California-based animal welfare activist Robyn Black wasn’t ready to say goodbye to her beloved corgi, Sir Winston, when he suddenly came down with an autoimmune disease six years ago. She told her veterinarian to do whatever was needed to save the 5-year-old dog’s life.
Black dropped off Winston at her Sacramento vet's office on a Friday afternoon. By Sunday evening, the animal clinic was running low on its supply of canine donor blood.
She frantically called other veterinarians in the area and finally found a clinic with blood in stock. But there was a catch.
State law prevented the clinic, located within the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, from selling donor blood to another clinic. She later learned that there are only two commercial animal blood donor banks approved to operate in the entire state.
Without access to the life-saving blood, Winston died the next day.
“It was devastating,” she said, choking back tears. “He was my baby. If I had only known, I could have tried to do something before I got into that situation.”
Two new bills before the state Legislature could have saved Winston’s life. SB 1115, introduced this week by state Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, would expand the state's animal blood supply by allowing community-based donations similar to human blood banks. AB1953, introduced in January by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, would allow licensed veterinarians to collect and sell canine donor blood.
Both bills would phase out closed colonies that house hundreds of dogs, mostly greyhounds, for the sole purpose of draining their blood. Bloom's bill, however, would also allow canine donor blood to flow into California from other states.
Greyhounds are often used for blood donation because they have a universal canine blood type. Supporters of the new bills feel that the animals living in the closed colonies are being mistreated, while opponents argue that closed colonies allow suppliers to maintain strict quality control over the blood supply.
Currently, California is the only state to ban voluntary animal blood banks. Keeping colonies closed allows the state to tightly regulate the donor blood supply and protect against the spread of disease, according to the California Veterinary Medical Board.
“We can do so much better for the animals in our state and we will aim to craft a bill that balances animal welfare and the need for safe, essential animal blood through voluntary, community-based collection methods,” Bloom said of his bill.
Both bills reconcile previous proposals by Bloom and Wilk that failed in the state Legislature. Bloom's AB366 was pulled in January after stalling last year. It, too, would have phased out closed colonies and allowed for the introduction of voluntary blood banks.
Bloom supporters say that version died because Wilk introduced SB202, which gained traction after winning an endorsement from animal rights group PETA. But Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, vetoed Wilk's bill in October saying it did not go far enough to protect animals from abuse because it did not set a timeline for closing the colonies.
This time around, Wilk is working with animal rights groups to develop a set of metrics that must first be met before shuttering closed colonies. Wilk declined to comment on what those metrics would be, but said he is open to collaborating with Bloom on overhauling the state's draconian animal donor blood laws.
"Maybe we can Kumbaya it," Wilk said.
NBC repeatedly reached out to both commercial animal blood banks in California, Hemopet based in Garden Grove and Dixon-based Animal Blood Resources International. Neither returned calls or emails seeking comment.
Shannon Keith, who runs the animal welfare advocacy group Beagle Freedom Project, said she spent several months reviewing conditions at Hemopet. She volunteered to walk dogs and was horrified by the conditions she witnessed there.
“The filth was out of control,” she said. “There were rat droppings and cockroaches crawling out from under the grates.”
Keith adopted one dog that looked especially abused.
“His skin was raw. He was skinny and looked like he was dying,” she said.
PETA uncovered similar conditions in an expose published in 2018.
“They greyhounds - like all dogs, were eager to run and play and longed for companionship - were taken out of their cages only to be bled, walked briefly, or put into barren concrete-floor pens for a few minutes,” PETA said of its findings.
In a lengthy response to the investigation, Hemopet founder Jean Dodds called the expose “misleading rhetoric” filled with “falsehoods.”
Dodds houses about 200 greyhounds at the Garden Grove facility, which has operated since 1991, she said in the response. They are “unsuitable for the racing industry” and possess the universal canine blood type DEA4. The dogs exercise five times a day, live in large kennels and donate blood two or three times a month. All of the dogs are adoptable, according to Dodds.
Part of the ongoing debate centers around the suitability of animal donor blood. Canines must be screened for infectious disease, which could be carried by even seemingly healthy dogs.
In a letter to Bloom’s office, the state Veterinary Medical Board executive committee cautioned against opening up the blood supply, saying closed colonies operate under strict standards and are regularly inspected by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Opening the blood supply, which is used for life-saving procedures throughout the nation, could “risk the health and safety of all canine patients,” the board said.
“Rather than risk the health and safety of animals in California and nationwide, perhaps a better solution would be to improve current colony requirements and enhance enforcement mechanisms,” the board added.
Dr. Sean Owens, outgoing medical director of UC Davis’ veterinary medicine school, believes that with modern science, it's possible to safely obtain blood from community donor banks.
"We do not incarcerate humans solely for the purposes of providing blood for other humans," he said. "The analogy also fits with dogs."
Six years after her dog’s death, lobbyist Robyn Black still grieves Winston’s loss. Last week she laid flowers at his grave to honor his memory. She said three long years passed before she could bring new pups, Thatcher and Charles Dickens, into her home. Now, the dog mom worries about what might happen if they get sick and need blood donations.
If the state were to allow community blood banks, she would not hesitate to volunteer Thatcher and Charles Dickens. But hearing rumors that the state's existing canine donor facilities might abuse their dogs gives her serious pause, she said.
“What these dogs endure, being harvested for their blood, just breaks my heart,” she said.