Saving the Davis Greyhounds~1989

This article may be seen in its original form by purchasing the back issue from which it came.

by Patricia Gail Burnham

Sunny and Tiger were the perfect candidates to show the public how beautiful greyhound are and what good pets they make. This photo was the inspiration for a famous line drawing print called "Distractions."

The University of California at Davis purchased 57 Greyhounds in February of 1989. I knew about it then because the humane society had phoned me when they learned about the purchase. Unfortunately it is legal to buy racers for research so, except for writing about the plight of Greyhounds in research, I couldn’t think of any way of stopping the University. And by the time the affair of the Letterman dogs came up in August, everybody assumed that all the dogs at Davis had been killed long since. But it turned out that they had not been popular as research dogs.

By September there were still 37 left alive. Then the University euthanized 16 of them to provide dissection subjects for the incoming veterinary class. This upset one of the dogs’ caretakers who happened to be the significant other of one of my co-workers. So word was passed to me that 21 Greyhounds were still alive at the University. And the fight for the Presidio dogs had revealed a way to challenge the laboratories in court. I phoned Susan Netboy to tell her about the surviving Davis Greyhounds and she once again she joined hands with In Defense of Animals to file suit against the University. The suit was based on the possibility that the University dogs might have been fraudulently obtained from their owners. It asked for access to the dogs so that their ear tattoos could be read and their owners traced to see if they had willingly sent the dogs into research. While the suit was being filed, Little Sunny, Little Tiger, Sable got to impersonate racing dogs once more, when Susan asked me to take them to the Woodland County Courthouse to provide visible Greyhounds for the media.

It is easy to trace the ownership on a racing Greyhound. Just send the ear tattoos to the National Greyhound Association and they will identify the last legal owner. The number in the dog’s right ear gives its birth month, year, and puppy letter in that order. So a dog tattooed 117G, was born in the eleventh month, of the seventh year of the decade, 1987, and was the G (seventh) puppy in its litter. The number in its left ear has 5 digits and identifies the litter. (To read ear tattoos, it is helpful to put a flashlight behind the ear. Backlighting the tattoo makes it more legible.) But here there was a snag. Most of the Davis dogs had illegible left ear tattoos. Someone, presumably the dealer, had taken a tattoo kit and tattooed new numbers over the original ones. In most cases the new tattoo was 48000, but it made the real numbers often impossible to read. The court had taken the reasonable position that if you buy a VCR in a parking lot and it has its identification number scratched out, a prudent person would suspect that they were buying stolen merchandise. So the court said that all the dogs with illegible tattoos should be turned over to sight hound rescue for placement.

The call came on a Thursday. Susan Netboy asked if I would accompany her on an inspection tour to see if we could read the identification tattoos on the 23 racing Greyhounds that Davis was holding. I agreed to accompany her, but just thinking about it ran chills down my back. It is one thing to read or write about dogs in research laboratories. It is quite another thing to see them in person. What would I do if we turned a corner and found a little red bitch in dire straights? My red Sunny was an archetype. Greyhounds that look like her turn up often. What would it be like to find her look-alike in a laboratory experiment? I didn’t want to find out.

To most dog fanciers, the ultimate horror is having one of their dogs fall into a research lab. The image is built up by rumors of mutilation and abuse, not to mention the account given in the book, “Nop’s Trials.” So an offer to tour a research lab it is a little like being offered a tour of hell.

The animal procurement facility at Davis is a high security area. It is a favorite location for animal rights demonstrations. There are prominent signs warning against unauthorized entrance. You don’t see much from the outside, just rows of utilitarian single story buildings. Davis was the farm campus for the California University system, so it has a lot of room and it uses that room to procure and store research animals for all the campuses of the University. I drove in and parked a car sporting bumper stickers that said, “I love Greyhounds”, and “This car stops at all dog shows.” They drew a little comment from the white-coated scientists.

