Westchester’s Jim and Sharon Higgins rescue racing greyhounds from long-shot odds when time runs out at the Tijuana dog track

By Jennifer Boucher

1dogDuncan was destined to race, which trimmed his odds for finding a loving home.

Like all racing greyhounds, Duncan was tattooed on both ears shortly after birth — in one ear a registration number, on the other his birthday. He began racing under the name “Extra Kick” at 18 months, winning his maiden race in Florida before being sent to Arizona and finally the Caliente Greyhound Racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico.

But only six months into his racing career, Duncan was all washed up.

That’s when Westchester resident Jim Higgins arrived and Duncan’s new life began.

Once a month, Higgins trucks 15 to 20 unwanted racing dogs from Tijuana to Los Angeles as a volunteer for the rescue group Fast Friends, which finds foster and permanent homes for the greyhounds up and down the West Coast.

A retired airline reservations manager, Higgins has been at it for an entire decade, helping save hundreds of dogs. His wife, retired El Camino College nutrition teacher Sharon Higgins, raises funds for Fast Friends and helps care for the dogs once they reach Los Angeles and gets them transferred to foster homes pending adoption.

On the first Sunday of each month the couple also runs “Greyhound Show and Tell” events, which help publicize potential adoptions, at PetCo in Westchester.

“It’s kind of like you’re getting a puppy when they come off the track. They’ve never really been loved,” said Jim Higgins, 69. “They don’t know much about stairs or mirrors or doors. They just know the track life.”

When they aren’t chasing a stuffed animal down a circular track at speeds of up to 45 miles per hour, racing greyhounds spend the vast majority of their days sleeping in dog kennels — which helps them transition to life as a house pet.

“There are a lot of misconceptions. People think [greyhounds] need a big yard, a lot of exercise, and really they don’t. We call them 45-mile-per-hour couch potatoes,” Jim Higgins said.

Fast Friends, a nonprofit that retains a neutral position on the issue of dog racing, was started in 1995 by owners of racing dogs who were disturbed that many faced abandonment or euthanasia after their days at the track were through, Fast Friends President Joyce McRorie said.

Over its 19-year existence, Fast Friends has rescued 3,402 greyhounds, with another 25 in foster care pending adoption.

Thanks to Fast Friends and some 300 other groups like it, most racing greyhounds now eventually find homes, said Gary Guccione, secretary of the Kansas-based National Greyhound Assoc.

There are 22 dog tracks in the United States, with about 25,000 racing dogs and 20,000-plus involved in breeding efforts, with 200,000 former racing dogs living as family pets, he said.

“It’s rare to see the dogs euthanized — 90% to 95% go into adoption or to the breeding farm. About 20,000 per year go to adoption, but less are bred now than before,” Guccione said. “It’s frowned upon to euthanize a potential pet.”

Practices at the Tijuana racetrack are no different, McRorie said.

“A huge majority of the dogs we get from Caliente are in very good shape,” she said, although there are exceptions.

Some greyhounds come off the track with cuts, bruises and scars from racing, and a few are retired after breaking bones — in such cases track officials call Fast Friends to make an emergency rescue.

“Pretty much any greyhound you see has been in the racing game, and the ones you see are the losers. If they were still winning, they’d be at the track,” Jim Higgins said.

When former racing dogs reach the United States from Tijuana — the border crossings made possible by the industry’s extensive medical record-keeping — they are processed by Fast Friends volunteers at an event dubbed Retirement Day.

The welcoming includes head-to-toe veterinarian checkups, teeth exams, shots, flea baths, nail clipping and a big meal. The dogs are also exposed to cats and small dogs to test whether they are compatible with a home that would include other pets.

It was during a Retirement Day eight years ago that Sharon Higgins met Duncan.

She had been assigned to watch over Duncan throughout the day and fell in love with the shy, “emotional” dog. Duncan was also “cut up and had a tick disease,” she said.

But because the couple already had two other greyhounds and a mixed-breed rescue at home, Duncan went to an adoptive family in Orange County.

But a short time later Duncan ran away. He was found two weeks later and taken to a foster home pending a new adoption.

Larry and Karen Veysada, who retired to Oceanside after living in Manhattan Beach, have adopted two greyhounds through Fast Friends, including four-year-old Sophie earlier this year.

Fast Friends goes through a thorough home inspection and vetting process, including a background check, before a dog is adopted out, Karen Veysada said.

Dogs are paired with owners based on how well the dogs are expected to do in the new environment.

Duncan, as it turned out, got along very well with humans and other dogs — as is the case with most former racing greyhounds, Sharon Higgins said.

So when adoption day came, she and her husband were able to find room for one more dog. Eight years later, Duncan is part of the family.

“He is definitely just devoted to us and loves our attention,” Sharon Higgins said. “When I work out in the yard, he’ll come and put his head on my shoulder and then he’ll lick me on the cheek.”

In a few weeks, Jim Higgins will once again wake up at 3 a.m. to start another drive to Tijuana to rescue more dogs.

“I get more out of it than I think [the dogs] do,” he said. “It’s a hard day, but I love it.”

The next Fast Friends Greyhound Show and Tell is from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at PetCo, 8801 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Westchester. Call (310) 645-8143 or visit fastfriends.org.

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