Yvonne Zipter

Yvonne Zipter is the author of the Dog Writers of Association of America-nominated poetry chapbook Like Some Bookie God, the essay "Life after the Finish Line "in Barbara Karant's photo collection Greyhounds, and numerous other works. She lives in Chicago with her partner and their two retired racing greyhounds where she works as a massage therapist.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Bringing Up Blondie
A troubled Greyhound finds her perfect match.

We weren’t going to keep her. That was understood at the outset. By me and by my partner Kathy. By the Greyhound adoption group. By the Greyhound advocacy group that had deemed her a candidate for rehabilitation. Possibly even by Blondie herself. And after we brought her into our home, we wondered if we should have taken her at all.

“Giddy’s Blondie” was one of the last two dogs at Dairyland Greyhound Park, a racetrack in Kenosha, Wisc., when it closed for good at the end of December 2009. Before the track closed, and by the time this exuberant and friendly former racer was three years old, she had been placed in two homes, had been returned to the track’s adoption center twice and had become a dangerously fear-aggressive dog. Probably unadoptable. But the track vet, Dr. Jenifer Barker, thought Blondie could be saved. So did the Greyhound Alliance, a group that facilitates Greyhound adoption through financial support of special-needs dogs, among other things. As a result, Greyhounds Only, Inc., the rescue group from which Kathy and I adopted our three previous retired racers, took Blondie into their program.

The hand of fate seems to have been working feverishly here. For years, Barbara Karant, president of our Greyhound group, had been after us to foster dogs, but Kathy, concerned about upsetting the balance we had with our other dogs, had always been reluctant. So when Barbara asked if we would foster Blondie, I was surprised when Kathy said we’d meet her and maybe, just maybe, foster her. The minute we walked in the door to the facility where Blondie was being held, the sleek dog ran to Kathy and glued herself to my partner’s leg. Kathy joked that Barbara had coached Blondie—who had been keeping her distance from everyone—to do this. We decided to foster. But, just to be clear, we weren’t going to keep her.

A few days into it, we were pretty sure we’d made a huge mistake in agreeing to take her into our home, even temporarily. We’d seen no signs of aggression, but the experience was unsettling nonetheless. Blondie would walk over to one of us and stand very close, clearly wanting attention. The moment we started to pet her, however, she’d yelp as though we’d kicked her, then run to hide in her crate for hours. Thinking she was perhaps in pain, we made what became a series of vet appointments. After countless hours in the offices of an animal behaviorist and a couple of specialty vets in the farthest-flung suburbs of Chicago, it was determined that mostly what she needed was time. And to continue taking Prozac. Steeling ourselves against her yelps, we continued to touch her; she needed to (re)learn that every touch did not mean pain.

As we began gathering bits and pieces of her recent past, we learned that in her first home, there was a teenage son with bipolar affective disorder. While we will never know for sure exactly what happened in that home, it would appear that the son punched, kicked or hit Blondie in the face with a blunt object. After a couple of months, the boy’s mother finally decided that Blondie’s quality of life was not good and returned her to the track’s adoption center. By this time, all the blood vessels in one of her eyes had been broken. Also, though no one was aware of it at the time, her spine had probably been knocked out of alignment, leaving her in near-constant pain.

This last factor became relevant in the second home in which she was placed, where she actually would have been fine with the older single woman who adopted her if not for the actions of her supposedly well-meaning adult son. When mother and son got Blondie to the woman’s home, Blondie hid in her crate. The man tried to force her out, pulling her by the collar. When Blondie bit him, he decided she was dangerous and needed to be returned. He dragged her, still in the metal crate, down a flight of stairs, possibly causing further physical injury. And that was how she came to be left at the track, a hurt, mistrustful creature.

Initially, we were told that had the Greyhound Alliance not interceded on her behalf, she might have been euthanized; one of the adoption groups approached to take her into their program thought she should be put down. Later, when I spoke with Dr. Barker, she said she suspected that Blondie’s trainers liked her well enough that they might have kept her as a “kennel dog”—a dog who no longer raced but continued to live in a crate except for eating and exercise/elimination breaks. She’d have been alive, but not living in any meaningful sense of the word. Once our adoption group took her on, a vet in Chicago, Dr. Kathi Berman, put Blondie on Prozac, and a chiropractor at the practice discovered her spine issues and got those straightened out (no pun intended).

