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Passionate about greyhounds
Kanab woman rescues worn-out racers and finds them new homes

KANAB 3 Every life has a passion. The luckiest people are those who not only find their passion but also get to live it.

Claudia Presto is one of those. Her passion is greyhounds.As founder, director and driving force of the nonprofit Greyhound Gang, Presto spends her time rescuing dogs that are too old or too worn to race and finding new homes for them. She turns discards into treasures.

Sadly, she says, for most greyhounds the formula of life is this: You race, you win. Or you die.

Presto was a mover and shaker in corporate New York when she learned of that formula. In 1985, she and her Afghan Jezebel were vacationing in Vermont when they just happened to meet up with two ex-racing greyhounds. Captivated by both their looks and their demeanor, Presto was appalled to find out that at that time more than 50,000 greyhounds a year were being killed in this country, simply because they were not making money for the people who owned and trained them.

"How could I not do something?" she asks.

Presto adopted Eli from a track in Connecticut and began working with local rescue groups. Eventually, she realized it was not enough.

Both Jezebel and Eli died in 1992, and Presto adopted Slim, another ex-racer. "The first time I met Slim, he was in a cage, surrounded by 20 other greyhounds all in cages, and he was giving me the biggest smile he could muster." If she hadn't known how non-aggressive and sweet the breed was, she might have looked at all those teeth and worried about an attack. "And attack he did. As soon as we opened the cage that muscled body was right up on me with his gleaming teeth and long skinny nose in my face, saying, "Love me. I'm the one, take me home!' I did."

But by 1993, it was time to move on.

"I had a nice job in the New York corporate world. I had a house in Connecticut, a Volkswagen convertible, an antique brass bed, three closets full of designer clothes, 47 pairs of high heels and a life-size carousel horse. I chucked it all to buy a 16-foot camper trailer, a half-ton Chevy pickup truck and hit the road heading west with my faithful dog, Slim."

Presto had just turned 40.

"I was looking for a better way of life. For me, that meant someplace where I could have land, freedom and a chance to make a difference." She had always loved the Southwest and the American Indian culture and was thinking of Arizona or New Mexico when she drove into Kanab. This is it, she thought; this is where I want to stay. The Greyhound Gang was born.

On a bright, spring morning Presto is out running her dogs through the sagebrush of her fenced-in yard. It is a wild jumble of long legs, swaying hips, arching backs, sleek noses. Power. Speed. Elegance in motion. Soon, though, the dogs are all plopped down on the floor and cushions of her front room. Snoozing, oblivious to the world. Rolling into the "dead cockroach" position they favor.

"They are actually big couch potatoes," laughs Presto, '"45-mile-per-hour couch potatoes. They like running in bursts, but then they flop."

Two of the six dogs are hers: Winslow, who was abandoned in a Colorado pound (and who replaced Slim, when he went to Doggie Heaven), and Beauty, who was found sick and abandoned wandering the streets of Tucson.

"She had no name, no known history, and scars covered her filthy frame. She was running a fever of 105." Presto sat by her, putting cold compresses on her feet to try to get the temperature down. She'd put baby food on her hand, and the dog would feebly lick it off. She syringed water down its throat. She spent all night there, watching, worrying, waiting for lab reports to come back that might indicate a cause of the suffering.

And she talked to the dog.

"I told her about the life that was waiting for her once she got well. I told her about a lady with a poodle who wanted to adopt a greyhound. She'd probably want to name her Precious or Binky or Tiffany, Presto told the dog. "When I suggested Beauty, she looked deep into my eyes and put her paw on my arm." So Beauty it was.

Presto learned Beauty had two immune-affecting tick diseases, and after proper treatment was off the couch. But after that, how could Presto let her go? "She loves to ride. She rides shotgun with me on all my adoption trips. What a Beauty she really is."

But that's what Presto thinks about all the dogs that have come through her life: Cherry and Lacey and Fletch and Ride and too many to list. Anywhere between 20 and 40 a year. She remembers every one. "I cry. When they go, they leave with a piece of my heart." But she knows she can't keep them all. "I'd be less effective if I kept too many. I feel like I'm helping to bring love to other people's lives. These guys are so easy to love."

Presto tells people when they adopt one of her dogs, they adopt her, too. "I stay in contact to make sure they are doing all right, and I'll take one back for any reason."

This latest batch is no different. Blue raced for five years and then was dropped off at Colorado State University to be used for practice veterinary surgery; Regis was put in a kennel and never claimed; Tiger only has one eye, the other was injured and had to be removed; Boo Boo is very shy, which might indicate rough handling, Presto says. Sportin' Love is 10, an old warrior in need of rest.

Presto likes to have an adoptee lined up. Then she gets in touch with her contacts at the tracks. But before going to their new home, dogs will spend anywhere from two weeks to two months with Presto, getting acclimated, having medical needs taken care of, making sure they are ready to go. Up until that time, she says, they've spent their lives in crates, so it takes some learning to figure out the house-thing.

But they adapt quickly, she says. Housebreaking usually takes only a day. Stairs are harder; they have to work at that. And a lot of them have individual quirks. Every morning, for example, Tiger pulls the covers off his bed and takes them outside. "He likes to hoard things."

Greyhounds make very good pets, she says. "They are unbelievably loving." They don't bark. They don't shed. They don't smell or slobber. They do need a place to run as well as a place to curl up out of the cold (they don't have any insulating fat, so they need to stay warm). They are not as good with toddlers but relate to older children well and usually get along with other dogs and even cats. In fact, says Presto, some people think they are a lot like cats: quiet, introspective but very smart. Besides all that, she says, "they are forever thankful to you for saving their lives."

In a perfect world, Presto says, no one would need to rescue discarded, unwanted animals. People who brought animals into the world would be responsible for giving them a long and good life.

We are far from that, but things are getting better, she says. "There has been such an outcry." More than 200 groups around the country work with rescuing greyhounds. And the number of dogs being destroyed is decreasing. "Track people are becoming more aware of the problems, and some have been very good in working with us," Presto says.

Racing is also on the decline. Tracks in Nevada and other states have been closed. But major tracks still exist in southern Florida, in Arizona and Colorado and some other places. "At last count, I believe there were about 27 race tracks left."

There are groups that would like to shut down greyhound racing, and Presto agrees that if there weren't tracks, rampant breeding would stop. However, she also believes that nothing is black and white. "There are some good people at the tracks, caught up in the economics. If dogs don't win, they don't make money."

In the meantime, Presto tries to do what she can. "Like Martin Luther King said, 'The time is right to do what's right.' These dogs have souls that are beautiful, old and neglected. They deserve to be loved. "

It is not a cheap quest that she has set for herself. The Greyhound Gang has been costing about $13,000 a year to run. Donations have averaged about $6,000. The rest comes out of Presto's own pocket. "I write, enter contests, clean houses, swamp on river trips and sometimes even land a consulting job in the business world to make money to keep the Gang operating." In 1995 she won a computer in a contest looking for the most disorganized office. "I sent a picture with my dogs sprawled out on my desk."

Adopters make a donation to the Gang when they get a dog; the average donation is about $150, sometimes paid in installments. Presto estimates that every rescue costs her an average of $300, depending on medical care, length of time needed for rehabilitation and transportation.

She has had some savings left over from her corporate world. But the time is coming, she says, when she'll have to get a real job to cover expenses.

She does know she won't give up her quest or her passion. "Until the day I die I will own greyhounds and try to find good, loving homes for others. I cannot not do this. It is as much a part of my life as waking up every morning. It defines me and makes me who I am."

"Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things," wrote French philosopher Denis Diderot. Claudia Presto has found her passion.