For decades, it was just Elaine Greenberg and her rescue dogs.
On her farm off a country road outside Davis, Greenberg took in dogs that had been burned and beaten, injured in dog fights, destined for death row. She fed, sheltered and trained them, paid for their veterinary care and found many of them new homes through her nonprofit group, Second Chance Rottweiler Rescue.
But something happened to Greenberg in the final months of her life that left her unable to care for her animals and herself, friends and acquaintances said. Earlier this month, authorities converged on her home and found a horrifying scene, with dead and malnourished animals living in squalor. They seized 11 surviving dogs, placed Greenberg on a “mental health hold” for a few hours and began investigating her for neglect.
Two weeks later, sheriff’s deputies found Greenberg’s dead body in her home. She was 74 years old.
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The chain of events shocked longtime friends who knew Greenberg as an intensely private, somewhat cantankerous former biochemist who during the past two decades dedicated her life to saving dogs that otherwise likely would have been killed at animal shelters.
“She took dogs that no one else would take, and she gave them meticulous care, and she saved hundreds of them,” said Bridget Curry, a friend and neighbor who knew Greenberg for more than 20 years. In recent months, Curry said, her friend appeared more frail than usual, and confused at times. She was losing weight rapidly, and talked of her aching knees and hands pained by rheumatoid arthritis. She refused medical care, said Curry.
“I think everything was becoming too much for her, and then she lost her dogs,” Curry said. “Whether she took her own life or had a heart attack or a stroke or something like that, I don’t know. But I believe she lost her will to live when she lost her dogs. They were the reason she got up every day.”
The cause of Greenberg’s death has yet to be determined, pending toxicology and other tests, said Yolo County chief deputy coroner Gina Moya. Moya said autopsy results have been complicated by the fact that Greenberg had been dead for at least “a few days” before deputies responded to a call from a friend and found her body.
Foul play is not suspected, said Yolo County sheriff’s spokesman Capt. Larry Cecchettini.
Mark Buckman, an attorney representing the nonprofit group that Greenberg founded, said Tuesday that “all rescue operations have ceased.” He said the legal process to dissolve the organization could take several months. Second Chance Rottweiler Rescue has donated $5,000 to Rotts of Friends, which is caring for the dogs found at Greenberg’s home, Buckman said.
On its website, the organization praised Greenberg for saving “countless Rotties throughout California” and “enriching the lives of their owners,” and said she will be sorely missed.
Greenberg’s friends knew her mostly for her devotion to animals, and said her early life was a bit of a mystery. She rarely talked about personal matters, they said, though she told them she once was married and had no children or close relatives.
She attended the University of California, Davis, from 1958 to 1962, records show, and graduated with a degree in microbiology. Several scientific journal articles list her as a researcher associated with UC Davis, but university spokeswoman Pat Bailey said the school has no record of her having been “officially employed” there. On one of her websites, Greenberg said she retired from UCD in 1984.
Friends said she had been informally rescuing animals for the better part of five decades. On her 5 acres of land off of a remote county road, she housed formerly abused horses and donkeys, and once raised Angora goats, sheep and rabbits. She and her business, Easy Spin Acres, were fixtures at local farmers markets, where Greenberg sold handmade hats, gloves and other products created from fur snipped and combed from her animals. Greenberg had a separate business restoring Navajo rugs.
But her true passion was saving dogs, according to friends. Greenberg formed Second Chance in 2002 to rescue abused Rottweilers, a breed favored by dog fighters and gangbangers. She struggled at times to pay the organization’s bills while housing as many as 25 dogs at a time. But somehow, she always found a way to care for the animals, said Dudley Owens, who has volunteered for the nonprofit group over the years and sent donations to help keep it afloat.
“The organization didn’t have a lot of money, like a lot of nonprofits,” he said. “Elaine spent every waking moment caring for the dogs, cleaning kennels, feeding them, taking them to the vet. It was basically her entire life.”
