woman with pet dogsBy Beth Levine
After a life spent at the track and in kennels, racing greyhounds just want to retire-preferably to a home with a couch for some serious napping. That's where Christine Johnson comes in. Photo credit: Rob Howard; Hair & Makeup by Sara Glick
In 1999, Christine Johnson asked her husband, Chris Procopis, if they could adopt a dog, but he was deathly afraid of them, having been bitten three times as a paperboy during his teens. Chris thought he had his wife stymied when he agreed, saying, "OK, sure-but only if the dog doesn't bark, shed, drool or smell."
But Christine did her research and discovered greyhounds. Not only is this breed tidy and quiet, but, as she quickly learned, kennels were teeming with the retired racing dogs-and they were in need of homes. "In the late 1990s, around 40,000 dogs were being put to sleep each year when they were injured or too old to race," she says. Working with a rescue group in Glastonbury, CT, she met a 90-pound dog named Parris who had been returned by a family because he was skittish and uncomfortable around children. "We didn't have kids and I just wanted him to be ours," says Christine, who took Parris home that day-after just a quick call to her husband.
At first, Chris was stunned. "I agreed to a dog, not a horse!" he says with a laugh. "It was like someone had left a pony in the living room of our tiny condo." He also feared that a dog so fast it can zip through an electric fence without feeling a shock would be high-strung and require constant exercise. Instead, he says, "I was pleasantly surprised to find out that they're more like giant cats who like to curl up on the couch and hang out."
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When Chris realized how different Parris was from other dogs, the pair began to bond. "I thought he'd be in my face, constantly looking for affection. In fact, he was very self-sufficient. Kind of noble and aloof. I found myself seeking him out instead of the other way around. If I came from work and he actually lifted his head to look at me, I felt special!" Chris says.
Months after Parris joined their family, the couple went to a greyhound adoption event, where one of the dogs walked right up to Christine and stuck her nose under Christine's arm. Now a convert, Chris took one look and said, "We're taking her." Christine started thinking about the thousands of greyhounds that needed homes. "I had to do something," she says. In 2000, she formed a nonprofit, Greyhound Rescue Rehab (GreyhoundRescueRehab.org), an all-volunteer organization that saves, fosters and finds homes for retired racing greyhounds. "My only regret is that I didn't learn about them earlier," says Christine.
Gaining access to dogs that needed help proved more complicated than Christine had anticipated. She approached racing tracks hoping they would give her their unwanted dogs, but no one would take her calls because they thought she would stir up trouble. But she kept at it, and after nine months was able to convince a now-closed track in Bridgeport, CT, to send her their rejects-including the injured ones. Many greyhounds break their ankles when they go into curves in a race, and are put down as a result. "A couple of years ago, nobody would take care of the ones with broken legs. Christine spearheaded the movement to save those dogs," says Belinda Cunningham, who breeds greyhounds in Red House, WV. "Now most of them are saved and rehabilitated."
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Word spread in the dog racing community that Christine would accept the hard cases, and now her cell phone rings constantly with calls from breeders and track contacts who want to send her dogs. Christine and Chris have since moved to Stamford, CT, and their backyard serves as an intake station where dogs arrive, filthy and full of fleas. The animals have never slept on a dog bed or climbed a flight of stairs, Christine says. If they see a leash, they cower, thinking they're about to be led to a starting line. Their life experience is very limited because they've often been locked in crates for up to 23 hours a day. But conditions are quite different under Christine's care: At the top of her driveway, there's a sign that says, "Spoiled Rotten Greyhounds Live Here." Greyhound Rescue Rehab takes in between 90 and 110 dogs per year, with approximately 1,100 dogs placed for adoption locally in the last 12 years. While 10 states have banned competitive dog racing, 20 or so U.S. tracks remain-each with at least 1,000 dogs in residence-so Christine still has work ahead of her.
Meanwhile, Chris has gone from dog-phobic to greyhound-crazy. As he looks around the living room, where their brood of seven-Tiger, 12, Kate, 13, Peggy, 11, Pepper, 10, Crystal, 10, Bowie, 3, and Joyjoy, 3 (Parris passed away in 2003)-are sprawled in various states of napping, he says, "Watch. Here is their excitement for the day." Chris goes into the kitchen, and the animals lumber up, follow him, and...flop onto the kitchen floor. "They take retirement very seriously," Christine jokes.
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Then Christine's cell phone rings: It's a transporter telling her a truck full of hounds is on its way and one has a broken leg that needs care. She springs into action, arranging for volunteers to help her meet and clean the dogs, giving the veterinary surgeon a heads-up, and putting out feelers for foster families. Chris smiles and explains, "Christine will be exhausted at the end of the day, but if she receives a call at 11 P.M. that a dog is in an emergency room, she jumps into the car."
Christine shrugs off any praise. "To unite a greyhound with the right family and watch them blossom is more than worth the pain, worry and lost sleep," she says. "Every single one of these hounds takes a little piece of my heart."
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