The Uncut Version
by Patricia Gail Burnham
The man came with the leash that meant he would get out of his cage. For months he had been inside the big green building, living in a tiled kennel. Twice a day he was taken to an indoor exercise room and jogged, and he welcomed the chance to stretch his stiffened muscles, even though they just trotted in circles bounded by the outer wall. Then he would be fed and left to lie in his kennel and dream.
What does an old racing greyhound dream of? He dreamt of speed, of big paddocks where he could run freely, and even of the track. Of being led out in the bright lights at night, being paraded before the grandstand, and then led to the starting boxes. Some dogs fought going into the boxes but he never did. He knew that the boxes were the next step before a race and he went in calmly and crouched down, nose against the bars. Intent. Waiting. Waiting for the phantom rabbit to appear on his left. Waiting for the gate to spring open, as it always had. Waiting for his chance to run.
His intelligence and concentration had made him a good starter, often breaking first and giving him a chance to move over to the rail, to run the shortest way around. Then it was up to his speed and courage to do the rest, sprinting through the glare of the artificial lights, and meeting the roar of the crowd. He often won his races. Not that he was the fastest dog. But he handled himself well and with his quick starts he often beat dogs that were actually faster. He would take his early lead and the speedsters would pass him in the middle run, only to have him come back strong at the end. As he grew older, that strong finish was often enough to upset younger dogs, to let him beat some highly-ranked competition.
Not that he knew that. He only knew that they were all chasing the white thing up on the rail and that he had to be first, no matter how great the strain was on his body or how much effort it took. That once a week his world came down to the yellow track and the speeding lure. That the roar of his own blood in his ears was loud enough to shut out the roar of the crowd, and then he was free to run to the outer limits of his ability. And he lived for it. For four years he lived for it.
One day a stranger came into the kennel. His trainer talked to the strange man, and then took several dogs out of their kennels and put leashes on them. Next it was his turn as his kennel was opened and he was leashed up and led outside to a closed truck. He was used to being moved from track to track, although this truck smelled strange, but he wasn’t really worried until two days later when he was unloaded and taken into the big green building. There he had a veterinarian’s exam, just as if he were going to race, but there was not a race track in sight. There was also no warm kennel with soft wood shavings for bedding, just the hard tiled run and stainless steel gates. The place didn’t smell right. It smelled a lot like a veterinary hospital. So he would dream of the track, and the farm where he was a puppy. New people in uniforms came to feed him and to walk him. He was grateful for that and tried to show them so by smiling to greet them, but that seemed to make them nervous. And there was never any place to run. That was harder on the younger dogs around him. He was on the long side of five years old and rest was beginning to appeal to him. He no longer had their fierce energy levels to burn off in a blaze of speed. But still he would have liked to run. And he would have loved something soft to lie on. He had given up trying to dig a nest in the fiberglass “resting bench.” He shifted position often to relieve the pressure of his lean body on the unyielding surface. So he was glad when the man came with a leash and stopped at his gate.
He automatically made the turn toward the exercise arena and was surprised when the man pulled on his lead and turned him to the left. Down a hall toward the outside and for the first time in two months he stood in the open air, confused and disoriented as he was loaded into yet one more truck. This one smelled of frightened dogs, and sick dogs and even dead dogs. Soon he was packed shoulder to shoulder with other dogs from inside the building and dark descended on them as the doors were shut. As the truck started to move he dimly heard sounds that reminded him of the track. It was people cheering, and other dogs barking. On the drive he could smell something that was new to him, the sharp tang of salt in the sea air, and he could hear overhead the high pitched cry of what sounded a little like a rabbit, but was actually a sea gull. He had seen an occasional sea gull in Arizona on the track infield, but he had never seen the ocean they came from. In less than an hour the truck stopped at yet another kennel. But this one was more normal looking, with outdoor chain link runs and lots of dogs. Dogs in the hundreds.
He noticed that a photographer was taking his picture which seemed a little odd. The only time people pointed cameras at him in the past was after he had won a race. Yet another vet examined him, and he was taken to one of the kennel runs. Soon he had several kennel mates and it was nice to be able to touch another dog. To have someone to play with to relieve the boredom of confinement.
The days passed and lots of people came by his kennel and looked at him and his kennel mates. That was a novelty. The public doesn’t wander through a racing kennel. Children would stick their fingers through the mesh and the younger dogs would rush over to nuzzle them. Sometimes dogs would be taken out on leash into groups of these visiting people. One by one the other greyhounds left. But he was still there, patient and accepting. When he was alone in his kennel they gave him a doberman bitch for company. She was bossy but he didn’t mind.
It was a rainy day and the crowd was thinning out when he noticed a woman standing back and watching him for a long time. Finally she came up to the gate and said, “Hi there.” He turned his head, and slowly moved toward her, testing the scent on her extended hand. And when he got close enough she reached up and scratched behind his ears, and he thought he would stay there for a while. She was talking to him in a pleasant croon. The words made no sense but the tone did. He was close enough to smell her breath. Then the Doberman pushed him aside and put on her usual exuberant greeting display.
He moved across the kennel and lay down. The woman backed away from the fence until the doberman lost interest. Then she came back and caught his eye, speaking to him from across the run. From somewhere far in the back of his mind it seemed like a good idea to get up and move across to her once more. He liked her hands and voice, and he was sorry to see her turn to leave. He knew from the sunlight that it was almost closing time, that soon all the visitors would leave and that he would be fed, if he could keep the Doberman out of his food bowl. Then they would be left alone for the night.
