On a cold Saturday afternoon in December, a group of 30 volunteers gathers in the lot of a large Denver park. Members of a greyhound rescue group, we are waiting for a “dog haul” from Oklahoma.
Right on schedule, a customized semi-truck pulls up in the parking lot. The load resembles a storage container, only it’s about half as high and lined with six small metal doors on each side. Behind these doors are 21 retired racing greyhounds.
The “processing” begins. The driver comes around — tired and grim-faced, perhaps indicative of the uneasy relationship that exists between the greyhound racing industry and the hundreds of rescue groups that have sprung up across the nation over the past ten or twenty years.
He opens the first door to reveal a large pile of thickly shredded paper. Emerging from the tangle is a skinny white-and-brindle greyhound. The driver quickly slips on a collar and leash and muzzles her. Volunteers mill around, check her body for injuries — there’s a nickel-sized gash on her left rear leg and a long tear on the inside of the same leg. They snap a quick picture for the greyhound adoption website, and read the tattooes in her ears. The tattooes indicate the month and year she was born and her birth order within the litter. In a week or so, volunteer veterinarians will spay or neuter the dogs and give them their first series of shots.
It turns out this first girl to come out is my new foster. Her racing name is Country Girl. After checking her for fleas and ticks, I slip a dog coat over her bony frame and take her for her first walk. I’m hoping she’ll pee but it’s too cold out and she doesn’t cooperate. She’s never been on a walk before, so she pulls this way and that, unsure about what to do. She walks on her tip toes and hops around because the ground is cold and she’s probably never encountered snow or ice before. She’s also never seen a park, a lake, a tree. In front of us, a flock of geese takes flight and she is spell-bound at the sight. However, after just a few minutes, she begins to “shut down” and I have to pull her along.
The foster coordinator I work with is an expert tick-remover so I ask her to have another look. The foster dog I got last summer was covered with more than two dozen ticks, but Country Girl seems clean. We say our goodbyes and I lift her into the back of my Subaru Forester. Teaching her to jump into the car will be one of my first chores, along with using the doggie door, walking properly on a leash and going up and down stairs. As we take off in the warm car, she finally pees all over the dog blanket I have in the back, so I pull over, yank out the blanket, put up the backseats and get her settled in the far back where any further “incidents” won’t ruin my car.
The foster greyhound’s first night in a real home is always the toughest. Before this day, Country Girl has spent up to 22 hours a day sitting in a “sphinx” position in a crate. Her stomach and haunches are bald from rubbing against the wires. She knows nothing about the world, nothing about being a pet. Before the evening is over, she has peed twice in the house and has spent at least two hours pacing. She stares at the TV, whines at the cat (she has been tested “cat-safe.”), and sniffs my own greyhounds, who are annoyed at this dorky new kid who doesn’t know how to act.
I’ve got six vials of de-wormer and her first dose doesn’t go down that well. It’s a milky liquid in a large plastic injector and she spits it out as quickly as I squirt it into her mouth. All the greys from the south arrive with worms, ticks and fleas. Retired racers are also grossly underweight — Country Girl probably weighs 45 to 50 pounds — she will gain a good 15 or 20 pounds within the next two months, adding at least 25% of her current weight.
At the racetrack, they are fed a high-protein but obviously meager diet of 4-D meat from diseased livestock. This night she has her first meal of dog food, which will send her digestive system into a tizzy that might last the rest of her life. (After six years, I still haven’t gotten the digestion of one of my own dogs stabilized). I give her acidophilus and stewed pumpkin which will help. She’s too excited and confused to eat much at first, but before the evening ends, her bowl is empty. By tomorrow, when she has settled down, she will begin a period of ravenous eating.
When it’s time for bed, I put her in a large wire crate filled with soft blankets. I turn on the nearby desktop computer and leave it streaming a classical station all night, with the monitor turned on and facing her. Despite these “comforts,” she cries all night long. I get up once at five in the morning, bundle her up in a coat and take her out to the backyard. It is snowing and beautiful out. She runs around the yard, shivering and wagging her tail, jumping up to get her feet out of the freezing snow. Finally, she relieves herself and I praise her lavishly. The first sign of house-breaking!
Country Girl is only three years old so she’s been retired early. Retirement comes when the greyhound doesn’t win enough — that is, when the owner is not making money off the dog. This particular kennel owner has taken the trouble of driving his rejected dogs all the way to Colorado. Many greyhound racing dogs are not so lucky. According to the Greyhound Protection League, “Over the last two decades, hundreds of cases of abuse have been documented including greyhounds that were shot, starved, electrocuted and sold for research. Industry insiders report that this is only the tip of the iceberg.” Those that aren’t killed are sometimes sent to Juarez and other racetracks in Mexico, where the outlook for the a dog is notoriously bleak. Other greyhounds are sent to research facilities and veterinarian schools where they are used for experiments and “training” exercises.
That, however, will not be the fate of Country Girl, this skin-and-bones greyhound from Oklahoma, nor for the other 20 dogs from yesterday’s haul. Today, Country Girl will get her first flea bath, followed up by a towel rub-down and a doggie treat. After that, she’ll pace around the house for awhile, sniff at the kitty, who will hiss at her again, and then she’ll do the greyhound stretch/bow, then curl up on a soft doggie bed for a nap. She will follow me around the house, leaning against me whenever possible — she has already shown signs of being a “velcro dog.” In two or three weeks, an excited family will come along and take her away to her “forever home.” My two greyhounds will jump for joy that the dork that took so much of my attention is finally gone, and I will feel the loss — as I always do — for a long time after.