Greyhounds find new life off fast track

February 27, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

Three years ago, Luke Skywalker was an unwanted dog, a survivor of the greyhound racing industry but a failure as an adoptive pet.

On Friday, he trotted eagerly from one set of loving hands to another, nuzzling residents of the Lorien Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Hickory Ridge, bringing joy to humans whose illnesses have left them as confined as Luke once was.

With Luke was Whisper, another dog that had outlived his usefulness as a professional greyhound, applying for his new job as a county Pets-on-Wheels volunteer.

Whisper hesitated as the pair approached Harry Chrobot, 83, sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a bright green hat that matched his pants and shirt.

But Luke Skywalker walked right up to him, put his head in Mr. Chrobot's lap and looked up, waiting for the touch of his hand.

"It's been so long I forgot," said the man when asked if he had had a dog himself. Thinking the animals were being given away, he warned, "I don't think I can have those dogs up here."

"He wasn't very outgoing," said Whisper's evaluator, Lucille Barnum, "but that's good for the people who don't like an exuberant dog. He's good for those who like quieter animals."

Both Luke Skywalker, a 4-year-old light brindle, or tan with black stripes, and Whisper, a 6-year-old black and white, were picked up by John and Denise Davis, who operate a Greyhound Rescue operation from their Elkridge home.

"You ever catch that damn rabbit, guy?" asked George Gibb, 75, who wore a Pittsburgh Steelers cap and playfully insisted that he was screen legend Clark Gable.

"It's not only that the residents miss their own animals," said Ms. Barnum, coordinator of the county Pets-on-Wheels. "If you have an animal with you, it gives you something to talk about."

A somber Helen Hallisey, 90, was cheered by the arrival of the two dogs as she sat alone watching a daytime talk show. "I was by myself all morning," she said. "I love animals. I love them to come here."

Luke Skywalker is one of nine rescued racing greyhounds in the Pets-on-Wheels program, all but two of them adopted from the Davises, Ms. Barnum said.

John and Denise Davis travel to out-of-state dog tracks to pick up unwanted greyhounds and then put them up for adoption. As the adoptive owners of Luke and Whisper, they also serve as volunteers in the Pets-on-Wheels program.

In all likelihood, Luke, like other rejected greyhounds, was too playful, too slow or simply untrainable. He was adopted out of the industry and then left at the county animal shelter by whoever adopted him.

Ms. Barnum said that when the Davises first came to see her about a year ago with Luke and Mr. Ed, a 6-year-old "red and white" greyhound picked up from Pittsburgh-area animal control authorities, "all the seniors that were in the center went wild that day."

"They were, number one, fascinated by the greyhounds themselves. And when some of them were told about the plight of the greyhounds, that brought out an additional response. . . . One of the staffers went out and adopted one that day."

The Davises estimated that they have rescued more than 500 greyhounds, all of them born as racing dogs and then adopted by new owners.

But some dogs never make it to the track, according to Susan Netboy, founder of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Greyhound Protection League.

She says that 10,000 to 15,000 of the animals are killed annually on farms, primarily in Florida, Oklahoma and Kansas. The racing industry, which disputes the league's accusations, has asked for voluntary limits on breeding, which she said have helped.

The Davises praise the two state-run tracks they work with in West Virginia for their adoption program, pointing out that Whisper is one of many they have picked up directly from tracks.

But Ms. Netboy said track dogs across the country are often killed by owners.

"It's all economics. That's the bottom line. Too many dogs, too many mouths to feed. And if a dog isn't bringing in money, it's going to be put down," Ms. Netboy said.

The Davises charge adoptive owners $80 to cover shots, other medical care and the cost of driving to other states to pick up the animals. The adoption contract also requires that the greyhounds be spayed or neutered within 90 days.

The Davises are constantly searching for homes for the dogs, generating publicity by making appearances at pet shows and putting up floats in the Catonsville Independence Day parade.

Meanwhile, Pets-on-Wheels is also strapped for money and volunteers. The program was recently cut from the county budget, and has to raise money privately to meet its budget of about $10,000 a year.

Volunteers and their pets, which include dogs, cats and rabbits, visit retirement homes, adult day-care centers, group homes and the homes of shut-ins. "It's the regular visitation which makes it different from many of the other programs," Ms. Barnum said.

On March 19, Pets-on-Wheels will have a seminar for volunteers and pet owners considering joining. The cost will be $5 for volunteers and $10 for others. For additional information, Ms. Barnum can be reached at the Florence Bain Center at 313-7213.

For information on greyhound adoption, the Davises can be reached at 796-2803.

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