I met Earnestine in 1999 in the back of a Volvo. Professional circumstances put us together, but we were all over each other for the whole ride back from Baltimore.
She was practically slobbering on me. I’d never been in a backseat with anything built like Earnestine. She had the body of a greyhound.
OK, OK. Earnestine was, in fact, a greyhound, a 1-year-old female Dark Brindle greyhound to be specific, and my ride with her came about because I was writing a story about greyhound adoption. After a very brief and luckless racing career at Tri-State Racetrack & Gaming Center in Cross Lanes, W.V., she had been taken off the track. Her stats: six starts, with one third place and no other finish in the money. Earnestine’s original owner told me she’d seen enough to know that the dog “lacked any real desire to win.”
D.C. resident Craig Brownstein had decided to save the young retiree from a life of, well, maybe no life at all. A friend of his had adopted a greyhound a year earlier, and Brownstein was smitten with the breed. He’d found Earnestine through a lifesaving organization called Greyhound Rescue, based near Baltimore at the time.
“I was always a corgi person,” Brownstein says. “But the first greyhound I met, I just became entranced by them. They’re just amazing animals. They’re sculptural, they’re temperament is incredible, and the whole ‘retired athlete’ thing was cool, too. I just totally dug it.”
I went along with Brownstein when he first picked Earnestine up, and he asked me to put down my notebook and sit with the scared dog and hold her steady during the drive from the agency to her new home in Shaw.
Brownstein renamed her Scout, and spent the next decade making sure she didn’t want for anything. Everybody who knows Brownstein knows all about the “40-mile-an-hour couch potato” he adopted back in 1999 and babied ever since.
But a couple weeks ago, over the holidays, I got a call from Brownstein, and he was as down as down gets. I had been there at the start of his journey with Scout, he said, and he wanted me to hear the bad news from him. Now 11, Scout’s health had been flagging for weeks. She no longer wanted to go on walks, and wouldn’t eat her favorite treats or even lick peanut butter off his finger. Swallowing and even breathing were strained, and she made sad, pained noises in her sleep.
After several visits to various vets, the docs tracked Scout’s misery to a 7-by-7 centimeter tumor in her neck. That’s a big lump. No viable treatment options were available, and no drugs could keep her comfortable.
She was going to be put down.
“Every dog is special. I know, I know!” Brownstein says with a sad giggle. “But Scout was above average. Social, calm, great disposition, just 72 pounds of lung and muscle. No fur, no fat. Just a cool dog.”
A lot has changed with greyhounds since Brownstein and Earnestine found each other.
In the 1990s, horror stories of neglect or worse abounded about racing dogs who ran at the back of the pack. If greyhounds were in the news, it probably was because groups of them were found dying in crates or dead in mass graves.
Among the worst tales: In 1996 WBZ-TV in Boston reported that an E-coli outbreak was traced to the water supply in the town of Seabrook, N.H. That contamination was traced to wells near the local dog track. A field near the track was found to be holding the remains of slaughtered greyhounds. (Seabrook Greyhound Park is still in operation.)
A national network of do-gooder agencies such as Greyhound Rescue, working together with the greyhound racing industry, has all but eliminated the horror stories. And although there are no greyhound tracks within hundreds of miles, the D.C. area has become something of a retirement community for racing dogs.
“We seem to be placing a lot of greyhounds in D.C. with people in apartments,” says Judy Chopp, a greyhound adoption activist in Northern Virginia. “People look at the size of them and think ‘Oooooh!’ But the truth is they’re great apartment pets. They generally don’t bark, they’re quiet, calm, good-tempered dogs. I’ve been bringing them to nursing homes, for therapeutic reasons, for years now. People also have the misconception that these are high-energy dogs, and need all sorts of room and maintenance. The truth is the opposite: These dogs outsleep my cat, if you can believe that.” (Chopp puts her money where her mouth is: She has three greyhounds currently, and makes monthly appearances to show off adoption-friendly dogs at Pet Smart stores in Manassas and Sterling.)
On what would be his last night with Scout, Brownstein brought some friends over to their home to reminisce. He recalled their first night together, after our ride from Baltimore. She was nervous in the new surroundings, so Brownstein decided he’d sleep with her in the living room downstairs. He eventually coaxed her into cozying up on a mattress he’d thrown on the floor.
“She finally laid down and let out a really big sigh—phhhhhhhhhhhhew!” he says. “Greyhounds are notorious for letting out big sighs, and this was textbook. It’s saying: I’m fine. I’m comfortable. All things are good in greyhound world when you get the big sigh. And before she settled into bed each night, we’d get the big sigh.”
The morning after the vigil, Brownstein took Scout on a brief walk, to give her one more chance to stop and smell all the places she’d been stopping and smelling since leaving the track life. She curled up on a doggie pillow when they got home, and while waiting together for the final house call, Scout’s distress grew more obvious. But Brownstein couldn’t get her to take any pain pills or peanut butter. Then just before taking her last breath, Scout put her loved ones at ease.
“The doctor showed up, got the needles ready, and Scout was awake and lucid, and, all of a sudden, phhhhhhhhhhhhhew…she let out the big sigh,” Brownstein says. “That was Scout’s final gift to us, the all-clear sign. Everything was OK in greyhound world.”
Despite the sad ending, Brownstein is more stuck on the breed than ever.
“What are the chances I’ll get another greyhound? A hundred percent,” he says. “Metaphysical certitude.”
Greyhounds can use more guys like him. Denise Davis of Greyhound Rescue says the economy is causing people to return adopted dogs or not adopt them at all. In its best year, her agency placed 450 greyhounds. In 2008, the service oversaw only 133 adoptions.
“It has nothing to do with behavior. The number one reason for greyhound returns used to be divorce,” says Davis, who has relocated her agency to Gerrardstown, W.V. but still serves the D.C. market. “Now I don’t see divorces, I see foreclosures, and people have to give up the dog when they have to move. People aren’t looking for another mouth to feed, not with things being so tough out there. I wish things were better, because I’ve got a new load coming in from Massachusetts next week.”
The sport of greyhound racing is hurting, too. Last month, the owners of Hinsdale Greyhound Park in New Hampshire announced they were shutting down immediately. And in November, Massachusetts voters passed a referendum to shut down the state’s dog tracks by next year.
Brownstein has been following the closings, and he says he’s going to give Greyhound Rescue a call soon.
I hope I’m asked along for that ride, too.