Selling up and moving to a little finca in the Spanish hills is a dream for many Brits. Whole shelves in bookshops are dedicated to hilarious tales of navigating a first olive harvest or chasing after an errant donkey. Once installed life is undoubtedly tough and challenging, but a common thread running through the experience of many is coming face-to-face with the harsh conditions experienced by the animals living on neighbouring farms.
It’s not unusual in Spain for farms or small holdings to remain generally unoccupied at night by their owners, as many prefer to live in nearby villages. So in order to make sure that no-one runs off with the prized blackfooted pigs, most will keep a number of dogs onsite as a security measure. Certainly in the Andalusian hills, Spanish Mastiffs are the dog of choice for guarding larger livestock, plus a few small mongrels to nip at the heels of any unwanted intruders. Many of the dogs will be kept on a chain, if they’re lucky with some shelter, food and water. Sadly such basic care doesn’t stretch to all who are effectively abandoned save for an occasional offering of some stale bread.
I remember the first time I came across such a sight in the mountains between Granada and Motril. Five minutes from where we were staying lay an empty house, empty of humans that is, but filled with chickens inhabiting the ground floor. Out the back there were a few pigs and in the garden the ubiquitous chained dog. Next to the dog was an Alsation puppy, no relation to its friend and all of about eight weeks old. On seeing me it came scurrying up the bank that separated the house from the road and proceeded to follow me home. Full of fleas and too tiny to be left alone, it was all I could do not to take it back to Seville, but knowing my landlords at the time would have had a fit if I’d arrived back with an Alsation pup, I gave the little fella and his tethered friend some jamon, and sadly left them where they were.
Occasionally chained dogs get lucky and are rescued. ACTIN (Animal Care Treatment International Network) is an animal welfare association based near Murcia whose main focus is ‘to make changes in the laws against cruelty, neglect and abandonment’, but they inevitably become involved in facilitating the rescue of ill-treated or abandoned animals. One such case involved Paloma, a four-year-old Spanish Mastiff bitch found chained up in a goat shed, who had lost all power in her back legs having been chained up since a puppy. At the time of rescue she weighed only 33 kilos, half the suggested amount for an adult of her breed and now at 68 kilos she is living out her days as an honorary, permanent occupant in some nearby kennels.
But chaining up animals is just part of the story. In Spain, particularly in the countryside, there is a huge resistance towards neutering animals. For those not familiar with the canine reproductive cycle, a female will come on heat every six months for three weeks. During this period there is a key time when if unsupervised, she will more than willingingly accept the amorous advances of not just one, but many dogs and a litter of puppies is a fairly safe bet. Little dogs have small litters and large breeds like mastiffs can have up to 12 puppies. Not terribly convenient if they’re supposed to be guarding livestock. So the standard procedure in the campo is to kill or dump most of the puppies, leaving one or two with the mother and six months later, the whole needless process starts again.
A friend finding 7 dead mastiff puppies by the side of a country road incensed Cordoba based Writer Alan Parks so much he wrote an open letter on his blog denouncing the endless cycle of pregnancies and puppy killing in a bid to draw further attention to the matter.
He writes, ‘I have spoken to Spanish farmers who have told me, in no uncertain terms “If you don’t want a dog, throw it in the lake. No more problem!” I have also spoken to Spaniards who have told me that they do not like to castrate male dogs because it upsets the dog emotionally to have its testicles removed. Well, what about the poor mother dog, who gave birth to the puppies I just buried? She had cleaned them up, bonded with them and probably even started feeding them, before they were ripped away from her, killed, and then thrown out of the window of a car like a discarded cigarette packet’.
Another Brit Clair Spettigue living near Malaga offered to pay for her neighbours’ bitches to be spayed, but was told in no uncertain terms that ‘that was not how things are done in these parts’. ‘You have to be careful’ she goes on, ‘as soon as it gets out that you making a fuss about abandoned animals, people start dumping them on your door step and it starts to get out of hand’.
It’s a delicate balance for many outsiders, foreign or otherwise who set themselves up in the countryside alongside locals whose customs haven’t changed for generations. Friends of mine living alongside a farm with a couple of mastiffs and a mongrel do their bit giving food and even names to the dogs who were all known collectively as ‘perro’. But in the 9 months that they’ve lived there they’ve had seen 3 pregnancies and the subsequent mysterious disappearance soon after birth of the puppies. That’s pretty standard, some people say something, others turn a blind eye. It’s a tough call in the country which is inpenetrable to outsiders at the best of times.
This isn’t just a Spanish issue. There has always been a brutal edge to the countryside - I grew up on a farm so I speak from first hand experience. It’s just that in countries like the UK or indeed Ireland, such harshness was common forty or fifty years ago. In Spain however, the idea that country ways are sacred, even if they are utterly cruel and neglectful, continues today.
Alan Parks admits he doesn’t know the answer. ‘Almost every ex-pat family I know has multiple rescued dogs living with them and I know we personally can’t take any more. Maybe veterinary universities could come up with a programme for students to go out to farms and perform cheap castrations, as a way of them getting the practice they need and the farmers getting some veterinary care at a reduced price’.
Animal association ACTIN tries to encourage people to report incidences of cruelty or neglect. ‘Cases are incredibly hard to prove and have to be watertight with photographs that link the cruelty to the owner. No one seems to know what the law really is, including the police who very rarely take these things seriously,’ says a spokesperson.
Nevertheless, ACTIN believes the more complaints are made, the more authorities will eventually be forced to follow them up. ‘If it’s simply a matter of a lack of shelter, water or food, try approaching the owner of the animal to ask that they provide them. If this does not prove fruitful, then it’s time to try the official route’. Their website lays out the steps you would need to take in such eventualities.
But the fact remains that without an attitudinal shift regarding animal welfare amongst those using dogs to guard livestock and by the Spanish authorities at large, all this falls on deaf ears. Right now too many dogs are little more than a means to an end. Whether they are happy, cared for and loved is not a major consideration and in fact if they’re hungry and scared, they probably do their job better. For many the final escape only comes when they eventually die or unable to perform their job, are killed or dumped. And sadly there´s always another unlucky dog to fill its place.
To find out more work about the work of Actin http://www.actin-spain.com/