Underdog in an underdog world—saving Charly

I’m passionate about writing, and about greyhounds. So, it makes sense I’d pen about retired racers again, especially since April is National Adopt a Greyhound month. One dog in particular is worthy of my mention because he brings to light the plight of his breed. And his is a tale that deserves a story-book ending, one I hope readers will help deliver.
Retired racing greyhound Charly
 At seven o’clock on a dark November evening, I faced my first volunteer shift for a greyhound rescue.  What awaited me overwhelmed me in more ways than I can detail. Approaching a dull, block building I heard the shrill cries of sixty wailing animals, a sound that echoes in my memory still. I will never forget it, or what greeted me as I walked through the door unprepared. Lining the walls and running full length of the lackluster building were wire crates stacked two deep, brimming with wriggling creatures. From between metal bars, expectant eyes peered while excited yips and yaps rose in pitch during my rounds and first kennel turnout.

In the course of my volunteer work, several dogs came and went. Some moved into foster homes. Some left for medical treatment. Some were loaned to veterinary clinics months on end to donate blood (greyhounds are universal donors in the dog world). And some, a small few, made a new life with adoptive families. But more dogs remained, enduring routine caged life for months, even years. 

I adored them all but had my darlings—the underdogs—mostly, black male pups no one wanted. For whatever reason, black dogs are harder to place, their color less desirable to many potential adopters. I wanted to rescue them all and take them home—an unreasonable option. So, my husband and I did the next best thing. We fostered dogs to get them on the adoption list. And one foster underdog made a lasting impression. 

The first time I saw Charly, he’d curled into a tiny ball in the back corner of his crate. Once a proud racer standing tall, he’d become a shadow of his former self. He met my gaze with sorrowful eyes, and I knew I had to do something. That notion solidified when I learned his tragic story.
 Retired racing greyhound Charly
At the early age of three, Charly retired from racing. Without a career, purpose, or home, he took up residency in a greyhound adoption facility. He remained with them for more than a year, spending half of that time on loan to a college veterinary school. Between nerves and neglect, Charly lost significant weight and all of his hair (and during his travels a toe). Rescued once more, he returned to the adoption facility, exhibiting signs of kennel stress. 

When our foster pup, Charly, unfolded out of my car and into our home, I realized the enormity of his size and the opportunity we were providing him. I also realized the demanding task he faced. A greyhound’s transition from track to home is rarely seamless. They know only kennel life and nothing about houses and their pitfalls. But after a few weeks of fostering, greyhounds learn that glass is solid, swimming pools are not, and stairs are maneuverable. Like puppies, retired racers have much to absorb and respond best to exercise, (positive reinforced) discipline, and love.

With eyes like saucers, Charly padded through our front door and into our lives. Within 48 hours, he’d learned a great deal and settled comfortably into domestic living. In reward for good behavior, he graduated from his crate to a doggy bed in the hallway, and eventually to the floor at the foot of our bed. 
 Retired racing greyhound Charly
A gentle soul with a big heart, Charly’s magnetic appeal was unmistakable. At a pet store “Meet and Greet” he stood proud with athletic stature restored and sleek coat shining like his spirit. He greeted shoppers with a greyhound smile and wagging tail, and in response, they showered him in compliments and praise. Charly lapped it up and wriggled even more when kids passed within hand-licking reach, making it obvious how much he loved people and adored children.   

Charly also loved to play and entertain his human hosts. Snatching a toy he dropped into a yoga stance (frontend on the floor buttocks in the air) and initiated playtime. In a black streak he shot around our fenced yard to release energy, pausing once or twice to pounce on a tennis ball. After another series of sprints, he returned winded and spoon-tongued, and flopped down for a breather and belly rub. But playtime had only been placed on hold. 
Retired racing greyhound Charly
 As evening drew dark, Charly’s energy level ramped up in anticipation of playtime with his favorite pal “ghost dog.” In the glow of a floor lamp, the patio doors transformed into mirrors and Charly into a puppy. Teasing the phantom in the glass, he spun in circles, tossing, catching, and shaking squeaky toys while dispersing stuffing everywhere. With a canine grin, he assumed downward dog pose then wagged his tail and barked at the mirror image. Ghost pup yipped and wagged back, propelling Charly into a frenzy of circles around the room until he made himself dizzy. He knew window pup wasn’t real but loved pretending all the same. He played this way until he and his imaginary friend tired of the game. Panting and gratified, he plopped to the floor where he hugged his favorite toy, an elongated snoopy, and settled in for a nap. Charly was a fun and loving dog, and he enriched our lives.

As much as we loved Charly, we were unable to keep him. We parted ways with our foster pup, thankful for the chance to know him and put him on a path for adoption. But the thought of him resuming kennel life again (awaiting his forever home) haunts me. I’ve glimpsed a fraction of what racing dogs endure, and enough to ensure sleepless nights. Still, I refuse to retire my fight to save greyhounds, or find a loving home for Charly and others like him. 
Retired racing greyhound Charly
 For thousands of years dogs like Charly stood tall, revered amongst ancient Egyptian’s as honored family members. With time, greyhounds made their way into the noble homes of Medieval England, saving the breed from extinction but transforming them with American colonization into a lucrative sporting commodity. As Wikipedia pointed out, “Greyhound[s] are an investment.” For more than one hundred years, they’ve endured varying degrees of abuse and neglect, often becoming disposable products in a risky business venture. Animal advocacy groups have made great strides to protect dogs, but greyhound life has improved only marginally. At least now most unwanted racers are euthanized, rather than shot and fed to successors. Although animal protection agencies are opposed to dog racing, many skirt the issue, knowing the volume of animals to be rescued would overwhelm their resources. Pit Bulls endured a similar fate, and dark side of humanity, but that has changed in recent years due to public outcry and their abuses being brought to light. Sadly, greyhounds still stand in the shadows, but growing concern has led to some improvements in the past ten years. Thanks to recent reductions in overall births, and caring individuals on both sides of the industry, an estimated 60,000 dogs destroyed per year has dropped to about ten thousand while adoptions have risen to nearly 20,000.* Still, euthanasia of greyhounds remains too high even though the number no longer resembles the yearly genocide once exercised. Obviously, more needs to be done. Until public ignorance, ineffective regulation, and industry overbreeding are corrected, these majestic dogs will continue to stand in ruins at the bottom of the underdog world.  
Retired racing greyhound Charly
 Adoption is currently the greyhound’s only hope. It is also a great way to own a pedigreed, purebred for only $200, and worth every penny. Greyhounds are remarkable dogs and loving pets that deserve better than they’ve received. And I remain hopeful that someday soon, with continued effort and increased awareness, Charly and other greyhounds will no longer suffer as the underdogs in a decadent underdog world, but resume their former glory as the pride of a civilized society.  
Retired racing greyhound Charly
 "A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members." ~ Mahatma Ghandi

* Historical and numerical data based on information provided by Lee Livingood, Retired Racing Greyhounds for Dummies, Whiley Publishing Inc., 2002: 8, 16; and, Cynthia A Branigan, Adopting the Racing Greyhound, Whiley Publishing Inc., 1992-2003, 1-10.