THE GREYHOUNDS OF ZOOBIC

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Fairy, the white Australian greyhound, sprinted straight at me as I crouched with my camera, smack in the middle of her Zoobic race track.

 

Long ears pinned back, tongue lolling out of her reptilian mouth, she locked her shoe button eyes on mine, kicking up great clouds of dust and dried leaves as all four feet left the ground.

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Greyhounds are the world’s fastest dogs, hitting 72 kilometres per hour. Females weigh about 90 pounds of pure muscle and sinew – no fat at all, with barrel chests and limbs that lope into eternity. They are lighter than the males, who weigh as much as cheetahs – their feline counterparts, at 140 pounds.

 

In a flash, I thought: If Fairy and her racing mates hit me, it will hurt badly.

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At the very last minute, she swerved past by. But her running mate couldn’t break in time and jumped over my head.

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Next thing I knew, racers were panting all over me, mouth frothing, barrel chests heaving. A small bitch was so spent, she collapsed.

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And it was just a practice run. A show run, really.

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These dogs will never race professionally. Greyhound racing is outlawed here. Too cruel a sport.

 

But Robert L. Yupangco, President of  the Zoomanity Group operating a handful of animal theme parks in the country – Zoobic Safari and Paradizoo, among them, has already purchased his dogs when lawmakers decreed greyhound racing illegal in the Philippines.

 

The GREY2K USA Worldwide 2015 report revealed more than 80,000 greyhounds were registered to race between 2008 and 2014. A single race track requires 500 to 1,000 dogs to operate. Countless dogs die of sickness and injuries, such as heart attacks, heatstroke, electrocution, fractured skulls, broken necks and legs.

 

In Florida, home to over half of the America’s tracks, at least one racing greyhound dies every three days. Dogs not fast enough and retired racers are often culled outright or sold for medical experiments.

 

Some puppies are killed in the name of “selective breeding” before they ever touch a racetrack. Those qualified to race are caged and muzzled at all times. Many suffer from crate and muzzle sores, infestations of internal and external parasites. Although their thin coats and lack of body fat make them extremely sensitive to temperature, greyhounds are forced to race in extreme weather conditions, from subzero temperatures to over 100 degrees heat.

 

A greyhound’s career ends between the ages of four and six, when he can no longer race. The best dogs are kept for breeding and lucky retired racers are adopted or rescued and placed as pets.

 

Otherwise, they’re nothing but disposable running machines, mass-produced in kennels. If racers don’t die competing on the tracks, they perish in transport, packed like sardines, starve or sicken to death in their cages. Worst, even though the racing industry is in decline, thousands of greyhounds continue to be massacred each year.

 

Another report maintained over 20,000 retired greyhounds are slaughtered yearly. The American racing industry admits to more than 2,000 dogs culled per annum as opposed to anti-racing groups, who insist it’s 12,000. And that’s not including statistics from Australia, Ireland, Macau, Mexico, Spain, the UK and other countries racing greyhounds as part of the gambling industry.

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It’s good to know the Zoomanity Group only exhibit the dogs, allowing them to run for the benefit of tourists and interacting with guests during night safaris.

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As Kools, one of Zoobic’s greyhounds, leaned sweetly against me, willing to be petted all day, I was relieved to learn they have a “no culling” policy.

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Kools’ sleek body had been riddled with bedsores before, so his keepers gave him a soft bed plus mega doses of vitamins. He adores people, soliciting petting from strangers and helping his keepers catch stray pigs in the complex. Surprisingly, he doesn’t kill the beasts. He just holds them down using his snout until his humans can dispose of the porcine nuisance.

 

Greyhounds can be so gentle they are used as therapy dogs –  just don’t let a mouse scamper across their line of sight.

 

Yet, “They’re not a popular breed here in the Philippines,” their keeper sighed. “We don’t have much use for them because they are hunting dogs.”

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However, greyhounds go back over thousands of years as one of the world’s oldest dog breeds. Egyptian pharaohs valued the dogs for their speed, grace and agility. No wonder, greyhounds are engraved inside pyramids and deified in the form of Anubis, the  jackal-headed god of the dead.

Greyhounds also happen to be the only dogs mentioned in the Bible. Tenth century England so highly prized these canines that King Howel of Wales meted out the death penalty to anyone who kills them and King Canute forbade peasants and freemen from owning them.

Today, greyhounds make good pets for well-informed commoners. In fact, Zoobic sold a number of greyhounds as animal companions. A two-year old can fetch P20-30,000 each. But the facility has stopped breeding them.

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“They’re not aggressive with humans but they tear pigs apart and will run after any prey-sized creature crossing their paths. They attack as a group. They also fight and kill each other. That’s why they are muzzled in races. They’re fierce fighters. They have the pack instinct of their wolf forebears and will howl together at certain times but they need to be housed in individual cages.”

 

Add to that, greyhounds are very active dogs. They won’t get along with other household pets small enough for them to kill, such as chickens, cats and birds.

 

“The only reason they don’t hunt the goats in Zoobic is because goats are tough in their own way, with their horns and hooves. But even though greyhound jaws are small, they’re tailored for slashing and tearing. They hold down prey with their snouts and they’re difficult to restrain once on a kill.”