Susan turned up flanked by three University people, the chief veterinarian, and two assistants. They had already seen the first two dogs that were being used in a treadmill experiment. They were not being harmed but the plan was to remove their heart and lungs for examination at the end of the experiment. (It didn’t happen. Both had illegible tattoos and were released for placement.) We all packed into the car and drove to the small animal clinic. That was a destination I knew well, having taken a few dogs there for treatment, and having spent a lot of time in the veterinary library next door. But I had never been in the back of the clinic. We were there to see six blood donor dogs, and these were the happiest of the dogs we saw.

Blood donors have students to take care of them. They were in 4ft x 8ft kennel runs but each had a hammock to lie on. I commented on the hammocks and was told the students had made them. As each dog was returned to its kennel it was accompanied by a large dog biscuit. I was feeling better about what shape we would find the dogs in.

Then we returned to the research holding facility. Most of the dogs there were in fairly spacious indoor kennel runs. Four of the dogs had been given cruciate ligament surgery and were scheduled to be terminated so the effectiveness of the repair could be analyzed. I asked if it wouldn’t be more effective to simply let the dogs grow old and see if they really developed arthritis, which is a problem with some kinds of ligament repair. But except for the small scar on their stifle these dogs looked like the half a dozen dogs that had never been touched. (And three of them wouldn’t be killed. Their illegible ears diverted them to rescue.) The rest of the dogs had waited 11 months at the University for an experiment that needed them and their turn had not yet come.

The kennel was all concrete with wooden resting benches so I asked the chief vet how they had avoided pressure sores, which are common on Greyhounds without soft bedding. And he said that when they euthanized 16 of the dogs for the incoming vet class to dissect, they had selected the dogs that were developing sores from the concrete.

It was foolish for the University to destroy dogs for which they had paid $ 250 each, when they can obtain all the dissection subjects they want from the Sacramento pound for $ 25, but they had apparently grown tired of feeding their surplus Greyhounds. I asked the man in charge why they had bought the Greyhounds, when they had access to all the Sacramento pound dogs they could use. He said that their agreement with the pound was that pound dogs could only be used for surgery if they were never revived from the anesthesia. So the Greyhounds were supposed to provide large breed dogs that they could revive after operating on them. It had turned out there was less need for such dogs than the University had expected.

The surviving dogs were charming. They ranged from Bambi, a small red bitch with a lovely face, to Mr.T., a very muscular red particolor dog. I thought they had named him Mr. T because of his weightlifter’s build, but they showed me the cowlick down the back of his neck which they likened to a Mohawk. The chief veterinarian warned us that his staff had told him that Mr. T had taken to grabbing them with his teeth. He was a riot, greeting us enthusiastically, and when it was time for him to go back into his kennel he took Susan’s arm gently in his mouth to prevent her from leaving. Here was a dog that had survived five years at the track, supremely confident in himself, and desperate for company. It had been a lonely eleven months. He wanted the people who tended him to stay with him for a while.

There was another five year old, a grey faced blue brindle bitch who was motherly, and quiet, and looked like she had seen it all and raised a few litters for the track-only to be sold into research. There was a tall youngster, nearly all white with red ticking that made me take a second look. Except for his ear tattoos he could have passed for a show dog anywhere, and quite a good one. There was also a painfully shy little fawn girl, who froze when we handled her. And a handsome red brindle boy with a beautiful head.

Most of these dogs were a little hesitant about people. They were good-hearted but not sure of our intentions. They were not nearly as outgoing as the Presidio dogs. But then they had not received as much human contact, and they had been held for more than three times as long. After eleven months at a laboratory they were suffering a little kennelosis, but it was something that turned out to be temporary.

And then we went to see the last two. These were dogs that had been put into a Babesia experiment. Babesia is a family of blood parasites that are spread by ticks. Babesia Canis is commonly called Texas Tick Fever. A lot of dogs have it and recover from it without anyone noticing. Fifteen percent of the dogs in California are positive for the parasite, and the percentage is much higher in tick prone areas like Arizona. The blood donor dogs had been tested for possible transmissible conditions and the testing had revealed Babesia in some of them.

