“I’ve heard a lot of people in the greyhound racing industry say that they really love their dogs. That’s not love for me.”
At the end of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, a novel about the pain of nonhuman animals, the main character decides to put down the dying dog with whom he has formed a short, strong bond.
His decision is based on a simple pragmatism. He saw the dog’s suffering; understood that there is nothing to be done. Keeping the dog alive would be selfish. And so he lets the dog lick its face, slowly lifts its aching body and leads it to the practice, where it is laid down. “You give it up?” The vet asks him.
“Yes,” says the main character. “I’m giving up on him.”
This week, I made a similarly pragmatic decision on behalf of my greyhound Ida. The cancer had eaten away most of her bones; already spread to her lungs. The vague heuristic the vet had given me to make the difficult decision – when there were more bad days than good – had proven difficult.
She was still wagging her tail, if only occasionally. She was still limping to the door to greet friends. I watched the side of her face and guessed the great secret of the dog spirit. Is that still good for you, I asked myself? Was it ever good for you
In the two and a half years that she had been mine, one of Ida’s guiding principles – along with petting, a warm place to sleep, bananas, and the kind of quiet that greyhounds curl up in the middle – was pizza. That’s how I made the decision. I ordered a margherita I had no appetite for, offered her a crust, and when she didn’t lift her head I picked up the phone and made arrangements.
I wish I could tell you that what I felt was an overarching sense of calm, much like Coetzee’s hero. But I didn’t feel anything like that. Even when I made the decision, I was consumed with an overarching, almost blinding sense of anger. Not the vague anger that romantic poets write about – an anger directed at the futility of the universe and the fragility of mortal form. But a very specific rage – an anger directed at the evils of the industry that had raced my beautiful dog around a racetrack for two years, sprained his shoulder in an injury that would never really heal, and then for her held another eight in a cage.
I know what these cages look like. I know because my love for Ida has always been expressed in part with a desire to understand the atrocities inflicted on her in her previous life. These cages are designed with their own kind of pragmatism. But no pragmatism to reduce suffering. A pragmatism that only increases it, that is only driven by an attempt to increase profits and consolidate space. A greyhound can turn a tight circle in such cages, which are often double stacked. That’s it.
Even when I made the decision, I was consumed with an overarching, almost blinding sense of anger.
I’ve heard a lot of people in the greyhound racing industry – even Ida’s old trainer who I shared a few quick text messages with shortly after I was adopted – that they really love their dogs. Love is different for us all; For the most part, I don’t think we can decide what other people feel or what names to give those feelings. But I will not allow a love to make someone cage a dog for nearly a decade, only interact with him at feeding time, and then never sneak in for his own sake with the eye for instrumental health maintenance The definition of love as the rest of us use it.
People in the industry don’t love their dogs in a way that makes sense to me. They love their dogs even less than people who say they love their cars because such people almost always maintain their cars with care. You can’t love something that you run around a trail in broken circles. You cannot love something that you damage so consistently and carelessly.
Ida was damaged in many ways. I gave her the best two and a half years I could, but she still lived with the scars left on her by people who have the bile to say they understand such beautiful creatures. She had never lived in a house before. She was afraid of flushing the toilet. When she came to me she had a thick, rough coat that she quickly took off, that she no longer needed, now she was warm and wasn’t sleeping on the bars of a cage.
Her eyes were bad. Her breath was terrible. Her teeth had been neglected. Her body was weak and bony. I was able to quickly undo some of this suffering. All she needed was good nutrition, regular exercise and grooming – the things that all dogs need and that many dogs get because it’s so easy to take care of something they love.
But I couldn’t undo everything. She had never been socialized at a young age. She was bad with all dogs, but especially with greyhounds – she let out low, painful growls when she saw the vague shape of an animal like her.
It is easy to guess what is causing such a reaction. How many times must she have fought with those she was imprisoned next to; how scared she was. Captive greyhounds are crammed together, limited in space, and the ability to socialize. They protect resources and often bite each other.
