Spring 2019–Winter 2020

Leftovers / Gazehounds, Greyhounds, and Bloodhounds

Canine blood-banking and the question of animal welfare

Brad Bolman

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.

Eadweard Muybridge’s study of a greyhound’s gait, conducted as part of his famous study of various animals in motion, ca. 1878–1879.

Unlike scent hunters, the greyhound is a “sight” hound, liable to chase anything it sees. “See’st thou the gaze-hound!” wrote poet Thomas Tickell, “how with glance severe / From the close herd he marks the destin’d deer![1] This disposition was key to the emergence of greyhound racing, which assumed its modern guise in 1919 when Owen Patrick Smith introduced a mechanical lure called the “electrical rabbit” at a new track in Emeryville, California—the first such venue in the United States. Where European-style “field coursing” typically featured two hungry greys chasing a live jackrabbit, Smith’s vegan innovation was to substitute an enticing toy instead. In October 1920, an undercover investigation by the district attorney’s office found rampant illegal gambling at Emeryville, triggering a temporary ban on activities and, in the longer term, the retreat of greyhound racing in California.

Smith, undaunted, took “electric coursing” on the road. He formed the International Board of Racing Greyhounds and aided in the construction of tracks from Chicago, Illinois, to Erlanger, Kentucky, until he died in 1927. Smith’s “inanimate hare conveyor” sustained a sprawling industry that would go on, as a handful of states legalized gambling on races in the 1930s, to consistently draw more spectators than thoroughbred horse racing until midway through World War II—saving a few good rabbits along the way.

Like cheetahs, greyhounds use a flexible lower spine and rotary gallop to propel themselves into two flight phases: their hind and front legs tuck in, crossed beneath the body, and then extend completely in both directions. Observed in slow motion, they appear to hover above the ground. “The way greyhounds scoot has got to excite anyone,” proclaimed adman Wally Dwyer in “Goin’ to the Dogs,” his five-part 1965 promotional series in the Arizona Republic. The wild thrills offered by this “Sport of Queens,” Dwyer insisted, were well worth a weekend visit to the Phoenix Greyhound Park.

Yet Gwyneth Anne Thayer’s history of greyhound racing suggests that promoters like Dwyer were already fighting an uphill battle. Pari-mutuel betting, popular in both horse- and dog-racing, was falling away as riverboat and tribal casinos expanded their markets. A costly industry-sponsored effort to legalize betting on greyhound races in California failed in 1976. Even Kansas, the epicenter of greyhound breeding, gradually closed its tracks not long after.[2] From the 1980s onward, American greyhound racing witnessed a precipitous decline. Already rare due to decades of concerted resistance from animal rights activists, the sport will be phased out entirely in Florida by the end of 2020 after voters there overwhelmingly chose to ban it. At least half of the nation’s active tracks will then be eliminated.[3] Despite its meek protestations about lost jobs and government overreach, the industry could hardly have been surprised by this turn of events: Florida’s tracks have long been sustained on the life support of state sponsorship more than consumer interest. Following the Florida ban, greyhound parks will be active and legal in only Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Texas, and West Virginia. For each of those states, too, the end is likely within sight.

The mid-sixteenth-century painting Diana the Huntress, attributed to the School of Fontainebleau, depicts the goddess accompanied by a greyhound.

When the tracks vanish, there will be few residual markers of the greyhound’s American cultural prominence, save perhaps the transportation company whose name was inspired by the creaturely reflection of one of its long metal buses in a Wisconsin shop window. Though perhaps the most consistently depicted dog in early art—whether standing alert at the Adoration of Christ or beside Diana, goddess of the hunt—American portrayals of the svelte canine racers are comparatively rare. Gambling at the tracks (with their whispered mob connections) appears occasionally in television and film, a symbol of both aspirational wealth and moral turpitude in works like Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head (1959). In retrospect, Santa’s Little Helper, the abandoned racer adopted by Homer and Bart during episode one of The Simpsons in 1989, was a clear harbinger of the sport’s demise. With Family Guy’s Seabreeze, a prizewinning grey irresistible to the family’s talking dog Brian, minor tragedy became explicit farce. For those who remain dedicated to the breed, adoption and competitive dog shows—the latter sustained in popularity by a wealth of media attention and a booming pet supply industry—will offer solace. But greyhound racing leaves behind one crucial and largely obscure byproduct: the birth of canine blood banking.

• • •

California veterinarian Stan Carlin had a straightforward justification for the fledgling enterprise he opened in 1988, during the waning months of Ronald Reagan’s presidency: “I was doing surgery that needed blood, and there wasn’t blood available.”[4] Within three years, Carlin’s Animal Blood Bank (ABB), today operating as Animal Blood Resources International, was shipping blood to veterinarians in all fifty states and making $15,000 in monthly sales. The recently expanded “next-day” air service offered by shipping giant Federal Express ensured that blood crossing state lines avoided extensive deterioration.

