Track to Lab: Part 1
By Cynthia Cash with Jacque Lynn Schultz
It was a Greyhound named Johnny Blades, a fawn male with tattoo numbers 82B/20750, who tipped us off. According to USDA acquisition records, he had been sold to a medical research facility in Minneapolis, Minn. The seller’s name was at the bottom of the sheet: Shodan Enterprises of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
My interest in finding Greyhounds with the unfortunate fate of becoming medical research subjects began back in 1996. Since that time, I have learned perhaps more than I ever wanted about United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations and required paperwork. All facilities that house animals for research purposes must be licensed with the USDA. All dealers that sell more than 25 animals a year to these facilities must also be licensed. The lists of both licensed facilities and dealers are printed annually and are available free of charge. A copy of each lurks in my filing cabinet drawer, waiting for just the moment that occurred last spring when I received Johnny Blades’s acquisition papers.
The USDA publication, “Animal Welfare: List of Licensed Dealers, 1999,” is divided into Class A dealers, those who breed and raise the animals they sell; and Class B dealers, those who acquire animals from random sources. Chances were good that Johnny Blades was bred and raised to race, and later sold by a Class B dealer. The next category in the publication is a listing by state. Listed in the Class B section under Iowa dealers was the name Shodan Enterprises in Cedar Rapids. The license was listed to a Dan Shonka. The name was familiar, but at that point, I couldn’t say why.
Something else was disturbing. At the top of the USDA sheet, the box marked “sold” was checked. In all the previous paperwork I had reviewed, the Greyhounds had been donated to the facility — never sold. Greyhounds are popular subjects for medical research, medical testing, and sadly, for vivisection. Ironically, the attributes that make them wonderful, gorgeous house pets also make them desirable to the medical community. The sweet, docile disposition, the easy way they are handled, the streamlined body, the ability to live easily in confined spaces, and the need for another life when their racing days are over make the Greyhound second only to the Beagle as the most preferred breed of dog for medical research. In addition, having heart and lung capacity similar in size to a small human, Greyhounds are also favored for cardiac testing. From researchers, I had learned that large-boned canines, delivered and conditioned (with current vaccinations) could be sold for as much as $500 each. Someone was cashing in, but did the dog’s owners know?
Occasionally, registered owners have surrendered their Greyhounds to medical testing and/or teaching facilities. However, it is far more common for the dogs to be relinquished by an unscrupulous trainer looking for a free way to dispose of the animal. I have personally called many owners of Greyhounds found in these facilities. My experience has been that most Greyhound owners do not want their dogs going to research. One such owner jumped in her car the moment we finished speaking and drove 250 miles to retrieve her dog.
Would the owner of Johnny Blades be that concerned? I called the National Greyhound Association (NGA) with the tattoo numbers listed on Johnny’s USDA paperwork. The registered owner was Mark Van Ort. I telephoned him. Mr. Van Ort assured me that Johnny had been adopted out by a fellow named Dan Shonka, who was an NFL talent scout, ran a racing kennel at St. Croix Meadows Greyhound Racing Park in Wisconsin, and also had a “big adoption program down in Iowa.” Shonka had been taking dogs from the track for years, he told me. He knew him personally. As he was talking, I grabbed my NGA Membership Directory to look up Dan Shonka. There he was, listed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
At that point, Mr. Van Ort and I were dumbfounded. Shonka told him that his dog had been adopted, yet the paper in my hand listed Johnny as being sold into research. The scope of Shonka’s dealings was starting to emerge. He ran a racing kennel at St. Croix Meadows. He was a member of the NGA. He was a licensed USDA animal dealer. He ran an adoption program in Iowa. And he had been doing all this for years. The implications were troublesome.
After speaking with Mr. Van Ort, I called Sherry Cotner of Greyhound Friends/North Carolina to tell her of the twists this situation was now taking. Sherry had written and submitted the original Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that resulted in the Johnny Blades’s USDA paperwork. We had worked together once before to obtain the release of Greyhounds found to be in research without the registered owners’ consent.