What he didn’t know was that he was the last greyhound that was left from a shipment of retired racing dogs that had been sold to a research lab. That during the long months in the strange green building, people he had never seen had been protesting and walking picket lines, and fighting to keep him and his kennel mates from being used for medical research. That there had been a plan to saw through his thigh bone, and then try a new treatment on the gap in the bone. That eight weeks later he would have been killed so the bone could be tested. But that hadn’t happened. The protests had worked. The dogs had been handed over to a rescue group and taken to the Humane Society while new homes were sought for them. And he was the last one. Kept far longer than dogs are normally kept for adoption, his time was finally running short. Nobody seemed to want a five year old, undemonstrative dog. After all there were hundreds of younger, pure bred dogs of popular breeds available for adoption in the surrounding kennels. He didn’t know that his time was running out. That, in fact it had been running out all his life.
But then the woman came back with one of the workers and was pointing at the kennel. “No, not the doberman. That one. The brindle greyhound. Why is there a ‘Hold’ sign on the kennel?” And the answer came back: “Oh that sign isn’t for him. It is for the doberman. It is the last day for the other dog.”
“No, it isn’t. I’ll take him.”
They disappeared into the office for a little while, and when they came back the worker had a rope lead and an old plastic collar that was rather tight. The woman had a handful of papers and took his lead in her free hand. The doberman made one last attempt to beat him out of the kennel gate and join in the fun. Then he followed the woman with the kind voice past the office and outside into the early evening.
He had never ridden in the back seat of a car, and couldn’t see any reason why he should not move up front with her, but she held him by the collar and told him to stay there so after a few attempts he lay quiet. He had never been in a vehicle that he could see out of before, and the trees and houses flying by fascinated him. He was running without running.
In a little while they stopped and she helped him out of the car and into a room that smelled of leather, and dog food, and a whole lot of different animals. His nose was almost drunk. But she tried on several collars and finally chose a smooth leather one and a leash that smelled good, and possibly edible. She left the plastic collar behind, taking him back to the car with a bag of dog food tucked under her arm, and small sack that smelled suspiciously like flea powder. Still it was good to be out of the kennel.
When she stopped in a big grassy area and laid him down and flea powdered the living daylights out of him he didn’t mind. She had gentle hands.
Afterward they walked together through the twilight of the park and he delighted in the feel of damp grass under his feet. And still she talked to him. He began to keep an ear turned towards her and occasionally looked behind him to see if she was still on the other end of the leash.
It was easier this time getting into the back seat of the car. The next ride was a short one that led to the biggest surprise of all. Because she took him into the house, and he had never been inside a house, a place where people lived. A kennel for people. His innate savoir fair stood him in good stead at this startling turn of events. He was trying very hard to pretend that he had been doing this all his life, but little things gave him away, like not knowing how to climb stairs. She had to help him the first few times.
After a light dinner, they watched television for a while. That is she watched television and he watched her. He knew what television was because the racing kennels often played television or a radio to calm the dogs. What he wasn’t expecting was that she would spread out a blanket on the carpet and indicate that he was to lie on it, right there in the room with her. What he also was not expecting was that there was a tree in the room with them. He had never seen a pine tree, and more importantly never smelled one, and it made him back up and sneeze. He had also never seen a tree with shiny things hanging all over it, but when he tried to pick one off it she said, “No, leave the tree alone.” And he was too worried about displeasing her to persist.
Now the cat was another matter. He had smelled cat fur as soon as he had walked through the door, and later when the smoke colored Persian had sauntered into the room and frozen at the sight of him, he bounded to his feet. Only to have the woman give a warning, “No. That is my cat.” And make him lie down again. It was hard being in the same room with the cat without being allowed to chase it, so after a couple of hours he started to pretend that the cat did not exist, that he could not see it. In his mind he turned the cat into an invisible cat. He decided that if the woman kept trees and cats in her house, that she might even decide to keep him there too, and that co-existing was a small price to pay.
The first night he slept on the rug next to her bed. It was almost a week before he worked up the nerve to creep up onto the bed. When he finally did, he bounded onto the bed in a rush, and fell in a heap on the left-hand pillow, hugging the bed like an abalone on a rock. And when his racing heart had slowed, he very carefully reached out his chin until it could rest on her shoulder, and he fell asleep dreaming. And for once he didn’t dream of race tracks and the laboratory and endless closed trucks taking him to unknown destinations. He dreamed of green parks, and car rides, and infuriating cats. And of having just one owner and being able to sleep close enough to breathe her scent, to know she was still there. That she would always be there. It was a dream he had never dared to dream before.
Author’s Note: This was written the day that nineteen greyhounds were released from Letterman Army Research Facility at the Presidio in San Francisco. I had taken my dogs down to picket the Presidio several times but had meetings at work that Tuesday and couldn’t be there to greet the dogs. Susan Netboy of Sighthound Rescue phoned me to say that they were about to be released and I sat down and wrote the Rescue Dog in a couple of hours. On the next weekend Sheila Grant and I visited the Marin Humane Society where most of the dogs had been taken to await adoption. We walked and photographed them and the result was an article with their pictures called, “The Faces of Medical Research.”
The laboratory described in the story is LERH the Lettermen Army Research Facility at the Presidio. But the adoption described is that is of my first greyhound, Traveler. I found him sharing a kennel with the pushy doberman at the Sacramento Humane Society, and took him home to meet my old Persian, Smokey. That was back in 1970. He was an incredibly intelligent and gentlemanly dog who sold me on greyhounds. He was a middle-aged dog when I adopted him but he lived another nine years with me. Here is a link to Saving the Presidio Greyhounds.
Bio – Gail Burnham has written and continues to write 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; the Kira series was a finalist in the Dog Writer’s Association of Amercia’s annual writing competition. 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 living a very active life with the descendants of the original Tiger.
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