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Underdogs.

They're the only athletes that are put to death when their careers are over. But thanks to a new adoption program, a lucky few can make it into somebody's home and heart.

I've always loved animals, so it seemed only natural to write animal stories when I became a journalist. As a reporter and editor for the Fort Myers News-Press, I've written about all sorts of creatures -- tamarins, macaws and honeybees, Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, dolphins, manatees and walking catfish. But however appealing I found my subjects, I managed to keep a professionally objective distance -- until I encountered greyhounds.

In October 1988, I interviewed Lee County's Helen Banks about her new greyhound adoption program. Second Chance for Greyhounds was just what it sounded like: Banks matched up retired greyhounds from the Naples-Fort Myers track with families who would keep them as housepets.

Banks told me how sweet greyhounds are and what great pets they make. How easily they housebreak and train. How likely you are to wake up and find one curled up on your bed or taking over the couch.

Then she told me what happens when greyhounds no longer finish in the money. A few -- the very best racers -- are kept for breeding. A handful become pets. And each year, some 20,000 are killed, discarded like so much outdated inventory. "They are the only athletes that are killed when they don't win," Banks said.

Then she told me about Arthur's Gwen, a dog whose days were numbered. "She's blind in one eye, but she's so sweet," Banks said. The adoption program was new. There weren't enough homes for all the dogs coming off the track and she wasn't sure this dog would last the two weeks until my story appeared in the Fort Myers News-Press.

The thought of this ill-fated, half-blind dog I'd never seen gnawed at me. Never mind that I already had two dogs. One I'd adopted from an animal shelter; the other, encountered on the street, had adopted me. Add to that one cat and a husband, both of whom thought we'd exceeded the canine quota. But I had to have that dog.

I approached my husband, Gregg, with a sensible plan: We could be her foster home until the newspaper article appeared and lots of adoptive families lined up.

"I know you -- you'll never give her up once she's here," Gregg insisted. I tried reasoning with him, assuring him I could do this -- that I had to do this -- but he didn't buy it. My only recourse: power sulking. It took a couple of days, but he wearily relented.

That weekend, a friend and I headed to the track, met trainer Arlene Wooten and trailed after her to the kennel. (Each of the 20 kennels that competes may keep 52 dogs in its on-track building.)

As we walked in the door, a spontaneous chorus erupted, a cacophony of tails thwack-thwacking joyously against 50 metal cages, welcoming yelps playing an enthusiastic counterpoint. Wooten walked between the two rows of double-decked cages. She stopped at one and hooked a leash onto a skinny and excited fawn-colored greyhound who happily leaped out of her cage. She headed my way, cavorting on her long slender legs, and looking more like a deer than a dog. Close up, I could see that her right eye was much larger than the left and covered with a cataract.

Wooten handed Gwen's leash over to me and I boosted the hesitant dog into the backseat of my car. Accustomed to traveling upright in trucks, she stood awkwardly on the backseat, as my friend kept her propped up around the turns.

Wooten had given me a muzzle, which I used while introducing her to the rest of the family. The dogs sniffed her and salivated furiously, but Gwen didn't make a sound, calmly suffering this undignified display. She sniffed the cat curiously, then wagged her bony tail. Off came the muzzle.

Gwen took a walk through the house, whacking her head as she encountered her first set of sliding glass doors. Then she found a quiet corner of the master bedroom and curled up for a nap.

The first week was hell for all of us. Gwen's change in lifestyle and diet gave her fierce diarrhea. But two bottles of Pepto-Bismol and lots of middle-of-the-night walks later, she recovered. As her lethargy lifted, a sweet, sensitive oh-so-feminine personality emerged.

I soon saw why rulers back to the ancient Egyptians kept greyhounds as pets. She did a great Sphinx impression, stretching out with one paw primly crossed over the other, gazing benevolently about. She regally refused to walk on even slightly wet grass. She didn't gush and snort eagerly like some dogs do; but made sure we knew how happy she was, leaning lightly against my leg, or resting her head on my lap, offering her long, velvety neck for petting. When greater enthusiasm was called for, she'd make a graceful lap or two around the dining room table.

She seemed more like a living work of art than a dog, the creation of some master sculptor. It didn't take much more than a week before we dropped the foster-home talk. This dog wasn't going anywhere.

Because racers spend most of their lives in cages, they housebreak easily. Gwen was no exception. Once she proved trustworthy, she got full house privileges. Just like the other dogs, she'd retire to the bedroom with Gregg and me, sleeping near the bed on her blanket and pillow.

