Northeast Philly facility gets retired racing greyhounds back on track

NGAP NGAP founder David Wolf has helped save 7,600 greyhounds.
NGAP NGAP founder David Wolf has helped save 7,600 greyhounds.
Posted: February 06, 2013

DOLPHIN LOST the tip of her tail somehow during her greyhound-racing career, but she was wagging what's left of it as she walked into the Cat Room, where five felines live in carpet-covered homes and devote their days to compatibility-testing rescued racers at the National Greyhound Adoption Program in Northeast Philadelphia.

Racing greyhounds spend their track careers with murder in mind chasing after a mechanical animal, so tensions can run high in the Cat Room, as they did when Dolphin's muzzled predecessor, Spirit, immediately lunged at the first cat she saw.

But Dolphin had passed her two previous cat tests while muzzled and on a short leash, so NGAP adoption coordinator Bobbie Gunning let her roam free this time under hypervigilant human and feline eyes.

Dolphin walked right up to Ernie, an orange tomcat who has designated himself the room's official greeter, and touched noses with him. They lingered affectionately, face-to-face.

So it goes at NGAP, the nation's largest greyhound rescue outfit, where dozens of the young, graceful dogs, saved from death by injection after their brief racing careers are over, await loving homes.

A few minutes after passing the cat test, Dolphin was just as gently affectionate with staffer Megan Orr's 4-year-old daughter, Reina.

"People always ask me how we test greyhounds to find out if they can be adopted by people with young children," said Gunning, a 17-year NGAP staffer, smiling pleasantly. "I tell them, 'We get some little kids and throw them into a crate with the dog. If the dog doesn't eat them, it passes the child test.' "

But seriously, Orr , a seven-year NGAP staffer, said a greyhound goes through extensive pretesting while muzzled and leashed before it gets to schmooze with a kid or a cat. "Sometimes, cat owners come here and fall in love with greyhounds who have failed the cat test," Orr said. "So they tell us, 'I'll put child-safety fences up everywhere and keep the dog away from the cat.'

"We tell them, 'If you bring this dog home, he's going to eat your cat. You'll be sad. Everybody in your family will hate the dog.' If an adoption is not a good match, then it's not going to happen."

Saving lives since 1989

Despite its strict adoption standards, NGAP finds compatible homes for hundreds of retired racing greyhounds every year, fulfilling the mission of its founder and president, David Wolf, a Philadelphia industrial-real-estate agent whose rescues began humbly in a few trailers on a property he owned near Holmesburg Prison.

Today, NGAP, which has saved the lives of 7,600 greyhounds since 1989, is housed in a clean, modern, 100,000-square-foot complex with its own surgical clinic and two full-time veterinarians on Dutton Road near Darnell.

NGAP's core staff of greyhound-loving women, who pamper the pooches with Mayfair Diner-style "More coffee, hon?" warmth, are clearly hooked on their canine Anne Hathaways - all of them elegantly slim with the huge soulful eyes of "Les Miserables' " tragic heroine.

"We came here and got sucked in," said Donna Sly, a 17-year NGAP staffer from Hatboro, who has had as many as nine adopted greyhounds at home. "Once you get sucked in, it's like the Hotel California. You never leave."

Barbara Davidoff, a 13-year NGAP veteran from Frankford, said: "That look on their faces, it just rips your heart out. We play with them, massage their feet, open their mouths to check their teeth, hug them."

If they don't like to be hugged, they're not right for a home with young children, said Orr, whose little girl is a vigorous greyhound hugger.

"Then again, some of them like to be hugged so much that they're always leaning against you, looking for affection," Orr said. "We call them 'Velcro dogs.' "

The leaners, Orr said, need to be placed with a family in which someone is home often because when the object of their affections is away, they suffer separation anxiety.

"If you're gone too long," Orr said, "your greyhound's thinking, 'Maybe they're never coming back. That makes me sad. Let me eat this couch so at least I won't be hungry and sad.' "

One is never enough

A proven antidote to separation anxiety is a multi-greyhound household, said Donna Behringer of Lower Southhampton, a working woman who has three "75-pound cuddlers" at home.

"Greyhounds are sort of like potato chips," Behringer said, laughing. "You can't have just one."

After adopting her first NGAP greyhound in 1998, Behringer said she "just kept going down to the kennels to look at the dogs. It was my downfall."

During their racing careers, she said, greyhounds spend most of their days in cages on straw or shredded-paper bedding, "so if you let them on your furniture, they acclimate very quickly."

Retired racing greyhounds, she said, have no interest in racing. "They're couch potatoes," Behringer said. "They're like big cats. I have a fantastic sofa in my living room that's always covered with fleece blankets and with greyhounds either curled up or laying on their backs. My husband wants to know why we spent all that money on the sofa."

The secret to matching thousands of rescued racing greyhounds with loving owners like Behringer is NGAP's precise personality testing of each dog, the results of which are reported on its website, ngap.org, along with Orr's hard-earned photos.

In NGAP's photo studio, each greyhound roams free while Orr clicks away. "The really shy ones behave like posable action figures," she said, smiling, "but the spirited ones are running around going, 'Hey, what's this? Let's pee on it! What a great light! Let's knock it down!' I do my best."

The website tells prospective adopters that Screen "will become your second skin if you let him," Reggae "will display jealousy when affection is shown to another animal" so she needs to be "queen of the house," Leader "seems to prefer women to men," Danno "tries to kill the squeak toys" and Ash "may not be the prettiest dog, but his personality supersedes that."

Twenty-three years after he started rescuing greyhounds, David Wolf's passion remains undimmed. It started when he learned that thousands of racing greyhounds were killed and dumped into mass graves simply because they were no longer fast enough to win.

"I got this little burning in my gut that became a roaring flame," he said. "I put my heart and soul into NGAP. I'll keep on rescuing greyhounds for as long as I live."


On Twitter: @DanGeringer

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