A Greyhound's Best Friends

updated 09/23/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/23/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

DR. DALE SCHNEPF TOOK HIS FIRST step toward saving greyhounds after he killed one for a $25 fee in the fall of 1986. A new dog track had just opened in Waterloo, Iowa, and some trainers began taking their dogs to Schnepf, a local veterinarian. The trainers weren't seeking medical care for the young, healthy animals. "They asked me to destroy them," says Schnepf. "They said they weren't good runners anymore."

In fact, the trainers who took their dogs to Schnepf were being humane, at least by the standards of their sport. Many racing greyhounds are shot when they outlive their usefulness, most by age 5. The really unlucky ones are simply left to starve.

In August 1989, 83 greyhounds were found starving in their kennels in Suwanee County, Fla. The dogs, whose owner had simply quit feeding them, were described as "living skeletons." In February of this year, a track in Key West, Fla., was ordered closed when 38 caged dogs were found starving. And in July, 30 greyhounds described by state officials as "buckets of bones" had to be destroyed in Tucson.

Back in '86, Schnepf, a vet for 30 years, at first agreed to euthanize the Waterloo dogs by injecting them with sodium pentobarbital. "They just closed their eyes," he remembers. In a matter of weeks, he killed about 15 greyhounds but was increasingly disgusted by what he was doing. Then his wife, Jacquie, told him, "I'm sick of coming in here seeing black plastic bags full of dead dogs. We don't need money this bad."

Schnepf agreed. "I said, 'This is it,' " he remembers. "I didn't go to school to kill healthy dogs." The Schnepfs continued to accept unwanted dogs but told the trainers that instead of killing them, they would find homes for them. Since the spring of 1987 they have placed 530 greyhounds with new owners in 25 states. Before being put up for adoption, the dogs are neutered and treated for medical problems. "I couldn't in all good conscience let unhealthy dogs leave here," he says. "I decided if I was gonna do this and invest my time and money, I'd do it right." Schnepf charges $150 for each greyhound—absorbing a loss of about $55 a dog.

Adoptions are expedited by about a dozen volunteers in four states, who interview prospective owners. Some even pick up the dogs at the Schnepfs' and deliver them to their new homes. Ladonna Rea, 49, and her husband, Tom, 56, a retired engineer from Plainfield, Ind., adopted Lady from the Schnepfs in 1988. Last October they decided to become volunteers themselves. "These dogs were born to die young," says Ladonna. "They have no other purpose, and I don't think that's acceptable. The male dogs don't even lift their legs to pee because there's no room in the cages they live in."

The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 50,000 retired greyhounds are killed each year. Bob Baker, the society's chief investigator, says, "Greyhounds are bred for mass destruction; 70 percent are killed before they even reach the racetrack. If collies or golden retrievers were being slaughtered, people would be up in arms."

The American Greyhound Track Operators Association, which represents 60 tracks in 18 states, disputes the humane society's numbers—but not by much. "It's only about 35,000 dogs," says George D. Johnson Jr., the group's executive director. "The animals must be disposed of. It's an economic thing."

In the last five years, as new tracks have opened in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Texas and Iowa, dog racing has become the sixth largest spectator sport in the country, drawing 29.4 million fans who gambled $3.4 billion in 1990. "We're the only segment of the parimutuel industry that continues to grow, because we keep admissions and parking to where the average family can afford it," says Johnson.

Gloria Sanders, a greyhound breeder and trainer from Storm Lake, Iowa, is vice president of Greyhound Pets of America, an adoption program started by the industry in response to increasing criticism of the way it disposes of its has-been racers. Sanders says her group places 6,000 dogs a year in adoptive homes (a figure disputed by humane societies across the country). "People like the Schnepfs are antiracing," she says. "We aren't. We love the dogs too. In fact, I've got some dummies sitting here now that won't run and need adopting."

"I have nothing against racing," says Schnepf, 66, "except for what happens to these dogs when they are done racing. We're talking about young, healthy, beautiful dogs that are being killed. When you look at them, you see all they want is a little attention and some love."

BILL SHAW in Waterloo

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