In the meantime, we exercised as much patience as we could muster. I gently pushed Blondie’s limits, trying to show her that I wouldn’t hurt her no matter how much I touched her. Kathy nervously attempted to respect those limits so as not to shatter Blondie’s or our nerves when she had one of her inevitable anxiety attacks. Our little PTSD dog, we called her. Actually, Kathy preferred that name to the one she had, but I reminded her that if we weren’t going to keep her, we shouldn’t change her name. Blondie remained Blondie.

Gradually, Blondie’s panic attacks decreased in length and number—at least around Kathy and me. With friends and family, she still kept a wary distance, especially with Kathy’s dad and brother-in-law. Dr. Barker laughed when she found out that Kathy and I were lesbians: Blondie’s trainers were a lesbian couple, too, she told me. That we are women probably accounted for, in part, Blondie’s burgeoning trust in us —just as her experience with the callous sons in her two previous homes had disposed her to be guarded around men.

There was, for instance, a delusional homeless man who wandered the streets of our neighborhood the year Blondie came into our lives. During this time, there were three dogs in our house: Blondie; Iris (our other Greyhound); and Annie, Kathy’s dad’s Greyhound, who was there temporarily while he was in the process of moving. Walking the dogs, I would often cross paths with the homeless man. Annie loved the guy and couldn’t get enough of his abundant odors. Iris was indifferent to him; if he petted her, she accepted his attention with a bored nonchalance. Blondie— possibly influenced by her earlier experiences— would buck and rear at the end of her leash if he tried to come near her. The fact that he was male can’t have helped either.

But even relatively sane men like our relatives made her uneasy. The behaviorist had said to let Blondie come to them when she was ready, and everyone was careful around her in the beginning, not touching her unless she expressly showed an interest. Even then, she’d often panic and run off. Everybody in our circle knew her history. They were respectful of her limitations, sympathetic to her misfortunes and able to bide their time, waiting for her to come around—literally and figuratively— despite the fact that such standoffishness was not at all characteristic of the love-junkie Greyhounds we’d known up to then.

Sometimes now, when my arms are wrapped around her neck and my face is snuggled against her long snout, I marvel that this is the same dog—this dog who now leans up against friends and family, allows my young nephew to pet her on the head, does tricks for us when we ask, and puts her head in my or Kathy’s lap for many minutes at a time. Yes, as you’ve probably long since guessed, we adopted her.

Over the months when we were trying to get her comfortable in her own fur, we had come to love her. Not only does she have the sweetest face, her willingness to trust again after what she’d been through would have made it hard not to love her. Mostly, though, it was the thought of her having to endure getting used to a whole new family— the cruelty of unsettling her again— that made us decide to keep her.

These days, some three years after she first entered our home, Blondie is, above all, exuberant. Ask her if she wants to go for a walk and she’ll bow, spin and wag her tail ecstatically. She likes to root around in her milk crate for just the right toy, toss it upward, pounce on it and, with her butt in the air and her tail circling like a helicopter rotor blade, manically bite the squeaker. When I let her in from the back yard where she’s been running full tilt, I always say, “Watch your knee caps.” When the door opens, she comes through it like it’s the starting gate at the track: she bolts up the stairs, through the kitchen and dining room, and slides to a stop as she crosses the living room like a canine Kramer from Seinfeld. But she’s not on the track, and she knows it, sidling over to where I’m sitting and positioning her great chest over my thighs so I can hold her.

Our friends in the adoption group joke that we “failed foster.” It’s the proudest I’ve even been about—and the most I’ve ever enjoyed—failing.