Our next task was to determine if Shonka’s adoption group was, in fact, adopting out Greyhounds. Nothing would have pleased us more than to learn the hounds he was given were now snoozing on family sofas. We began to call groups in Iowa and the surrounding states as well as a few of the trainers at St. Croix Meadows. Without exception, everyone we spoke with had heard of Shonka. He was said to have “a big adoption operation in Iowa.” Many were impressed that he was a talent scout for the Philadelphia Eagles, but no one we spoke with knew anyone who actually adopted a dog from him. Word from the trainers was that he came to the track and took adoption dogs every other Monday.
By this time, I began to remember where I had heard the name Dan Shonka. About six months earlier a kennel operator from Wisconsin had called me. He was closing his booking at one of the Florida tracks and had 30-40 dogs he needed to move into adoption. I promised to do some checking and get back with him. When I did call back, he told me the problem was solved. Dan Shonka, who ran a racing kennel in Wisconsin and operated a “big adoption program down in Iowa,” had agreed to take them. I now had an uneasy feeling these Greyhounds never made it into retirement.
Sherry and I knew we had to take our suspicions to the authorities. I called the USDA. Sherry called the Wisconsin Gaming Division. Without accusing Shonka of anything, we politely suggested that they look into this situation. The Wisconsin Division of Gaming prides itself on strong regulation, complete tracking, and adoption of all retired racers coming off the state’s three remaining tracks. They were very concerned to learn of Shonka’s alleged pipeline to research, since it would be a violation of state law. They were sure he operated an adoption program. The USDA’s response was similar. As far as they knew, Shonka was a licensed animal dealer who sold to research. They knew nothing of his racing kennel in Wisconsin and his adoption program in Iowa. In their view, it would be a clear conflict of interest for a Class B dealer to also run an adoption program. The USDA office gave me the name and phone number of the inspector who was in charge of Shonka’s district. During my conversation with the inspector, he assured me that he knew nothing of Shonka’s ties with racing Greyhounds or his adoption program. He told me that Shonka sold Greyhounds to a pacemaker lab in Minnesota; about 300-500 dogs a year for approximately $300.00 each. He read Shonka’s last annual report to me, noting that he made close to $120,000 selling Greyhounds. He also read Shonka’s Class B license agreement. He had been licensed since the summer of 1996. I quickly multiplied an average of 400 dogs by almost four years. The story of who sold Johnny Blades was expanding at warp speed.
Both the Wisconsin Division of Gaming and the USDA took our suspicions seriously. Less than a week later, they paid Mr. Shonka a joint visit at his Cedar Rapids home. Shortly thereafter, Shonka surrendered both his racing kennel at St. Croix Meadows and his Class B dealer license. Both the Division of Gaming and the USDA began investigations. While the Division of Gaming’s investigation is still underway at this writing, the USDA has concluded theirs, charging that Shonka violated the federal Animal Welfare Act in the sale of 341 Greyhounds. (USDA sales records are required to be kept for only one calendar year; 341 was last year’s total.) The questionable sale of each dog is punishable by a fine of $2,750 per dog. All fines are pending and a hearing is to be scheduled in Iowa.
While halting the flow of Greyhounds into research and fining those responsible for deceptive dealings is certainly rewarding, our real goal was to get any live dogs out. So as soon as we made the USDA and Wisconsin Gaming Commission aware of Shonka’s pipeline, we turned our attention back to the dogs. We were plagued with the questions: “How many are still alive?” and “What are they doing to them?”
The USDA inspector had informed me that the dogs were sold to a pacemaker manufacturer in Minnesota and, once the dogs went in, they didn’t last very long. With a sense of urgency, Sherry and I went to the USDA’s FOIA website. This site provides access to annual reports of all research facilities with animals. In St. Paul, Minnesota we found a company listed as Cardiac Pacemakers, Inc. St. Paul is right across the river from Hudson, Wisconsin, the location of St. Croix Meadows. A tip from an informed source confirmed that this was the right facility. The most recent annual report on the USDA website was 1997. That year, Cardiac Pacemakers Inc. used 425 dogs in experiments. The report also indicated that 52 dogs were being held for use. The report listed animals by species only, not by breed. We couldn’t be sure they were all Greyhounds, but we now had some idea of the facility’s kennel capacity.
