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by Patricia Gail Burnham
In the summer of 1989 I received a phone call from Susan Netboy. She had learned that the Letterman Army Research Facility in the Presidio of San Francisco had obtained 20 Greyhounds and were about to do medical experiments on them. She wanted public demonstrations against the use of the Greyhounds. At that time, however, Greyhound adoption was not common and she needed Greyhounds for the demonstrations. Since she showed Salukis and I showed Greyhounds at dog shows, she thought of my dogs and me when she needed Greyhounds.
The first demonstration was on short notice and fairly small, just a few dogs and a dozen people. But, as word got out, the demonstrations got larger. The Presidio looked more like a park than an Army base. There were no guard stations at the gates. On weekends it was full of San Franciscans searching for a little open space with trees and grass. You could spend hours there without seeing an Army uniform but you could hardly fail to be impressed by the quaint Victorian homes built to house officers of an earlier century. (The Presidio has since been abandoned by the Army and become part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area). The two modern features on the base are a new fast food hamburger restaurant disguised as native architecture and the Letterman Army Medical Center, which looked like any hospital. But it wasn’t. Letterman did offer normal hospital care, yes, but it also had a more sinister side: The Letterman Army Institute of Research.
What the Institute researched was combat casualty care. That sounded fairly innocent. Nobody could object to caring for combat casualties. The problem was that without an active war there was a shortage of combat casualties to care for. So if you wanted to know if a new method or treatment works, what could be done? Personally I like the idea of sending a team to the Middle East to help with casualties that really need care, but that was not happening. What was happening was retired racing Greyhounds were about to be made the subject of military trauma research.
The researchers’ aim was to find a faster way to heal broken bones and return soldiers to active duty in a shorter period of time. The means, in this case, was a study that planned to take 100 Greyhounds and operate on them to saw through about a half-inch of their femurs (thigh bones) and inject a “bio-synthetic compound” developed by a private company with the hopes healing would accelerate. The dogs would then be destroyed at various times so the femurs could be removed and broken in a standard testing machine and the researchers could measure how strong they were.
This information was pieced together since the researchers had not released the protocols and were a little uncomfortable at the attention they had attracted. What we did know was they were starting with a pilot group of 19 dogs. When that information reached the sighthound and animal rights people, the result was a call to picket Letterman. Our second demonstration was on Sunday, August 13th. This time I took along my camera.
I arrived to find a heartwarming group of people with a lot of varied backgrounds. There were sighthound fanciers complete with everything from a retired racing Greyhound and a pound rescue Greyhound to a Whippet and an Azawakh. With my three dogs and Sheila Grant’s Arriba, there were four show champion Greyhounds. Along with the dog fanciers were animal rights people, some of who were probably seeing Greyhounds for the first time. It made me feel rather good about people. Here were dozens of people spending their Sunday in defense of one of the least defended of dogs, ex-racers.
There were people from Sighthound Rescue, Vigil for Animals, In Defense of Animals, Animal Rights Connection, NARF, and DIAAR, which I was told, meant “Dying Individuals Against Animal Research.” These people provided the ultimate rebuttal of the argument that animals should die in research labs so people could live longer. Actually what people generally object to about lab research is rarely the death involved, but the amount of pain inflicted prior to death. Nobody was saying the Greyhounds they were sacrificing would save lives. Even if the compound was a success, the goal was to get wounded soldiers back into battle sooner than would be possible if they healed naturally.
The picket signs ranged from, “Your tax dollars were being used to mutilate animals here” through “SAVE THE GREYHOUNDS,” to “No experimentation without representation.” The signs looked rather incongruous draped over the cannons that face outward from the Presidio entrance. The dogs, however, were easily the hit of the demonstration, patiently putting up with endless city dwellers’ hugs and television interviews. After picketing the Presidio entrance for a while we moved the demonstration down the street to Lombard Avenue, which is the main highway through the Presidio to the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Presidio was actually a nice place to picket because after a couple of hours of demonstrating and talking to the media, we would walk our dogs to Chrissy Field on the San Francisco Bay and let them run on the beach. Then we would walk back through the Presidio to our cars. The funny thing was that while we had to demonstrate outside the main gate, the Presidio is open to the public so, once we stopped demonstrating, we would walk through it. On one of these walks back I took pictures of the people and dogs in front of the Letterman Research Facility. Another advantage of picketing the Presidio was the easy access to wonderful San Francisco restaurants for an after-picket lunch. By the time I crossed the Bay Bridge to head home in the evening after the second demonstration, the radio stations were already broadcasting news items about the demonstration.
Apparently that sign about tax dollars made the news, because the next week it was announced that the pilot program was being started with only six dogs instead of 19. (The 20th dog was a 2-year-old who had died of erlichia canis, a tick-born parasite, while at the Presidio.) Now the Army said they had private funding for the six dogs they were planning to use. That raised an interesting question. Who sponsored the private funding? The logical guess would be 3-M, the company that was trying to develop a market for their biosynthetic compound. This was not the first time bone-healing compounds had been tested. While the cost estimates for this study had not been released, a study in 1986 estimated a cost of $15,000 per specimen for the surgery and research. If those figures were still true, then the full study of 100 dogs would have cost $1.5 million, of which the chemical company would have paid only the first $75,000.
