Falling in love with animals: Montclair author Laura Schenone’s ‘The Dogs of Avalon’
'The Dogs of Avalon'
By Laura Schenone
Published in August by
Reading at Watchung Booksellers
54 Fairfield St.
Thursday, Sept. 14, 7 p.m.
By GWEN OREL
Laura Schenone had no qualms about eating animals.
Her first two books are about food: “The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken,” and the James Beard Award-winning “A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove.”
She wasn't an animal lover. She respected them.
But dogs and cats used to make her nervous.
Then came Lily.
Lily, a “lurcher,” or greyhound mix, was a rescue dog from Ireland, abandoned by Irish travelers (aka gypsies). Schenone fell in love with the beautiful dog with a heart-shaped patch on her face.
Through the love of Lily, Schenone became immersed in the world of greyhound rescue. She met inspiring people, heard sad stories, heard funny ones.
The result of that curiosity is her new book, “The Dogs of Avalon: The Race to Save Animals in Peril.”
“Avalon” traces the story of Irishwoman Marion Fitzgibbon, a wife and mother who helped form Limerick Animal Welfare, and became director of the Irish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Fitzgibbon played a part in the salvation of Lily, who had been left on the side of the road.
Greyhound racing is a profitable sport in Ireland, and receives government support. But greyhounds were often abandoned or sold to vivisectionists when their race was done.
“Every creature has the right to live and die with dignity,” Fitzgibbon told Schenone.
If everything has the right to live and die with dignity, then why don’t they? Schenone wondered.
“In many ways, my book was a question to know if that was true,” she said.
Schenone will read from the book at Watchung Booksellers next week.
ANIMALS IN CULTURE
Writing about animals is not so different from writing about food, the author said. “So much about our view about animals [has] to do with culture.” While she wasn’t a born animal lover, her son Gabriel was.
As a food writer, Schenone looked at animals with respect, and believed in humanely raised food, but did see animals as a source of food.
By the end of writing her book her perspective had changed, seeing what animals have done for humanity: “It led me back to food and even beyond.”
Her family got Lily because Gabriel wanted and needed a dog. As Schenone met animal rescuers she would ask them what drove them to care so much. They always told her, “I don’t know, I was born that way.”
In rural Ireland in the ’60s, ’70s and even ’80s animals were viewed in a much more utilitarian way than urban areas. “Dogs were not really owned by people: they weren’t kept in the house but outside, kind of kept as community dogs. They roamed the streets,” Schenone said. And in fact, she added, that’s how most dogs in the world live today.
Greyhounds had it particularly bad as they were seen as predators, savage, unsuited to be house pets.
In reality, Schenone said, “Greyhounds are such gentle dogs. They’re so mellow. They’re more like cats.”
While the outlook for greyhounds has improved tremendously in the United States, it still has a long way to go in Ireland, Schenone said. “Greyhounds are still viewed as low-on-the-totem-pole dogs.”
In the book’s epilogue, Schenone points out that while conditions have improved, thousands of dogs still go missing every year. The Bord na gCon (Irish Greyhound Board) is a self-regulating industry and does not keep precise statistics on what happens to retired greyhounds.
A MORE CARING GENDER?
Though there are definitely some valiant male dog rescuers and vets in the book, the preponderance of people dedicated to animal welfare are women.
Fitzgibbon was raising her children when she began to devote herself to the homeless and starving animals, including circus tigers, all around her in Limerick. She had begun rescuing animals, with other women, from her kitchen, taking calls, rescuing animals in the middle of the night.
“It’s a little-told story,” Schenone said of the gender discrepancy.
Schenone asked the women involved why they thought that was. “We’re the more caring gender,” Clarissa Baldwin, then head of the Dogs Trust in Britain, told her, “Isn’t it obvious?”
Radical feminists would say that in the hierarchy where men are at the top, women are discriminated against and so are animals and children, which women understand, Schenone said.
Schenone said she realized that women are home, often raising children, in their communities, and tend to work very locally: “The ones who were born caring for animals, it’s something that they could do. It’s close to home.” In the animal welfare organizations, men are often in the leadership positions, while women are “on the front lines,” she said. But, she pointed out, it isn’t simple. There are women involved in dog racing and men who work at rescue.
“Some of the ‘dogmen’ I really liked,” Schenone said. Some racers cared for their animals and treated them well.
RESTING IN AVALON
The book’s title refers to the legendary isle in the west where King Arthur, and other fallen heroes, go to be healed.
When the book opens, Fitzgibbon is recovering from a cancer surgery, and has just been told she must take over the ISPCA because the number one is leaving.
All of the jobs and files, including the greyhound file, go to her.
With the help of a woman in Germany, Johanna Wothke, and Wothke’s organization Pro Animale, she ends up building the dog sanctuary The Dogs of Avalon. It becomes a place where the racers can go until they find homes. “It’s a dreamlike place,” Schenone said of the County Galway sanctuary.
While the instances of animal cruelty that she had to learn to tell this story horrified her, learning about people who rolled up their sleeves, got to work, and made a difference inspired her.
The book will be published in Ireland and the U.K. in October.
As for Schenone, “Avalon” has changed her life.
Now she’s a food writer who can’t enjoy the sight of a roasted pig. Who can’t grill a burger without thinking of a gentle cow.
Montclair plays an appearance in the book: when Schenone describes walking Lily in the park, she’s talking about Edgemont Memorial Park.
“People may have seen me around town with my unusual-looking dog,” she said with a laugh.
And while she refrained from animal advocacy while working on the book, she might volunteer at the Montclair Animal Shelter or with PAWS now that the book is out: “I absolutely do want to help.”
Now here she was with us, living in a New York suburb where so many people venerated dogs. Though she was feared and unwanted at home, here she was seen as an exotic beauty. When we went out walking, cars would slow and heads turned to stare at her slim form and unusually elegant bearing. Everyone wanted to know what kind of dog she was.
“Oh so regal!”
“Look at that beautiful creature!”
“Did she race at the track?”
During her first weeks with us, Lily maintained a blank-faced caution. She flinched when we came close, and, when in doubt, she immediately dropped to the floor, one cheek down, waiting to be beaten. She seemed afraid of her food and crept toward her bowl cautiously, lest another dog might race in snarling and push her aside.
It wasn’t until we let her run that we understood her true nature. There was a double tennis court around the corner from our house, and the first time we snuck her in there and clinked the gate shut, everything changed. We took off her leash and watched Lily tear forth with a speed and form that astonished us. She was a cheetah dog and galloped in a broad circle around the courts, using a special mechanism for running known as the double suspension gallop, which meant she held herself in the air twice as long as other dogs, pumping her rear legs forward and then extending them back behind her, all in a single stride. The overwhelming effect was nothing short of flight. I understood then that she was more bird than dog, more air than earth.