Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I wasn't going to post this article I wrote that was published last week in a local newsletter (the theme was people and their pets), but I just received an email from my friend, Susan, at Princeton who is going through a difficult health spell with her lab, Chelsea. I know that a pet becomes a valued family member and I am sorry, Susan, that you are going through this. Thinking of you.

Grace, Love, Speed (A spoof on the title of the popular book that is circulating around the book clubs: Eat, Pray, Love)

He appeared to be an elderly dog at the tender age of three. His racing name was “Spuds”. I was told that I could find his identification number tattooed on the underside of his floppy right ear. His eyes were unfocused and panicked, his ribs stuck out and his long tail represented a snake skeleton covered with paper-thin skin. Only his back was covered in thin fur flecked with scars, and the muscles on his bald, upper hind legs swelled enormously under its bright red skin, reminding me of ham loins. His mouth with its pale, heavy tongue hung open and his brown, tartered fangs were visible. He was the ugliest dog I had ever laid my eyes on, and he had just been shipped in the belly of a plane from a racetrack in Florida to be delivered to his first-ever home in New Jersey. I had waited two weeks for him and it was love at first sight.

He was renamed “Shiro” which translates to “white” in Japanese, a name I had chosen when I received the call from the adoption program that this “sweetheart of the kennel” was available in Florida and was I interested? Though I was told he was pure white, in reality he turned out to be white with freckles and a brindled face and back (hence the name Spuds - the little Budweiser beer dog that was the fad-of-the-day). He was on the taller side for a greyhound, and had a successful racing career of more than two years. The plight of retired (or non-qualifying) greyhounds had just begun to make the news and the day the adoption program was featured on TV was the day I called for an application.

The National Greyhound Adoption Program was founded in 1989 by a man named Dave, who gave up his construction company to focus full-time on greyhound rescue efforts. I recall Shiro being one of the first 100 dogs adopted through this program, and now, almost twenty years later, thousands of dogs have been placed in loving homes by their efforts (http://www.ngap.org/). On the Humane Society’s web site, it is stated that “in the 10th century, King Howel of Wales declared that the penalty for killing a greyhound was the same as that of killing a person—death. In the days of the Egyptians, greyhounds were valued by the pharaohs for their grace, beauty and mild temperament. But in the 21st century greyhounds in the racing world are prized for only one thing—speed. In 2003 alone, an estimated 7,500 to 20,000 greyhounds were euthanized simply because they couldn't run fast enough.” Shiro was unique in that he had a racing career of two years, a very long and successful one in the world of greyhound racing. Most of the dogs never see their first race as they are euthanized when failing to display superior speed in the trail runs.

Life with Shiro was remarkable, to say the least. This zombie of a dog that came off the plane that day went through his puppyhood at the age of three. With a healthy diet, he began to fill out and thicker fur covered even the track scars. He had to learn to play with his toys, how to go up and down the stairs, to not be alarmed at the sound of the doorbell and telephone, even how to go for a walk. Shiro perfected sleeping on the sofa with all four legs straight in the air (in this case, the name Spuds would have been appropriate in that he became a real couch potato). As he had never bonded with a human before, he suffered from a tragic case of separation anxiety whenever left alone at home, and I had to resort to sedatives and even introduce canine prozac for a period. (One day I left him outside and he jumped through the upper sash of a window to get into the house - through the screen. Another time, left indoors, he was so frantic he knocked framed paintings off the wall.) I will never forget those afternoons when the garden gate was left open and I had to sprint off after Shiro down the sidewalk in whatever I was or was not wearing - the neighbors gleefully shouting “there she goes again!” and even the township police telling me where he would eventually be sighted (greyhounds can run up to 72 kph). I have to admit that we even bought a new home on a large tract of land to give him more running space (he always ran in wide circles throughout his life - never able to break the habit of the track). We were rewarded with pointy-nosed kisses and that ever wagging snake of a tail.

I had the pleasure of Shiro’s grace and companionship for almost ten years. The day he was scheduled to be euthanized, I returned home early from work to lie on the bed with him in my arms, a block of sunshine through the window settling over us like a warm blanket. Shiro had bone cancer, and a prior hind-leg amputation - unfortunate for an animal that is prized for his speed - had failed to stop the progress. I have had a number of adopted dogs throughout my life, but watching Shiro’s metamorphosis from a gambling commodity to a sweet, gentle, soulful companion has touched me to the core. I won’t ever stop missing him.

1 comment:

suziq said...

Thank you Chris—what a truly beautiful story.
This lump in my throat reminds me that Chelsea will not tolerate any tears.
As I went through her large green folder of every vet visit last night, I couldn’t help myself.
She quickly became agitated, looked me straight in the eye, and left my side.
No- no time for tears.
How lucky we are to have these sweet creatures in our lives.
And thanks for that time taking care of her—flat tire and all !!
Here’s to some day many more pointy-nosed kisses in your life –