News: Guest Posts
Time to Adopt a 40 mph Couch Potato?
Celebrate National Adopt-A-Greyhound month by supporting Greyhound rescue or adopting a retired racer of your own

A total of 10 Greyhound racing tracks have closed in the United States since the end of 2008, displacing an estimated 500 to 1,000 Greyhounds with each closure. Add Greyhounds that have been retired from still-existing tracks across the country and you have thousands of wonderful, vibrant dogs being cared for by adoption groups as they wait to be adopted into permanent homes.

  In anticipation of National Adopt-a-Greyhound Month, Yvonne Zipter of Chicago-based Greyhounds Only Adoption and Rescue, talks with Michael McCann, president of The Greyhound Project, about the Greyhound adoption awareness campaign and the future for the breed.   Yvonne Zipter: More than two dozen racetracks have closed since 2000—how many tracks are still left in this country and, if they continue to close (a situation that many, though not all, Greyhound advocates see as a good thing), what do you suspect the long-term fate of these dogs will be for the people who love them? Michael McCann: There are twenty-three tracks, still. Thirteen of them are in Florida, and then also in West Virginia, Texas, Iowa, Alabama and Arkansas. The industry is really struggling, with so many other venues where people can spend their gambling dollars—Indian casinos, riverboats, and so on. It doesn’t look good for the industry.   Will the dogs die out, then? I had heard that American Kennel Club Greyhound bloodlines were growing thin and they were thinking of breeding them with racing dogs ... AKC dogs are already mixed with NGA [National Greyhound Association] dogs. They are all from the same stock, from Ireland and England. They were brought over in the 1800s to reduce the rabbit population on farms. There are still some Greyhounds that are completely unregistered that hunt coyotes and rabbits. But the pet population will be dramatically reduced with these track closings. Ironically, in the 1970s the Humane Society said that Greyhounds didn’t make good pets. Shortly after that, adoption groups started popping up all over. [HSUS President John Hoyt supported the humane destruction of retired racing Greyhounds as late as 1983 in an interview with Turnout Magazine.]   I have a long list of why Greyhounds make wonderful companion animals, but what would you tell someone who isn’t familiar with retired racers—why are they such great companions? They’re not for everyone. If you’re looking for a dog to play catch with or for your kids to roughhouse with, a Greyhound is not for you. But if you’re looking for a dog you can take walks with, and then come home and settle right down—we call them 40 mph couch potatoes—then a Greyhound might be right for you. They’re not going to run twenty miles with you—they’re sprinters. Greyhounds really can’t be trusted off leash: A loose greyhound is often a lost Greyhound. So we recommend that if they’re not in a fenced-in yard, they be on a leash.They’re quiet dogs, so if you want a watchdog, you don’t want a Greyhound. They may seem aloof at first, but once they know they can trust you, they will follow you everywhere.   As a poet and a Greyhound owner myself, I can’t help noting that National Adopt-a-Greyhound Month is also National Poetry Month—was that by design? Well, I guess it was a coincidence, but Greyhounds are poetic dogs, so why not April?   What sorts of events are lined up for National Adopt-a-Greyhound Month and how would an individual find out what their local Greyhound adoption group has planned? The best way to find out about events is to go to the Greyhound Project website at adopt-a-greyhound.org. You can go to a list of adoption groups there, and find one in your community. Different groups are doing different things, like some are doing meet-and-greets at local stores and some are having reunions for all of the hounds that have been adopted out. There are over 300 groups in the United States, and all of them are listed there.   And is the Greyhound Project doing anything special itself for National Adopt-a-Greyhound Month? Our focus is on educating the public, which we do through our magazine Celebrating Greyhounds and our calendar. We also have six television commercials running at different places around the country. Right now they are running in the Midwest, the East, and the West, but you can also find them on YouTube. Cal the Greyhound, who is looking for a long-term relationship, is a popular one. You can find him on the first page of our website. There is just such a great need for homes, with all of the track closings that have happened.   And for people who don’t have an adoption group in their communities, how can they help or participate? There are adoption groups in nearly every state, but you can also help with funding—all groups need funding to help care for the dogs until they find permanent homes. And volunteers. They all need volunteers—to help with kennel cleaning and walking dogs and to do meet-and-greets at pet stores.