But a new form of Babesia had turned up in a pound in Los Angeles. Called Babesia Gibsoni, it was serious and could be fatal. So a university researcher flew blood from a dying Los Angeles dog to Davis and injected two of the Greyhounds. These were the two dogs we would be seeing in the isolation rooms. The infection had taken in one of the dogs, not killing it, but making it a permanent carrier of the parasite. The second dog had fought it off and was not a carrier. And here we were getting into unnerving surroundings. We walked down an aisle in a nondescript building with blank doors on each side that led to the isolation rooms. The first door opened to reveal a bare concrete cubicle about seven feet square. There were bare concrete walls, an almost bare concrete floor that needed cleaning, and no windows. There was a note on the door from the researcher saying that, since the dogs seemed to be doing well, she would only inspect them once a day instead of twice. The bedding was a single small fleece on the floor. We were met by a handsome red boy who looked a little depressed. He looked perfectly healthy, but withdrawn, and reasonably pleased to have company. He was one of the few dogs whose tattoos were readable.

The next room was the tough one. An identical cubicle held a little black bitch, going a bit white in the muzzle although she was only two. She had several shaved patches on her hip and side that surrounded healing incision marks. She looked like she had been sick. She also looked like a dog that would like to love people, but has never met a human being that was one step above a sorry S.O.B. You meet this kind of dog sometimes in rescue and they tear at my heart. I want to reassure them that there are people in the world worth loving, people who are better than the ones they have met. They make great rescue dogs because if they ever meet a person who shows them any affection, they fall in love at first sight. Their expectations for people are so low, that normal people seem wonderful to them.

After we left, I thought of her as Magic, named after one of my favorite black bitches, and she preyed on my mind. I was sure she was the one dog that was doomed to stay at Davis. I pointed out that Magic was the one who had been operated on and looked sick. There would never be a chance to show her that there were people in the world who deserved her trust and affection. But I was wrong. Magic was the one for whom the Ehrlichia had not taken and her ear tattoos were unreadable so she would be adopted. The researcher had removed her spleen so the parasite would build up in her blood. But he hadn’t been able to infect her.

Susan was similarly upset because she was afraid that the pretty red boy was the infected dog and she liked him. It was the red boy who was the carrier. And he had a more serious problem. His ear tattoos were readable and his owner was the man who had sold all the dogs to Davis so he authorized the University to keep him. After the parasite had built up in his blood the experimenter would freeze his blood for future experiments. I felt sorry for him and his fate, but I was glad that Magic would have the chance to learn that there are better people in the world than she had met so far. The pity is that both of them could not have been saved. When Susan took her home for a week before placing her, she reported back that Magic was a charming and affectionate bitch, a sweetheart, which came as no surprise. In the few minutes in the isolation cell she had made that clear.

In addition to the red boy, seven other dogs had readable ear tattoos. As soon as we left Davis, Susan raced to her attorney’s office in Sacramento and started to trace the owners of the eight identifiable dogs. Seven of the dogs belonged to owners who didn’t know that their dogs were in a research lab and who authorized Susan to seek their release. At the same time the University was trying to locate the owners to get their permission to keep the dogs. Susan won in every case except the red dog whose owner had delivered all the dogs to Davis.

The first release was three bitches that had all been worked on; a brindle girl from the treadmill project; Magic; and another black bitch that had ligament surgery. Susan, Dr Katz from In Defense of Animals, their lawyer, and I drove with the dogs to the Nut Tree restaurant and park for a celebration lunch and a few photos. Several weeks later, a dozen dogs from the holding kennels were released. Before they were released I asked the vet in charge if I could visit with a nail grinder and work their nails down. I didn’t want new owners to have to cope with overgrown nails. He said that his staff should have been tending to their nails and he would see they were cut before the dogs were released. It took a caravan of volunteers to haul the dogs away. Early in the morning it was chilly, but it was a joyous occasion. This time we weren’t allowed inside the kennel buildings. Kennel people brought the dogs outside one at a time.