Although canine blood appears throughout medical history, whether in grisly early transfusion experiments or in a “hemophiliac” line of dogs bred to study plasma treatments in humans, the ichor of dogs had rarely seemed particularly valuable in itself.[5] Carlin, however, tapped unexpectedly profitable veins: while mid-century pet owners had scoffed at spending hard-earned cash on surgery for the household pet (a 1965 study suggested the average domestic dog lived only 4.5 years due to car accidents and poor care), complicated canine surgeries were increasingly common by 1990 as pet owners with disposable incomes sought a few more years with their beloved pups. Dogs had earned, writes Donna Haraway, the “right (obligation) to health.”[6] That health required easy access to blood, and access, in turn, required storage.

Omnipresent today, the “blood bank” is a distinctive product of twentieth-century America. The first institution to use the term was opened by Bernard Fantus at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago in 1937.[7] Fantus meant the metaphor literally, equating blood with money and noting that one “cannot supply blood unless as much comes in as goes out.”[8] But long-distance transfers of cold blood only became feasible after World War II, according to historian Joanna Radin, as blood shipped to the Pacific front for transfusions into injured soldiers formalized a transnational “cold chain.”[9] Fear of nuclear attacks that might require “tank cars of blood,” in one rough estimate, only reaffirmed the urgency of efforts that metamorphosed over the ensuing decades, with increasingly sophisticated freezers and refrigerators, into a multifaceted industry of storing and managing chilled or “latent” life.[10]

Yet even as the popularity of “blood banks” encouraged many to imagine their bodily fluids as alienable commodities, nonhuman blood storage efforts were comparatively slow to gain traction—this despite an extensive history of rendering animal bodies into sources of manifold value in industrial agriculture and beyond.[11] Delayed though it was, when canine hematological cryopreservation finally appeared in 1988, it established—as had the Pacific cold chain for blood—a strategic beachhead in California. 

• • •

Though Carlin was the first to make a business out of commodifying Lassie’s latent life, others rapidly followed suit. A few years after the founding of the ABB, University of Pennsylvania veterinarians began driving a “bloodmobile” to local kennel clubs, drawing blood from area pets in exchange for free diagnostics and gratis bags of dog chow. Penn’s bloodmobile was unique amid a swell of stationary animal banks, one of which opened in 1992 in Birmingham, Alabama, to explicitly serve the South. While the ABB could ship blood across the country, resource-poor areas were better served by cheaper, local purveyors. Therefore, around the same time, the Virginia College of Veterinary Medicine and Washington State University established their own banks, leaning on academic connections that they hoped would ensure quality. 

The new canine blood banks also hoped to pacify animal rights activists who criticized the older veterinary practice of keeping “house” dogs around for routine blood drawing. Dedicated “donor” dogs could be carefully fed, exercised, and standardized—a lying reserve for blood—without living confused 
lives as pets and donors.[12] But the glowing report on Michael Newman’s Birmingham blood bank tacked on one further benefit of these new institutions: keeping old dogs alive for blood was more humane, it claimed, than the alternative of euthanasia, “especially for greyhounds, which are routinely destroyed once their racing careers are over.”[13] Newman’s first two dogs, Chester and Matthew, were retired racers, as were the first four in Washington and the first six in Virginia. Born greyhounds, they were reframed in media accounts as something else: “blood hounds.”

Like other dogs whose numeric quantity seemed to exceed their utility, most notably beagles, greyhounds have experienced a variety of peculiar uses over the last century.[14] In the 1970s, for instance, retired Florida racing dogs were placed in smoky crates modeled on their starting containers in order to study the effects of carcinogens in cigarette tar. Never seriously touted, however, as a standard or “model organism” due in part to their large size, greyhounds failed to catch on as popular experimental animals.

By contrast, blood banking seemed uniquely suited to a breed of “40-mile-per-hour couch potatoes” subject to premature euthanasia and in possession of a unique characteristic: higher red blood cell counts than other dogs.[15] Greyhounds display a marked tendency toward the universal donor canine blood type, Dog Erythrocyte Antigen (DEA) 4. As canine blood banking grew, the blood of greyhounds, still sporadically converted to profit on racetracks by pari-mutuel betting arrangements, joined more predictably “banked” materials like human sperm and breast milk as a novel form of biocapital, a commodity made from the messy stuff of life.