Ida could not be touched while lying down. She was afraid of needles, muzzles, and especially flies. She would tremble when they hummed through the front door. Another non-puzzle. You can’t escape those big, mean horse flies that descend on the rural areas where dogs like Ida are kept when you’re locked in a cage that you can only rotate a tight circle the length of your body in.
And Ida was probably one of the happier dogs tortured by the industry. Others are killed along the way, their bones broken and torn out of place. Some are put down perfectly healthy. “If you euthanize these dogs, they are not old dogs, they are perfectly healthy, and most of them still stand there wagging their tails and licking your face while you actually euthanize them,” a veterinarian told ABC in the year 2013.
Since greyhound blood is universal, it is very valuable. In recent years, it has been found that coaches across Australia and America, two countries where dog racing prevails, had dogs bled before they were euthanized, two liters of blood were taken and then discarded. This practice is known as “emptying”.
How can I know that word and accept the platitudes from those in the industry who say they love their dogs? How can I know that word and then watch my beautiful Ida – the nicest and most wonderful dog I have ever known – die gently in my arms, feeling anything but overwhelming, terrible anger? The industry didn’t just rob my dog of a decade of its life. It robbed me of the ability to quietly grieve her.
I’ve heard every possible excuse as to why greyhound races must continue. All of them are offensive. It is a classic to dismantle industry, a defense that is classic in itself, a means of summarizing the desires of an entire socio-economic group in one big box. Some defenders will face even more suffering. Dogs will die when we finish the race, they say: You can’t trust the trainers to deal with the excess of animals that are now of no use to them.
Such defenders need not be aware of irony. They do not realize in what way their reasons for continuing the cruelty are any evidence of the cruelty. They are not arguing against discontinuing greyhound racing. They argue against the industry taking its own closure into its own hands. Fine. There are other people who can do more humanely what the industry itself cannot.
The calm-eyed veterinarian who put Ida down gave her two shots. The first thing was to calm her down. Because of Ida’s fear of needles, I fed her a banana while she went inside.
“I’ve never seen a dog who loves bananas so much,” said the vet, surprised.
Before Ida got the second shot, the vet left me alone for a moment to say goodbye. What should you say I looked into Ida’s eyes and asked her if I had done it right. Then I apologized. What I apologized was a waste because in the ten years wasted my beautiful girl could have eaten pizza crusts and run through parks with me or someone like me and lived freely and happily. I felt haunted by the better life she could have had from these smiling, carefree people in an industry who know they need to smile and be carefree because their cruelty is now open. because it is now common knowledge what happens to these dogs.
And then the vet came back into the room and gave Ida the second shot and that was it.
On the way out, the vet hovered on the front door.
“I will always remember the greyhound who loved bananas,” she said, then turned away.
I know that at some point I will remember Ida that way. There were so many good days we spent together. She brought me so much joy. I have many beautiful photos of the two of us next to each other; In one of them I’m sitting next to her on the couch, we both talk as we have often done. She was loved not only by my friends, but also by the people she met on the street. She’s the greyhound who loved bananas and who I’ve loved all my life and who gave me enough time, that’s how I will think of her.
But until then, I’ll be angry. Ida’s desires were simple and her last two and a half years have been happy so I am not asking you to do anything for her. I ask you to do it with me. If you want to protest against this industry, don’t do it passively. Write letters to your local member. Sign petitions. Volunteers with charities. Be loud And please, please, don’t listen to those who tell you they love these dogs and then kill them in droves one way or another.
My house is very empty now. You can’t stop yourself imagining your dog at the door waiting to greet you in the days following his departure. Yesterday I practiced going in and out of the room, walking sad circles around my pad so I could get used to the obscene silence of my house, free from the pitter-patter of her soft greyhound paws. There’s a pile of her old toys, her bedding, sitting on my back door, waiting for the council to pick it up. It rained yesterday. I got out the trash cans this morning and walked past the damp clump of things my dog had left behind.
Joseph Earp works for Junkee. For a happier article on Ida’s life, check out this piece written for her birthday.