I was struck by difference from our last visit. Then the only dogs we saw or heard were the Greyhounds. The kennel buildings were deserted and silent. This time the buildings were packed. As we collected the Greyhounds, the din of hundreds of dogs barking plucked at my conscience. Where had these dogs come from ? From the Sacramento pound or from beagle breeders who supply laboratory dogs the way white rat breeders provide rodents? Yes, we were getting out with most of the Greyhounds, courtesy of a lawsuit; but what breeds were the unseen dogs, and what fate lay ahead for them? How many research projects does it take to need that many dogs?

Then the handlers started to bring the Greyhounds out. I had made collars and leads for the released dogs and selected and fit them from a small suitcase as each dog was brought out on a kennel lead. Susan kept records and assigned volunteers to dogs. I would fit the collar and turn them over to the volunteer who would transport them. When all the dogs had been released I took Mr. T aside and started to curry out his spring coat. All the dogs were shedding and soon other folks brought their dogs over for me to curry. I had brought my favorite currycomb and fur was ankle deep around be by the time everyone was ready to leave. The vet in charge looked a little taken aback when he saw me ankle deep in fur. Then it was time to drive to the Sacramento Humane Society where the dogs would be neutered before being placed.

Mr. T earned a parting accolade. I transported him, since he was the most Alpha of the group and it seemed like a good idea to give him a car to himself and a driver who had handled a few dogs. He wasn’t quarrelsome. But he had what German dog fanciers call “Sovereignty” which is supreme self-confidence. As I loaded him up, five of the lab staff members came over to say good-by to him and to ask who was going to get him. One pointed out his Mohawk to me, and they seemed genuinely distressed to see him leave. It takes a pretty charming dog to charm lab people who see hundreds of dogs in their line of work. We caravaned the dogs to the Sacramento Humane Society Shelter where they were neutered and then Susan Netboy placed them in prearranged homes. Afterwards the blood donor dogs were picked up a few at a time and placed.

The University said they didn’t plan on buying retired racers again, because they found the racing dog dealers to be people that they don’t want to deal with. (Fraud, con men and addicts make University folks nervous.) Also the dogs had arrived covered with ticks and infected with a fair number of tick borne diseases. But, I imagine the most telling reason was that they had found there wasn’t that much of a market for them as research subjects and the University’s needs could be better met with pound dogs and laboratory beagles.

In the summer of 1990 a reunion was held at the Marin Humane Society for all the Greyhounds. It was great to see some of the dogs again and hear the stories told by their new owners. Screening was offered for tick born diseases since it had been found that, except for the previously screened blood donor dogs, most of the dogs had tick diseases. These could result in life threatening problems years after they were infected. In dogs coming out of Arizona, Susan found that the rates of Ehrlichia ran at 40%, Babesia ran as high as 70% and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever turned up in 17% of the dogs. After being rescued from the Presidio and the University, the dogs had to be saved a second time from their tick borne diseases. These are treatable with antibiotics, but first they had to find out which dog had which parasite. Donations were accepted for the tick screening, but with or without the donations, the dogs were screened and the affected dogs were treated.

Bio – Gail Burnham has written hundreds of magazine articles, plus two dog training books illustrated with greyhounds, Playtraining Your Dog in 1981 and Treats, Play, Love: Make Dog Training Fun For You and Your Best Friend in 2008. She contributed regularly to Celebrating Greyhounds the first five years, most notably the Kira series which was a finalist in the Dog Writer’s Association writing contest. She won a DWAA award for the poem, The Red Bitch’s Hunt, which was part of a series of poems about Coventry and the Red Bitch. Currently she is retired, still writing about dogs, and is is living a very active life with the descendants of the original Tiger.

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