Because we had learned that the dogs did not last long once they entered the facility, we began calling trainers to see what dogs they had given to Shonka within the last few months. Chances were that dogs surrendered a year ago would already be dead, so we concentrated on the most recent ones. Once we determined which dogs were most recently given to Shonka, we could contact the registered owners to learn if they had authorized Shonka to sell the dogs into research. If the owners had not authorized the sale, we hoped they would request the release of their dogs. From past experience, we knew that the registered owner must make the request for release. As concerned citizens, we have no legal standing. Over the next week we began compiling a list of dogs with the hope of contacting owners. This was difficult, as not all trainers were forthcoming about having given dogs to Shonka.
Time moved swiftly. Before we knew it, almost two weeks had passed. Real panic hit us on the Sunday afternoon before Shonka’s normal pick up at the track. Trainers told us that he picked up adoption dogs every other Monday. Having relinquished his animal dealer’s license, we knew he wouldn’t be able to make his normal delivery to the pacemaker lab. Would the lab use their kenneled dogs for the needed subjects? We assumed their testing procedures were scheduled events and would need to continue until they could locate another source of dogs. Our concern was that the next morning, when Shonka failed to deliver, the lab would simply enlist some of the recently acquired dogs: the dogs we had begun to trace.
From past experience, we knew it is impossible to get Greyhounds out of laboratories without an attorney. That Sunday afternoon we found Pam Finamore and we couldn’t have hoped for a more determined, compassionate, and skillful counsel. At the time, she was working with other animal advocates to make animal abuse a felony offense in Minnesota. Marcia Latz, of Minnesota REGAP, worked with Pam on this legislation and recommended her to us. At first, Pam said she was too busy to take on another case, even though I begged. However, I suspect her rescued Saluki, Petey, gave her the sad-eye treatment and that was what really changed her mind.
Armed with legal counsel, we were ready to contact the registered owners. Unfortunately, we had made little progress with our list of dogs. We were certain of only four, but with the thought that come tomorrow these four could be killed, we began calling. One owner had two dogs, Stat US Saucy and Stat US Biscuit – female littermates, one blue and one blue fawn. Another was DD’s Slippy Nipi, a 2 year-old black female. And there was Clown, a big brindle male the trainer said was a smiler.
John Taylor, the owner of Saucy and Biscuit, was the first to be contacted. He was quite upset and vowed to do whatever it took to get them out. He owns a bowling alley and I could hear the pins falling as we spoke. He would be there until closing, had a fax machine, and would sign the release form as soon as I could send one to him. I called Sherry and she started typing, using a release form previously used with other facilities. Next I called Slippy Nipi’s owner, Gerald Edison. He, too, was concerned and agreed to do whatever it took to obtain his dog’s release He owns a motel and I could hear keys jingling in the background. He, too, would be there until midnight, had a fax machine, and would sign the release form as soon he received it. I called Sherry again. We couldn’t believe our luck – finding not one, but two owners this late on a Sunday evening, still at work, with fax machines at their fingertips. Most importantly, both were determined to get their dogs out of the pacemaker lab. Unfortunately, we were unable to contact Clown’s owner that night.
While Sherry typed and faxed, I searched the Internet to determine where to send the release forms. It appeared that Cardiac Pacemakers, Inc. had been recently acquired by Guidant Technologies, which was a spin-off of Eli Lilly and Company. I sent the list of Guidant’s corporate officers to Pam Finamore. She drafted a letter informing them that three of the Greyhounds they had acquired were sold to them without the registered owners’ consent. As the owners’ representative, she asked for the release of the dogs according to the signed, attached release forms. Her letter was faxed to the top three corporate officers by 8 a.m. Monday.
