by Lynda Adame
Has anyone ever told you about rescuing Greyhounds? Not just adopting them out, but actually rescuing them on a Saturday from a sure death on Monday?
Have they ever told you about getting up while it is still dark outside? Earlier than they have ever gotten up before? What about the hour-long drive just to connect up with the seven other volunteers? Tired-eyed and shivering in the cold air, they meet to plan out the next 14 hours. The smell of coffee drifts among them; each person holds a huge steaming cup.
Have they told you about the three-hour drive south? How excitement and nervousness rise with the sun? How their palms begin to sweat and their hearts race as they cross the international border? Armed guards in dark sunglasses wave them through. They drive the narrow twisting streets – the patchwork of Tijuana life passing just outside the window. Finally they reach Calienté, the place of so many horror stories. The sienna-colored racetrack towers above a small grouping of dog kennels that seem to crouch submissively.
Have they told you that the smell is what hits them first? The stink of urine and feces is nauseating so early in the morning. As they approach the cinder block kennels, the dogs begin to howl and bark as if on cue. Some of the volunteers struggle to communicate with the kennel help, while others gather at the end of the building to stare at the long-abandoned line of rabbit hutches. Just beyond the track tote board, camels, zebras, and lions can be seen roaming around. It is a surreal experience. Will they be allowed to take dogs back with them? “No,” says the man in charge, “no dogs today.” The volunteers have come too far to leave empty handed. Quiet huddled conversations begin. Voices become louder, sentences punctuated by sharp rapid arm movements. After what seems an eternity, the gates yawn open, and the trucks are allowed in.
What about the feeling they get as the dogs are finally led out? Did they tell you about that? How special each dog seems? One walks just like Tice…one is the color of Remi…one wags his tail as much as Cody. The group of volunteers has come for nine dogs. Can they take more? Do they have room? Yes, two more. Load them up.
Have you heard about the “nice” dog handler? The shy one that idly pets his dogs, calming them? How he walks up at the last minute carrying a small red-brindle female? Just one more, he pleads with his eyes. This one is hurt badly. A horribly swollen rear leg — a broken hock. The man, clutching the tiny dog to his chest, is not budging. The volunteers look at the dog’s exquisite face, and her amber-colored eyes hold theirs in a steady gaze. Yes…they will take this dog also. They’ll worry about the cost of the surgery later. It is the third broken hock they have taken in as many months. The handler beams. “Gracias,” he says quietly.
Have they told you about re-crossing the border? How they wonder if the dogs at Calienté don’t actually live better than some of the residents of that city? It is a three-hour drive home. The female with the broken hock cries steadily for an hour, then mercifully falls asleep. The dogs are unloaded, medicated, cat tested, and bathed. The volunteers are wet and hungry. Their backs ache. The foster parents arrive, and the dogs leave one by one.
Have they told you that they won’t reach home until 6 p.m. that night? Dead tired, but still glowing with the quiet pleasure they felt as each dog was lead away to start its new life? How they fondly greet their own Greyhounds? Such lucky dogs … such very lucky dogs.
Has anyone ever told you that 12 fewer dogs will die this Monday?
It was sunset. I distinctly remember that. I was driving down the 405 freeway, exhausted after my first rescue trip to the Greyhound track, when I was visited by my muse. A story about the day’s events began to take shape in my mind and I quickly reached for a pen and paper. I spent the next five minutes navigating the freeway, writing the story in my lap, and crying. “Twelve Fewer Dogs” is the result of that overwhelming urge to put feelings to paper.
Agua Calienté, the Greyhound track in Tijuana Mexico, has a sordid past and a well-deserved reputation as the “end of the line” for dogs that have raced there. Although things are not perfect at the track today, I am pleased to report that much has changed in the last four years.
Our first visits to the track were characterized by a lack of trust. The track personnel were suspicious of our adoption group and we did not trust the track personnel. They had jobs and a life style to protect and we had dogs to rescue. We were seemingly at odds with one another. A risk was taken, however, and from that risk a relationship was forged between the adoption group I work with (Greyhound Pets of America Orange County/Greater Los Angeles area (GPA OC/GLA)) and the Calienté track. We knew going into this that we could not affect change in that track from a legal standpoint. Calienté exists beyond the borders of the United States, which puts it outside the realm of U.S. jurisdiction. Although the dogs running there are American-bred Greyhounds, registered with the National Greyhound Association (NGA), we knew we would probably have little influence from that angle either.
For the first two years, individual kennel operators would call us on a Friday and expect that we would pick the amassed retirees up on Sunday. Not only did we have to drum up foster homes for each trip, but also we found ourselves going down for 15 to 35 dogs one weekend and two dogs the next weekend. The scramble began to take its toll on the volunteers. There had to be a better way to handle and coordinate these runs.
You cannot help but see the poverty of Tijuana, and as we continued our pick-up trips to the track, we got to know the individual kennel workers. These were hardworking men, who made little money. They were polite and worked beyond the communication barrier to connect with the volunteers whenever we were there. GPA OC/GLA decided to start an ongoing drive to collect discarded clothing and offer it to the kennel workers at Calienté. This attempt, on our part, to connect on a human level seemed to open a door between the kennels and the adoption group. This gave us hope that we could implement some form of positive change through cooperation and mutual respect.
The idea of a pet kennel was born early one morning two and a half years ago. Tom McRorie had led yet another run to pick up dogs at Calienté. As the Greyhounds were being loaded into the trucks, Tom and Carlos Duran, the track manager, struck up a conversation about a better way to move dogs from the track to adoption groups. From that conversation, the concept of the Calienté Pet Kennel was born. Tom and Carlos’ vision of the pet kennel was a separate building, located on track property, where retiring dogs could be held until an adoption group could pick them up. This would be a non-denominational kennel, a place where any adoption group that the track agreed to work with could pick up dogs for their program. Carlos, enthusiastic about the idea, approached the owner of the track and approval was given. The track contacted a local architect and plans were drawn up for a new kennel to be built within tracks walls that could house up to 44 retiring Greyhounds. Carlos agreed to supply the manpower to build and staff the new kennel, and GPA OC/GLA agreed to supply the funding as well as food for the dogs. On October 11, 1997, the first Greyhounds went to stay at the pet kennel and the dream became a reality.
Some of the adoption groups that pull dogs from the pet kennel supply kibble and wet food as they can. As this cooperative effort has gone on and proven beneficial, the race kennels themselves are sending extra food over to the pet kennel along with their retiring dogs. This is a very positive change and it has come about through a spirit of cooperation and trust. The dogs in the pet kennel clearly have benefited from the cooperation of track and adoption, and we are getting dogs that are cleaner and fatter each time we make a pickup. Carlos hopes that one day every dog that leaves Calienté will go through the pet kennel. We share that hope.
CG W 99