One ally was Annette Lantos, wife of Congressman Tom Lantos. She was concerned not only about this experiment but about the other lab animals there, including primates. However, the Presidio wasn’t in her husband’s district. The Congresswoman from San Francisco was Barbara Boxer. Because funding for the Army comes from Congress, Army officials are very sensitive to congressional requests. Congresswoman Boxer wrote a letter to the Army officially requesting a list of the Greyhounds’ ear tattoo numbers. The list was received in September.
Susan Netboy used the ear tattoos to trace the legal owners and started calling them. Some of those owners were very surprised to discover their dogs were at the Army Research Center. There were owners who thought their dogs were still running on the track. Other owners had given the dogs into supposed pet homes, or to be used as long-term blood donors. One owner had shipped dogs from one track to another only to have them not arrive. Instead, one of the missing dogs had turned up at the Presidio research lab. Most of the owners were sufficiently irritated to sign affidavits allowing In Defense of Animals to sue in their behalf. The lawyer filed a lawsuit in Federal Court and obtained a restraining order to keep the experiment from proceeding. The fact that the Army didn’t own the dogs was news to the Army, which had bought them from a USDA dealer. With ownership of the dogs in question, the Army released them for adoption in October. (When the Army left the Presidio, the Letterman Army Institute of Research (LAIR) was moved to Ft. Detrick on the east coast where they planned to continue the experiment with new dogs.)
The Faces of Medical Research — The Presidio Dogs
The good news came on a Thursday: Letterman Army Research Center had decided to release the 19 racing Greyhounds they had been holding for medical experiments (not that they were proposing to abandon their project). Generals on the East Coast had made it clear they did not intend to let mere public outcry deter them from purchasing an additional 19 Greyhounds at a later date to perform their experiment. But the current dogs were going to be released for adoption. Eleven days earlier, the third and largest public demonstration had taken place, and the release of the dogs gave me faith in the power of the press and the general public to have an effect on the government’s actions. Later I learned that, while all of those methods may have helped, what triggered the release was the lawsuit filed by an In Defense of Animal’s attorney with authorization from the dogs’ registered owners.
The day of their release I was obligated to stay at work for a meeting so I couldn’t attend. After that meeting, I sat down and wrote the story “The Christmas Rescue Greyhound” which combined what I had learned about the Presidio dogs with the story of the adoption of my first Greyhound from the Sacramento Humane Society in 1969. It is a story that has been quite popular with adoption readers through the years.
Two days after their release I went to the Marin Humane Society to photograph the dogs and take them each a synthetic fleece and stuffed dog toy. I make the toys, which are a foot long version of a catnip mouse. For two months we had been picketing outside the Presidio’s walls, trying to save dogs we had never seen and, if the Army had its way, might never see. Now that they were out, I was eager to see just what we had been fighting for.
It was a lovely and rewarding day. Sheila Grant went with me to help walk and pose dogs for photos. When we got to the Marin Humane Society Shelter, Doug Brooks, another show Greyhound fancier, was helping walk the dogs. The dogs were all males. (The Army has always preferred boys; racing bitches are loaded with artificial hormones to keep them out of season.) The dogs were generally about 2 years old, although the youngest was only 1 year, and the two oldest were gray-faced 4-year-olds. They were charming. Each of them was different in personality, but each well worth the fight to save them. My heart particularly went out to the 4-year-olds. To get to that age in the racing business a dog has to have raced successfully for at least three years. These two dogs had won their owners lots of money and they deserved better than to be sold into research. I have a soft spot for aging Greyhounds anyway. They mature into a calm and level headed middle age with grace and charm. The dogs’ names were culled from incomplete registration information and collars that may or may not have been on the right dogs. A lot of the dogs may have swapped names along with their collars during their lab stay.
By the time I arrived, four of the dogs had been moved to less crowded animal shelters. I did not get to see Chester, Bobby, Ollie, and the brindle with the collar shaped neck scar (evidence of a collar having been left on too long while he was a growing puppy). What I did see were 15 charming dogs that were well worth the two-month fight to save them. That made me worry about the chance the Army would fulfill its threat to continue the experiment using other, equally charming retired Greyhounds. Did these dogs deserve to have their thighbone sawed through, and to be killed two months later so the healing of the bone could be tested? I don’t think so.
I will give the Army credit where it is due. The dogs they released were in splendid condition. There are two main difficulties in kenneling Greyhounds for long periods. They have to have soft bedding and exercise. If they lie on hard surfaces they develop ugly pressure sores like bedsores. If they are not exercised, their body muscles atrophy and they degenerate into fur-covered skeletons. I had talked to the public relations officer at the Presidio about those two peculiarities of Greyhounds and he had assured me that they were being walked daily within the building. And, as part of a hospital facility, they would have access to the synthetic fleeces that are used to prevent bedsores on hospital patients and that are the best Greyhound bedding, soft and unchewable. I was still surprised and grateful at finding the dogs in such good shape, because it is easier to find adoptive homes for dogs in good condition than for skinny, ulcerated ones. In fact, far from being thin, most of the dogs were good weight and three of them were positively plump. It was due to all that good Army chow.
Lastly, someone in the Army deserves a word of thanks and congratulations. Someone at the rank of Colonel or General had to take responsibility for the decision to release the Greyhounds. Contrary to their advertising, the Army is not an organization that rewards personal initiative. You have to get quite high in the hierarchy to find individuals with the initiative or confidence to make tough decisions. I have usually found that if you can get far enough up the ladder you can find that person. I only hope there was somebody even further up who canceled the whole program, or at least banned the use of pet animals like dogs and cats for their experiments.
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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