It Takes a Village to Save a Greyhound; Fortunately the Most Organized Rescuers in the Country Have Their Backs
I wish somebody had told me to shove a pack of tissues into my purse last Sunday as I headed off to meet Dogster Community Manager Lori Malm at a home in the East Bay. You'd think three years of editing the most harrowing dog-centric stories on the Internet would leave one a little bit jaded, but it really doesn't work that way.
On Mother's Day, we had a date with 26 greyhounds who had made the grueling journey from race tracks in Florida to California by way of Colorado, where a highly organized network of volunteers would help them find their forever homes. Some of them would meet their adoptive human mothers for the first time. Long story short: Our tear ducts would never know what hit them.
At 10:30 a.m. we made our way to the back of Stuart and Barbara Homer's home on a quiet Walnut Creek street. From the driveway, you'd never know that this suburban spread was home to the GSGA (Golden State Greyhound Adoption group) and, more impressively, the springboard from which more than a thousand rescue greyhounds would get a second chance at life.
The Homers have been fighting for the greys since Barbara stumbled upon this People Magazine article in 1991 -- in it, a vet from Iowa discussed the repulsion he felt when asked to euthanize dogs from the local racetrack that were no longer moneymakers and how he decided to start saving them instead. "The article just broke my heart," said Barbara. "I had never seen a greyhound, I was only into black dogs [mainly Dobermans at the time] ... and I said, how can you take a perfectly healthy dog and destroy it?"
Come 2002, the Homers committed every Saturday night to picking up dogs flown in from tracks and rescues out of state. They fostered and placed the dogs out of their home. And then something wonderful happened: Their cause went viral. A decade later, they have a small army of volunteers (around 75, says Stuart), and instead of picking up one to four hounds from San Francisco Airport every weekend, they get them in dozens every two months or so courtesy of Heather Weir, a vet in Colorado who has dedicated herself to greyhounds and their plight.
Before the greyhounds arrived on Sunday morning, the Homers were busy dotting every "i" and crossing every "t." Stuart had been up all night setting up the area the new arrivals would inhabit for the day, and when the volunteers assembled he and Barbara went over their plan of action. Every volunteer would take a single hound from the truck, leash them up, and swiftly walk them to a closed area at the side of the house where the dogs could relieve themselves after their long journey.
A pair of volunteers was in charge of the gates on either side so the hounds would have no chance to run. Then the dogs would be taken to their respective crates at the back. The crates were stacked, and volunteers would have to work together to carry some greyhounds into the upper accommodations.
As the dogs started coming off the truck, I looked over at Lori and saw that we were both already teary-eyed. These pups had come a long way from life on greyhound tracks in Florida, where they may have never been called a name other than "Hey you."
The majority of the hounds from this particular haul seemed to be in better shape than greyhounds Lori and I had seen in the past. Her mother fosters greys from time to time, and it's common to see missing fur near the dogs' hips and around their faces from wearing racing muzzles.
"They usually come in pretty underweight with pressure sores. The Florida dogs pretty much come in with every parasite known to man," Dr. Weir would later tell us.
Colorado-based Dr. Weir is a modern-day saint. In vet school, she met her first greyhound, and a few years after she graduated she started taking hounds from the four local tracks into her home, spaying and neutering them and working with rescue groups to find them homes.
Fast forward to 2012, and Heather places around 300 dogs a year. Colorado no longer condones greyhound racing, so she gets her dogs from out-of-state -- mainly Florida, where rescue groups take dogs off the tracks and send them to her through commercial truckers. Seven states still race greyhounds: Florida, West Virginia, Arkansas, Texas, Arizona, Iowa, and Alabama.
The most common medical issue she sees are broken hocks (hind legs). "Usually the track will put a cast or a bandage on it, and usually they'll heal really well, but a lot of times they don't heal so well and it becomes challenging to find [the hounds] a home. Sometimes we get the dogs six to eight months after the event, and by then it's hard to fix," she says.
"When I started out I had them just in my home," says Dr. Weir, who now has a facility to better accommodate the dogs when they come in. It takes close to two hours to spay or neuter a single dog, and she gets to every last one.
When she isn't treating the dogs, she's hauling them in her custom trailer to California or Washington, where groups like the GSGA foster and place them. She makes these journeys every four to six weeks, alternating between the two states. And shortly after dropping the dogs off, she turns right back around and heads home. "I have 40 dogs waiting for me right now," she tells us. Veterinary students dogsit for her while she makes her 24-hour journeys.
After the hounds are settled into their crates at the Homers' residence, the GSGA puts each dog through some tests. To make sure the dogs fit best with their new foster or forever home, they must meet a small dog and cat to see if they can be trusted around either. Diego, a Pug mix owned by volunteers Ed and Deb Souza (who incidentally, met through greyhound rescue!), lives with a small pack of greys and is the designated small-dog tester. And Tiger, one of the Homers' cats, deftly tests each hound to make sure they're cat-safe.
We couldn't believe what we were seeing when it came to Tiger. That cat has a handful of greyhound siblings and seems to think he's a greyhound himself. He would walk up to each of the (humanely) muzzled hounds, rub right up against them, and purr. A few dogs had to be yanked away when they tried to lunge at the kitty, but most were just curious or more interested in the greyhound-sized dog beds in the Homers' living room.
At 2 p.m. a line of adopters forms by the Homers' pool. No one has seen the dog they have agreed to adopt before this moment, and Lori and I sit on folding chairs and watch as the GSGA matches hound to family.
One woman is close to tears when they bring her a beautiful brindle greyhound. "I secretly wanted a brindle," she says, ecstatic. Her sons start petting the dog and one comments that the hound "just isn't into us." A volunteer quickly reminds him that it's going to take a lot of love to teach the greyhound to be a pet and have a relationship with a human being.
After introductions are made and family photos are taken, the dogs return to their crates and the new pet parents file into the Homers' living room for a two-hour orientation held by Shelley Eriksen.
"Because so much work goes into these dogs, because so many people touch these dogs, we're not the easiest group to adopt from," Barbara tells us. "You get the phone call [from Stuart], you get the house visit, we make you read the owner's guide." But if you decide to do it, it's well worth it -- once you adopt from the GSGA you have a support network like no other for life.
The Homers do their best to make new owners jump through hoops to prove themselves worthy of the dogs, but it isn't a foolproof system. Sometimes the dogs find their way back to their Walnut Creek residence and need to be rehomed. But the GSGA does its very best to be thorough.
"These dogs are livestock; they're all tattooed. Until they come here, they're not a pet, not a dog. You have to take that and work with that, make that dog yours," says Stuart. "These dogs have changed a lot of these people's lives. Hey, those two got married," he adds, pointing at the Souzas.
For a list of adoptable GSGA greyhounds, visit their website. Most of the hounds listed are from this most recent haul. Be forewarned that like potato chips, it can be difficult to take just one of these easygoing, lovable guys. All they want is for their last race to be into your life, and after all they've endured, it really isn't too much to ask for.
All photos by Janine Kahn. Special thanks to the GSGA for opening their doors to us. Witnessing this often closed-door event was a rare opportunity that won't be forgotten soon.