In less than 18 hours, we found and hired an attorney, spoke with the owners of three dogs certain to be in the lab, typed and faxed the release requests, and had it all on the appropriate corporate desks the next morning. Whew!
The response from Guidant was positive. They agreed to release the dogs. We were also finally able get in touch with Clown’s owner, Diana Buck. She wanted him released. On May 2, 2000, Saucy, Biscuit, Slippy Nipi, and Clown trotted out the door of the pacemaker lab.
Realizing that they probably had purchased from Shonka additional Greyhounds whose owners had not consented to their sale, Guidant sent a list of tattoo numbers of all Greyhounds currently housed at their facility to both the NGA and the Wisconsin Division of Gaming. Then followed a period during which both authorities wouldn’t make the list available to us, frustrating our attempts to find the owners and ultimately get the dogs adopted. After two weeks, Sherry was able to obtain the list from the Division of Gaming.
We were floored. There were almost 100 dogs listed. We had been hoping for 50. Were all these still alive in the lab? Sadly, the first name I scanned for – the dog that had started it all – was not there: No Johnny Blades.
We learned from our attorney that Guidant had agreed to release those remaining if certain conditions were met:
(1)All registered owners would contact Pam or the Guidant attorney to state their wishes.
(2)Each dog implanted with lead wires to the heart would undergo reversal surgery.
(3) Reversal surgery would be conducted by Guidant staff.
(4) Each dog having the reversal surgery would remain at the facility for a two-week round of antibiotics.
(5) The release would take place at a neutral facility.
There were concerns about the reversal surgery. When humans get a new pacemaker, the lead wires are never removed. Instead, they are simply tacked down and a new lead inserted down the jugular. At issue is the fixation helix on the end of the lead that actually attaches to the heart. It is a corkscrew that imbeds itself in the heart and is not designed to be removed. We were told by several cardiologists to expect a high degree of mortality with this reversal procedure. One doctor at the Mayo Clinic told us to expect to lose one in 10 as a best-case scenario. When we learned of the risk associated with the reversal surgery, we asked Pam to inquire if Guidant could waive this requirement. Guidant said that it could not. Cardiologists also told us that if a dog survived the surgery, his future well-being as a pet would not be compromised. This would be important information for potential adopters. The prevailing belief was that the dogs would all ultimately be killed, so what was there to lose? We were assured that both the surgery and the recovery would be painless to the dog. Having done our research and prepared for the worst, we agreed to proceed with Guidant’s terms.
And proceed we did. We called the owners of almost 100 dogs, informed them of their dogs’ fate, then asked each of them to contact either Pam Finamore or Guidant’s attorney. Some owners had multiple dogs in the lab, so the total number of owners was around 60. Eventually, all but two worked with Pam. Those two opted to work with the Guidant attorney and coordinate the release of their dogs themselves. This was certainly fine with us. We simply wanted all the dogs out and respected the owners’ wishes. Contacting all the owners took an entire month. Getting a live voice on the phone often took several attempts and, of course, there were follow-up calls. The paperwork was maddening, too. Karen Mitchell of Chicago saved the day. As an executive secretary, Karen types very quickly. She created spreadsheets listing every dog’s registered name, tattoo numbers, sex, color, owner, owner’s address, owner’s consent for adoption, release date, and ultimate destination or adoption group. As expected, there were a few illegible tattoo numbers, but with more digging, Sherry was able to determine the identity of every dog still in the lab.
The vast majority of owners wanted their dogs out. Only a handful were ambivalent. Every owner denied giving permission to Shonka to sell his dogs to the lab. Many stated that they had no idea how their dogs got there. The ones who knew Shonka had taken their dogs stated that they believed he was placing them in adoptive homes. One owner sent me Shonka’s business card with Greyhound Adoption of Iowa on it. Several owners referred to a letter recently mailed to them by Shonka, describing his adoption efforts over the years and even asking for a donation. While he may have adopted out some Greyhounds, none of the owners we spoke with knew of any. Everyone was mystified. Most felt duped.