Although greyhounds tend to sprint away when given the chance, she eventually learned to obey without a leash. That afforded her the chance for daily laps around the house at a pace that neither Gregg nor I could match (greyhounds have been clocked at more than 40 mph). People often stop their cars to watch her as she streaks by.

If it were up to her, we'd run a few miles every morning; and she serves as a constant reminder that I have more than one good reason to exercise. Many jaunts get interrupted by people wanting to touch her or ask questions about greyhounds. They are always surprised that the dogs they've seen at the track -- barking, muzzled and lusting for that mechanical rabbit -- should be so calm, sociable and soft when off the track.

When my parents came down for a spring visit, they fell victim to Gwennie's charms, too. My father wanted his own. Banks showed me several candidates, the last of which was a male destined for a lethal injection two days hence. Fifth Jack was a big bruiser of a greyhound, 80-plus pounds of muscle and love. He walked straight over to me, gave me a flash of his big brown eyes, then stuck his long nose between my hip and my right arm. That was it.

After living with us for two weeks, during which time he followed me around like some benevolent shadow, I tearfully put him in a crate and sent him to my parents in New Jersey. Soon, my 59-year-old father was calling his huge new dog "Baby." As in "Baby did the cutest thing today." They walked together, slept together and Jack became a frequent visitor in the waiting room of my father's dental office.

While Jack was winning over south Jersey, Gwennie was working her charms in Florida. She has proved to be quite a talented salesdog for the greyhound cause. Several friends and co-workers now share their lives with greyhounds and their dog stories with me.

One of the down sides of loving pre-owned dogs is that you don't know their history. Other than some skin problems attributed to an underactive thyroid, Jack seemed healthy, extremely mellow perhaps, but not above a good, hard-out run once in a while. On one such jaunt, he collapsed and died. My father tried to console himself, remembering that Jack's last 14 months had been very happy ones. But he'd left a big hole in our lives.

It took a few months, but my father eventually asked for another greyhound. Banks had one she'd been saving for a special home, a one-dog home.

Enter Morgan. Smaller than Gwennie, he was a light fawn brindle, a creamy beige with milk chocolate stripes. He lived with us for a month, during which he played rough and tumble with Gregg and one of the smaller dogs, happily leaped into bed to cuddle up with me and generally endeared himself to everyone.

Although he didn't want to love a dog as much as he'd loved Jack, my father was no match for Morgan, who now must only whimper softly and my parents spring to opposite sides of the couch so he can climb between them, laying his head on one lap, his rump on the other. And this from people who used to keep two small poodles hermetically sealed in the kitchen!

A side benefit of Morgan's stay was that Gregg discovered that two greyhounds aren't much harder to handle than one. For Chanukah 1990, he took me to the North Fort Myers greyhound shelter run by Donna Forster. We came home with a big male, chocolate with espresso stripes, named Rovic. He was tougher to housebreak than Gwen, Jack and Morgan, but possesses a full measure of greyhound charm, the gentle nature and generally grateful attitude that comes from knowing how cruel life can be.

It's hard to talk about these beautiful, loving creatures without gushing. Despite spending months or years in cages, they remain sweet and sociable. They don't run wild in the house, rarely bark and curl up into remarkably small and secure corners whenever possible. Although each has a distinct personality, all the greyhounds I've met have an old-soul quality about them, a demeanor that seems more human than dog-like.

Today, we remain a four-dog family. I'd adopt more greyhounds, but I haven't come up with a convincing argument to sway Gregg. Yet.

Karen Feldman Smith is a journalist based in Fort Myers,. She plans to win the Florida lottery and open a retirement ranch for racing greyhounds.

GREYHOUND INFO:

* Retired racers range from about 16 months to 4 years old. Females generally weigh 55 to 80 pounds; males are usually 60 to 100 pounds.

* All adoption programs require adoptive families to spay or neuter their greyhound and have them immunized. Some programs charge nothing; others charge a small adoption fee.

* Greyhounds are accustomed to small spaces and so are well-suited to condominium living, if the condo association allows large dogs.

* Greyhounds are accustomed to being around many other dogs and so adapt well to living in a multiple-dog household. While some will chase cats, most are able to live harmoniously with them.

* For more information on adopting a greyhound, contact: In Sarasota, Peggy Levkoff, Greyhound Pets of America, at 351-3448. In North Fort Myers, Donna Forster, National Greyhound Adoption, at 731-3187. In Bonita Springs, Helen Banks, Second Chance for Greyhounds, at 947-2365.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; greyhounds used in dog races
Author:Smith, Karen Feldman
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Words:1831
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