How many of you remember Petville USA that was located at 12112 Venice Blvd.? The store motto was “Where Animals Come First.”
“We were trying to get away from the negative image that people who were pro-animal had of pet shops,” says Don Irving, who along with his wife, Elaine, opened the business in 1978.
Petville USA was a role model for animal rights that has never been duplicated.
Can you imagine shopping in a store where the aisles — or “streets” in this case — are labeled Hampster Heights, Rabbit Road, Feline Freeway and Dog Drive?
The “streets” ended at a Civic Center, where animal information was circulated to benefit both owners and pets.
Adoptions had to be qualified. Adoptions for “surprise gifts” were not allowed.
“All members of the family had to be in attendance,” says Don. “We gave them a lot of supporting information about the pet.
“They signed the adoption book and then we would actually have a ceremony. Everyone in the facility would stop when we announced on the loud speaker that so and so was adopting this little pet hamster today and would you please join us in a great round of applause.
“Everyone would applaud. We would ring the big bell and music would play. So, it was a lot of fun.”
Staff members were trained and there were no part-timers.
“We found that there was certainly a need for educating those people who worked in a pet store,” says Don.
Elaine created the School for Animal Care Consultants, accredited by the California State Board of Education.
All students had to sign an oath and received a diploma and pin upon graduation.
“It was a means of training or teaching people who are involved in an animal-related business,” Don adds. “We found out quickly that unless you wanted to become a veterinarian or a veterinary technician there was no place to go. We wanted to fill that void.”
In addition to the shop and school, there was a veterinarian hospital next door that provided health guarantees for all the adopted animals.
“The animals were checked before they were released, at no cost,” says Don.
A nonprofit entity, which is still in existence today, was started to teach young people about care and respect for animals.
Animals were taken to public schools, including in the inner city, for a six-week course, and at the end students would be certified that they had passed.
“We taught basic things,” says Don, “like what do you do when you find a baby bird, what do you feed a baby kitten, things that nobody can tell you.”
Concurrent with everything else that was going on, Don and Elaine did a tremendous amount of rescue work.
“In 16 years we rescued and adopted out 16,000 animals,” says Don.
Then, guess what happened?
Don and Elaine got tired. They were also finding it harder and harder to compete with the chain stores.
In 1994, they sold the shop to Katie’s Pet Depot and the hospital (now VCA) to their son-in-law.
“It was a fun, fun time,” says Don. “It was a lot of work and a lot of effort, but very rewarding.”
Animals are still very much a part of the lives of Don and Elaine. Their nonprofit organization — Greyhound Rescue Adoptions — is now dedicated specifically to the education and rescue of greyhounds.
Elaine fell in love with greyhounds when she was a little girl.
“Every time I saw them in the movies my heart would just beat,” she says. “I loved the way they showed their muscles and the way they walked.”
Then each year after they were married, the Irvings would spend some time in Solvang.
“I used to go into those curio shops and saw these little greyhound figurines,” she says. “Each year we would buy one, never thinking that we’d be able to own a real one.”
After selling Petville USA, the Irvings kept six little animals that had not been adopted. One by one they died of old age and Don and Elaine were lonely.
That changed when they saw a man in Century City walking two greyhounds.
Elaine said to Don, “Honey, I’ve got to go look at them. They are real greyhounds.
“I ran over, touched them. I was flipped. I said, ‘Where do you run them?’ all the time thinking that you have to run them.
” ‘Oh, no,’ ” he said. ” ‘These are retired. They make you promise not to run them.’ That’s all I had to hear.”
“Katie” and “Clark” are a very important part of the Irving family. They are seven and a half years old now. Life expectancy for greyhounds is between 12 and 14 years.
“When they retire after not winning any more races — which can be as young as three years old — they can bring a lot of phenomenal happiness to a home,” says Don. “We would have 20 of them now if we could.”
Greyhound racing isn’t what it used to be.
“There are only about 15 states that allow greyhound racing,” says Don. “California is not one of them.”
There are two reasons. One is humane. A lot of dogs were killed when they were no longer able to earn money. The second is a shift of gambling to Indian reservations.
“The only thing that is saving greyhound racing now is the slot machines,” he adds. “Greyhound racing is the by-product.”
“Greyhounds literally run to live,” says Don.
“People don’t want to adopt them because they are professional athletes and think they will be jumpy,” says Elaine.
“They don’t realize that these are couch potatoes,” Don adds. “They’re ideal in small places.”
The purpose of Greyhound Rescue Adoptions is to educate the public on the benefits of owning greyhounds and the fact that they make unbelievably good pets.
They don’t bite. They’re not aggressive. They don’t bark very often, “other than to argue over a pillow,” says Don.
A little bit of exercise is fine and they can live in small places.
“They’re charming, docile, gentle, devoted,” says Elaine. “Kings owned them and pharaohs were buried with them.”
There are two important things to be aware of for greyhound pets. One is companionship.
“They’ve never been isolated,” says Don. “Ideally you would not take one and leave it for hours during the day because it would get stressed. But it’s not a problem if you get more than one.”
The other is “prey drive.”
“You have to be careful of small dogs and cats,” say Don. “Prior to adoption the agency will do cat testing.
“Some will walk away and not show any attention; others will show an overtly aggressive interest.”
Also, a greyhound can never be off-leash outdoors.
“They are sight hounds and can see a dime from one end of a football field to the other,” he says. “If they see a squirrel, they’ll go after it and won’t know how to get back.
“You can’t run fast enough. They run in excess of 45 miles per hour. They’re second only to the cheetah at 65 miles an hour.”
Katie and Clark are still working, but at a slower pace.
Now trained as therapy dogs, they visit patients at the Veterans Administration Hospital and Brotman Memorial Hospital.
“The idea is to get publicity, because dogs that go to hospitals for pet therapy have to be gentle,” says Elaine. “Our idea was to get away from the professional racer image into something where people can enjoy them.”
“It seems their purpose in life is to please you,” says Don. “They can figure you out.”
Don and Elaine Irving can be reached at Magikin@comcast.net or www.adopt-a-greyhound.org