• • •

In 1991, when the veterinarian 
W. Jean Dodds opened the second major canine blood-banking company, the non-profit Hemopet, in Irvine, California, greyhounds were selected as the primary donor population. In 1992, Hemopet housed around thirty greys; by 1994, the population had grown to eighty-six. Most of the dogs came from the Arizona tracks once extolled by Dwyer, where they were far too abundant to all find homes through adoption. Like Newman and Carlin, Dodds always emphasized the altruism of collecting canine biomatter, describing her dream as constructing “a national blood bank for veterinary hospitals.” To placate animal rights activists, each greyhound would be offered up for adoption to nearby residents after one to two years as donors, a potentially life-saving reprieve from euthanasia. As Dodds saw it, there was an obligation to provide for the dogs who had provided: “They have to get a life … a future.”[16]

The Animal Bloodmobile operated by the veterinary school at the University of Pennsylvania. It remains the only mobile service for collecting canine blood in the country.

That future was not always so rosy. It took a lawsuit from Hemopet to save one adopted greyhound from being euthanized by an owner who could no longer keep the animal but refused to return it to the company as a “blood hound.” Other, less savory ventures showed little compunction about keeping dogs as donors in perpetuity for profit. In 2017, the National Greyhound Association formally prohibited transferring racers to such institutions, hoping to avoid activist censure—though it carved out an exception for “legitimate” banks, like Hemopet. Criticism, however, dogged canine blood banking from the start. A 1989 article in California’s Dixon Telegraph, for example, described animal lovers “shocked” by the Peninsula Humane Society’s practice of drawing blood from shelter dogs. The society’s president responded that they put down twelve dogs every month due to a lack of adoptions; taking a small quantity of blood beforehand was trivial by contrast.

Resistance crescendoed in 2019, as the ostensibly charitable project of donation-to-adoption was criticized as an insidious capitalization on traumatized “blood slaves”—a plight highlighted in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, where universal human donors are made into walking “blood bags” for sick War Boys.[17] With support from PETA and other allied groups, Santa Monica state assembly member Richard Bloom proposed an overhaul of California’s regulations on canine blood banking—the only such laws in the country—incentivizing a shift from “closed donor” banks to voluntary donations from individual pet owners. No longer, activists hoped, would emaciated, over-bled greyhounds languish in wasteful solitude. Instead, California’s streets would soon grow as attuned to the sounds of the arriving bloodmobile as to the ice cream trucks of yore.

For Dodds, being portrayed as a trafficker in nonhuman servitude must have come as a surprise. The self-proclaimed “grandmother” of canine blood banking had received national recognition from animal rights groups in the 1970s for developing strategies to keep the dogs participating in her hemophilia studies relatively happy. Writing for the Humane Society Auxiliary, Lance Casey called Dodds “a small ray of hope in a confining, faceless, storage system of care.”[18] In response to the proposed restrictions, her company claims that the elimination of dedicated donors would end transfusion medicine in veterinary care overnight, causing the death of beloved pets across the country. Exaggerated or not, the shortages she warns of would be unsurprising: even the heavily consolidated human blood banking industry faces routine supply deficits that are only partially replenished by blood and platelet drives.

To those who defend individual donations from pets as more humane, Hemopet’s website refuses rosy sentimentalities, bluntly responding that “any animal blood donor is captive.”

• • •

Many who still bet on races—increasingly simulcast beyond American shores in some of the same havens, such as Aruba and the Bahamas, favored by tax evaders—often defend the practice by arguing that depriving greyhounds of racing is its own form of cruelty: “How can you save dogs from themselves when they’re born to do this?” asked one frequent spectator in Florida.[19] While dogs chasing mechanical lures—which sometimes electrocute them—might seem to stretch the conceptual limits of “natural purpose,” gazehounds who leave racing over the next few years will continue to hunt for meaningful roles. 

Some may ply their trade as service dogs for those with PTSD (experimental programs with veterans are already underway), while others are likely to perform the quotidian displays of affection expected of domestic companions. The sizable adoption networks that have cropped up to find them homes claim that greyhounds make for wonderful apartment dogs, despite their unwieldy frames, because of their proclivity for extended naps. YouTube videos aplenty confirm it.

In either case, greyhound numbers are likely to decline. Whether this is a catastrophe or necessity depends on difficult distinctions between “flourishing” and numerical abundance: is it better to have more greyhounds around if many are suffering?[20] The Peninsula Humane Society’s dilemma remains with us, since there are not enough rescuers to house all of the greyhounds in existence. Until they locate forever homes, we can expect many to continue exchanging their blood for predictably served chow, joining the countless among us who deplete themselves of plasma to afford the next month’s rent. Freedom from this captivity will require something more profound than state regulation.