Owens said he found Greenberg to be hardworking and professional, and during the six or so years he knew her never saw signs of abuse or neglect in her dogs.
“Elaine was a pillar of the neighborhood,” said Charlene Logan Burnett, who lived about a mile down the road from her. Frequently, Burnett said, she would see volunteers for the nonprofit group walking Greenberg’s dogs “up and down Road 96” for exercise. “She was not a warm and fuzzy person, but she was highly respected and did fantastic work,” said Burnett.
When news of her death surfaced, people from across California messaged the nonprofit to share stories about Greenberg.
They talked of her rescuing dogs that had been used as “bait” in dogfighting rings, and taking in animals that had been set afire, or dumped onto freeways, or abandoned at foreclosed homes. Greenberg once adopted a donkey that was starving in a field outside Vacaville, said Curry, and spent $2,000 of her personal money to pay its veterinary bills. She kept it until it died recently of old age.
She worked hard to find new homes for her rescue dogs, and took pains to place animals with families capable of handling large and exuberant dogs. If the adoptions were unsuccessful because of health or behavior problems, she took the dogs back into her home, friends said.
Dawn Clarkson of San Jose contacted Greenberg when she was looking for a Rottweiler some 15 years ago, and remained friends with her. The two would sit outside Greenberg’s home for hours, talking about the joys and stresses of rescue work. Clarkson took her to lunch and brought her See’s “nuts and chews” chocolates, her favorite candies.
Despite her sometimes abrasive nature and intolerance for bureaucracy, “Elaine was beautiful inside,” said Clarkson. “I saw so much love and dedication in her. She lived on a very limited income, and really did nothing for herself. Elaine would never, ever, deliberately harm a dog or let a dog go without food or care. I’d stake my life on that.”
Her friend Curry agreed. But she said she began to notice disturbing changes in Greenberg this summer that likely interfered with her ability to care for her animals.
“She said she was fine, but she just didn’t look right,” Curry said. A robust woman who wore mostly jeans and flannel shirts, Greenberg was shedding weight quickly, and appeared disheveled and unbathed. When the two women went to lunch recently, Greenberg was unable to make change or figure out how to work a soda machine, Curry said. She had been pulled over for erratic driving twice in the past month or so, she said.
“I told her that she needed help, and that I would drive her to the hospital or to the doctor,” Curry said. Greenberg refused.
During the first week of August, the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department received a tip from one of Greenberg’s volunteers, who reported that her dogs were being neglected. Cecchettini said the 11 live dogs that they found appeared severely malnourished, with protruding ribs, and three others were dead.
Greenberg told the news media that the incident was overblown. She said she had been taken against her will for a psychiatric evaluation, and was awaiting the return of her dogs.
Curry picked her up a few hours after she was taken to Mercy Hospital for evaluation, she said. “The hospital asked me if I would come and get her, and I was willing to do that. But I begged them to keep her. Something was terribly wrong.”
Following news reports about the seizure of the dogs, Greenberg and Second Chance board members received “numerous” death threats by phone and email, said Buckman, the attorney. The board removed Greenberg as its president of the organization after the incident at her home.
The world seemed to be closing in on Greenberg.
“Her dogs were gone, and then the newspaper stuff started, and she started getting calls in the middle of the night from total strangers,” said Curry. “She was beside herself. She was getting desperate.”
Greenberg stopped taking telephone calls. Several times, Curry stopped in front of her locked gate, honking her horn and calling Greenberg’s name. She got no response.
On Saturday, she drove past Greenberg’s home and saw police vehicles and an ambulance parked in front of it. “I knew something horrible had happened to Elaine,” Curry said.
She and others said Greenberg had made it clear she did not want a memorial service or funeral after she died. Her sentiment was not surprising, they said.
“Elaine was an independent, strong woman who did a lot of good,” said Burnett. “But I think she probably was more comfortable with animals than with people.”