 

Savage hunters they maybe, the hounds are fragile. They easily break their bones when they race. Abroad, racers are culled the moment they are injured because they can never compete again. They are also prone to freak deaths when their intestines twist due to too much jumping.

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In the Zoobic kennels at Subic Bay Freeport Forest, Zambales, I found myself in the middle of half a hundred hunting dogs all clamoring to get out to be raced. Thunder, a black 6-year old, the favorite of the head zoo keeper, can’t seem to stop jumping, he kept hitting the roof of his cage.

 

On the opposite cage stood his brother, gentle Kools.  Joker and Lump (“Bukol”) –  so named because of the bone spur on his shoulder, another sibling, Brandy and little sister, Collapse, who overheated on the course  aged three months and simply lay flattened on the ground till they sprayed her with water and rubbed her down – kept up the ear-splitting chorus.

 

Their mom, Venus, a slate-gray senior citizen at 11 (Greyhounds can live up to 20 years), feebly lifted her head. She came from Australia, sired by a racer with a racing hound for her mom as well. When I came near, she shoved her wet nose against my hand, wanting to be petted.

 

The barking reached a crescendo as soon as the handlers picked up their leads.

 

The dogs’ usual day begins at 8 AM. The keepers check each hound, first thing. Then they clean the food and water bowls, hose down the cages and turn the dogs loose in their running pen by groups so they don’t kill each other.

 

For exercise, they are walked around the safari park, after which they get breakfast – dog food bulked up with boiled rice mixed with flaked chicken plus supplements, along with cod liver oil to make their fur glossy.

 

Their second feeding is at 4PM. Then keepers take them to their show runs and the animal parade for tourists. After dark, they escort guests for treks in the forest.

 

It’s a simple routine, really. Twice a week, their humans bathe them. They are regularly groomed, brushed and combed. Every month, their nails are clipped and the insides of their ears cleaned. Yearly, they are de-wormed and vaccinated.

 

While the keepers haven’t clocked the greyhounds in their runs, they staged shows like “Man Against Beast”, filmed in Zoobic around 2009, where the likes of sprinter Lydia de Vega raced against the greyhounds. Needless to say, no Olympian can outrun a racing canine.

 

The fastest dog in the kennel, Dinday, was one of the originals from Australia. Unfortunately, she died from a breech birth.

 

So far, they saved the best part of my encounter for last – the night trek.

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I never expected walking with these sleek hunters could be such a relaxing experience.

 

Although I grew up with a dozen dogs and a dozen cats, tigers were the only animals I ever “walked”.

 

That’s right, tigers – bitey cubs, six-month olds who whip two-hundred pound honcho handlers off their feet, stubborn yearlings and unpredictable half-ton adults in the sanctuaries I volunteered in.

 

At home, Pa and Ma walked our dogs. I only played with them.

 

Come to think of it now, I never knew what walking an animal should be like. My tigers walked me, not the other way round.

 

Naturally, my senses are always keyed up, even before I snap the chain on their collars. I have to see to it that my tiger doesn’t bite or attack anyone or anything ahead or on both sides of the trail while keeping my behind from being munched on by his mates. If my charge refuses to budge – and he often does, just for the hell of it – I have to beg and cajole. When all else fails, I haul him off his furry butt, or wrestle him – whichever gets him back to his cage faster. What’s supposed to be a leisurely stroll too often becomes a battle or a nightmare, like manhandling a runaway bulldozer.

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In Zoobic, my soft, glossy-furred, immaculate greyhound buddy trotted in perfect step with me the moment I took her leash. She moved almost daintily, so calm, so self-possessed, taking a whiff of the trail so no creepy crawlies take a bite off my flesh. Oh, these greyhounds have killed snakes on the trail before. But not once did she tug on her leash.

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I’m used to walking alone in strange jungles in moonless, starless nights. I was never afraid. But walking with a hound made me feel so at ease.

 

In the middle of the walk, the guides trained their flashlights on a well-placed, albino, Burmese python to one side of the trail. The constrictor dangled like a jewel from a high branch, out of the hounds’ reach. He would have been fattened with frozen mice since he was a neonate though most guests won’t even suspect.

 

Before we came to the trail’s end, their lights homed on the huge eyes of an eagle owl, perched just as strategically on a stump. Guests too enraptured with the sighting never even saw the jesses on his feet that ensure he stays there.

 

As we emerged from the forest, the keepers watered the hounds and we rewarded our canine escorts with bowlfuls of nibbles.

 

I’m a cat person but I was loathe to part with my greyhound.

 

Truth was, I first fell in love with hounds in Africa, three years ago. I huddled against one for warmth as we combed the savannah for lions, leopards and other members of the big five.

 

Perhaps one day, a grey hound can help me socialize my dream tiger buddy. Dogs make good companions and playmates for big cats – I’ve known enough canines who brought up lions, tigers, cheetahs and caracals.

 

Perhaps this canine hunter will get along with my favorite Mr. Stripes – the one cat he cannot chase to kill.

 

Of course, I might yet eat my words.

 

After all, my first hound chased everything in sight, from mice and wild boars to tank-sized rhinos.

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