The greys fortunate enough to be adopted will hopefully find better treatment from new generations of dog lovers—one tradition that millennials are not abandoning is dog ownership.[21] No longer prematurely euthanized by profiteering owners, greyhounds may increasingly find themselves consumers, rather than producers, in the complicated international market for cold blood. Perhaps we might even imagine these dogs feeling an inexpressible solidarity with their fellow beings, comforted by sociologist Richard Titmuss’s reflections on blood donation: “To the giver, the gift is quickly replaced by the body. There is no permanent loss. To the recipient, the gift may be everything: life itself.”[22]

But what is phlebotomy to dogs? Vampiric tribulation, or one lived peculiarity among others? As Thomas Nagel argued decades ago in “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” such conjecture faces intractable problems. We can, with some imagination, place our minds inside the bodies of racing greys, galloping across hot Florida dirt in pursuit of strangely misshapen rabbits. We can even imagine yearning for a lost thrill as races are replaced by the tedium of lying about in fluorescent-lit rooms. But the continuing challenge, for Dodds and the dogs as much as those who oppose their participation in racing and blood banking, is knowing what “flourishing” for greyhounds looks like beyond previous forms of life, what “future” they now deserve. After all, what should it be like to be a greyhound?

  1. The Poetical Works of Churchill, Parnell, and Tickell, vol. 2 (Cambridge, MA: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1880), p. 66.

  2. Gwyneth Anne Thayer, Going to the Dogs: Greyhound Racing, Animal Activism, and American Popular Culture (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013), p. 166.

  3. Dave Caldwell, “The Slow Death of US Greyhound Racing,” The Guardian, 20 November 2018. Available at www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/nov/20/the-slow-death-of-us-greyhound-racing-florida-ban.

  4. Jeff Kunerth, “Vet’s Greyhounds Are ‘Blood Hounds,’” The News Herald, 3 January 1991.

  5. Stephen Pemberton, The Bleeding Disease: Hemophilia and the Unintended Consequences of Medical Progress (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 
p. 70.

  6. Donna J. Haraway, “Value-Added Dogs and Lively Capital,” in Lively Capital: Biotechnologies, Ethics, and Governance in Global Markets, ed. Kaushik Sunder Rajan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 
p. 98.

  7. The practice that we now recognize as “blood banking” began two years earlier, in 1935, at the Mayo Clinic under the leadership of John Lundy, but Lundy did not use the term until later.

  8. Quoted in Kara W. Swanson, Banking on the Body: The Market in Blood, Milk, and Sperm in Modern America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), p. 6.

  9. Joanna Radin, Life on Ice: A History of New Uses for Cold Blood (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), pp. 5–6.

  10. The term “latent life” has a longer scientific history explored in Sophia Roosth, “Life, Not Itself: Inanimacy and the Limits of Biology,” Grey Room, no. 57 (Fall 2014).

  11. For more on the commoditiziation of human bodily fluids, see Kara W. Swanson, Banking on the Body, p. 9.

  12. The distinction is hard to understand given our contemporary discourse on animal rights, but it was common for much of the twentieth century to argue that experimentation on dogs was more acceptable if they were used solely for that purpose, rather than converted from pets.

  13. Jeff Kunerth, “Vet’s Greyhounds Are ‘Blood Hounds.’”

  14. I cover the beagle story and their use as a standard or “model organism” in more detail in Brad Bolman, “How Experiments Age: Gerontology, Beagles, and Species Projection at Davis,” Social Studies of Science, vol. 48, no. 2 (2018).

  15. The exact origin of the “couch potato” phrase is difficult to pinpoint, but a cursory Google Search will show that it is almost universal in contemporary news articles and adoption offers concerning the breed.

  16. Both Dodds quotations from Catherine Keefe, “Dog Donors: Rescued Racing Greyhounds Give Blood While Awaiting Homes,” The Orange County Register, 4 January 1994.

  17. Teri Sforza, “‘Blood Slave’ Donor Dogs May Be Rescued by Regular Dogs Like Yours If This California Law Passes,” The Orange County Register (blog), 7 February 2019. Available at www.ocregister.com/your-dog-could-donate-blood-under-proposed-california-law-but-critics-say-more-pets-will-die.

  18. Lance Casey, “It’s The HUMANE Thing To Do,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, 27 February 1977.

  19. Gabriel Pogrund, “It’s a Good Bet Dog Racing May End,” The Washington Post, 14 August 2018.

  20. Etienne Benson, “Animal Writes: Historiography, Disciplinarity, and the Animal Trace,” in Making Animal Meaning, ed. Linda Kalof and Georgina M. Montgomery (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2012), p. 5.

  21. Hannah Ewens and Jamie Clifton, “Why Millennials Are So Obsessed with Dogs,” Vice, 31 July 2018. Available at www.vice.com/en_ca/article/wjkgam/why-millennials-are-so-obsessed-with-dogs.

  22. Richard Titmuss, “The Gift of Blood,” Society, vol. 35, no. 2 (January 1998).

Brad Bolman studies the history of science at Harvard University. He is currently working on a global history of the beagle as an experimental organism.

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