them are often pregnant. If they come early enough, they ask the vet to abort the puppies. A galgo usually gives birth to 8 to 12 puppies at a time.
Get a lot of help from northern Italy
Galgo´s Rescue Almeria cooperates with three animal welfare organizations in northern Italy. They help them find new homes for the dogs. The collaboration is good: They send carefully updated information about each individual dog to potential owners, and the animal welfare organization checks potential owners. A good match is important for all parties.
– People in northern Italy really have a heart for these dogs. They adopt, donate money, equipment and pay for treatment, says Sandy.
And the dogs – these lightning-fast couch potatoes that are so easy to fall in love with – give a lot back.
– We get a lot of love and affection. The dogs are scared when they come here, but it only takes a couple of days before gratitude and love starts to shine trough – at least to women. The fear of men lasts longer, but vanes as trust rebuilds. It is wonderful to see the transformation from a skeleton asking for help, to cheerful healthy dogs. They are so grateful when they get help, says Sandy.
Needs even more love and closeness
The kennel is exceptionally clean and well maintained. Many of the dogs – some anxious, some already less scared, seek contact. In the yard they run behind fences that are almost two meters high. It is easy to forget that these calm and quiet dogs, are also lightning fast runners and can jump very high. A dead hare is lying on the side of the road. The instinct to hunt small furry animals is strong.
Sandy looks at my son, who’s with me. He has spent the hours during the interview, petting and being close to the dogs.
– We should have someone like you here. We give the dogs everything they need physically, but they always need more cuddles, closeness and socialization, she says.
They are like any other dog. They need a pack – a family.
Do you want to help Galgo´s Rescue Almeria? You can find their website here.