Throughout the summer, the Greyhounds were released in groups at a vet clinic just north of St. Paul. Initially there were a few large releases of eight or more because the most recently acquired dogs had not been implanted and thus did not need to have the reversal surgery. Once the reversal surgeries began, the group size diminished. By mid-summer only four to six dogs were being released at a time and often several weeks apart. We were told that summer vacation schedules were slowing up the process. Sherry had sent out the FOIA request in February, we reviewed the USDA paperwork in April, the first dogs came out in May, but it took until October to get them all out.
The good news was that of the 98 dogs released, 16 did not need the reversal surgery and 80 that did have the procedure made it through successfully. We lost only two as a result of the reversal surgery. Whether a testament to the Greyhound’s heart or the surgeon’s skill – or perhaps a combination of both – we were very lucky indeed. Once all the dogs were transferred to their designated adoption organization, almost every group had a thorough cardiac work-up performed on each dog. Surprisingly, not one showed any signs of diminished heart capacity. Other than cosmetic scars on their necks over the jugular, which hair would soon cover, all dogs received clean bills of health.
The bad news was that the legal bills for Pam Finamore’s time had risen to more than $10,000. Not only did she need to have personal contact with 60 different owners, but Guidant required her presence at every release. The paperwork to prepare for each release was very time-consuming. Pam is a single mother who agreed to work for half of her normal hourly fee. We all felt very grateful to her, but her hours were adding up. A few of the dog owners we contacted early on had paid for her initial work, but as we proceeded, many of the owners began to balk at the legal fees. Because there was no turning back at that point, Susan Netboy and the Greyhound Protection League agreed to shoulder the legal fees. However, it soon became apparent they could not afford it all. We agreed to continue and those involved would beg, borrow, and fundraise to cover the final bill. Leann Forister of Rescued Racers in St. Louis, Holly Oberly of Greyhound Companions of St. Louis, Jacque Schultz of the ASPCA in New York, Karen Mitchell with GPL in Chicago, and I sponsored a silent auction at last year’s Dewey Beach gathering. Additional donations were received from the National Greyhound Adoption Program in Philadelphia, The Ark Trust in Los Angeles, and the Greyhound Club of America. The ASPCA’s Greyhound Rescue Fund covered costs incurred while transporting the dogs to waiting adoption groups, interim boarding fees, and some of the phone bills.
The transportation of the released dogs involved several volunteer teams. Because there are three Greyhound racetracks in the state of Wisconsin, we dispersed the dogs to adoption groups in non-racing states. Sally Allen of USA Dog in Indianapolis made three trips up to St. Paul with her large motor home, the Rescue Express. Her group took in a number of the research dogs and she also dropped off dogs to other groups along her route. A GUR (Greyhound Underground Railroad) run of 12 dogs to Pennsylvania was coordinated by First State Greyhound Adoption. Another GUR was conducted by Renewed Life in Michigan. NGAP in Philadelphia arranged to ship several dogs via air. Two trainers wanted all their dogs back and Michigan REGAP volunteers delivered them to their door. Minnesota REGAP was on hand to pick up and adopt the first group of released dogs and also the last. GPA/Minnesota, headed by Robin Krautbauer, proved to be invaluable. Robin and all her wonderful volunteers were on hand for the majority of the releases, fostered the dogs until we could arrange for transport, and placed nearly two dozen in adoptive homes in their area. The details of their involvement will follow in the next article.
It only took two people to uncover the trail of Greyhounds into Guidant – Sherry Cotner and me. The release of the dogs was a sizeable task that required the collaboration of adoption volunteers, dog owners, an animal-savvy lawyer, and Guidant —a corporation willing to do the right thing. A much deserved thank you to all who pulled together to obtain the release of these hounds.
No Greyhounds intended for adoptions programs should lose their lives in research or testing labs because of deception or false pretense. The crux of the matter is that no Greyhounds should end up anywhere without owners’ consent.
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