Ex-pro cyclist Odessa Gunn shifts focus to animal rescue and cannabis business
She is an ex-pro cyclist who was once married to an ex-pro cyclist.
These days, Odessa Gunn of Santa Rosa is best known for her work rescuing and advocating for animals. With the wind-stoked Kincade fire spreading south on Oct. 27, Gunn was up at ?4:15 a.m., helping evacuate 50-plus therapy animals from the Forget Me Not Farm, just east of Sebastopol.
Gunn grew up on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, “a salty rock in the north Atlantic,” as she describes it, with a poster of cyclist Greg Lemond in her bedroom.
Despite not getting the chance to compete in cycling until her early 20s, she excelled at the sport, and raced professionally for a team called Timex before retiring in 2000. In addition to supporting her then-husband, the bike racer Levi Leipheimer, she hurled her energy into animal welfare.
The couple lived for part of the year in Girona, Spain, where Gunn taught women how to trap, spay and neuter stray cats. She’d been rescuing animals since her days in Cape Breton, where her parents taught her “to be compassionate, to never turn a blind eye” to cruelty.
That compassion extends to crustaceans, as a group of her friends discovered around 2003, during their time in Spain. One evening, the couple met some friends at a restaurant for dinner.
But Gunn didn’t stick around long enough to eat. After seeing some lobsters in what she recalls as a “filthy and disgusting tank,” she bought all of them. After apologizing to her friends, she got back in her car, drove to the coast and liberated the lobsters.
Gunn had actually forgotten that evening, she said, until reminded of it by another ex-pro cyclist, Floyd Landis, who was one of the people at the ?restaurant that night. Her commitment to animals made a deep impression on him. And it was part of the reason Landis asked Gunn two years ago to be one of his business partners.
Landis, who won the 2006 Tour de France but was stripped of the title for a positive doping test, retired from cycling in 2010. Six years later, he founded Floyd’s of Leadville, whose premium CBD products originally targeted athletes wanting to relax and recover.
CBD, or cannabidiol, is a naturally occurring compound that comes from the cannabis plant. Available in gels, tinctures, creams and drinks, it’s used to impart a feeling of relaxation and calm - and is not to be confused with THC, the psychoactive portion of the plant.
His Leadville, Colorado-?based business thriving, Landis decided two years ago to start a line of CBD for pets. He reached out to Gunn to gauge her interest. The result is a venture called Odessa’s Essential Health, which offers CBD products for pets.
“We’re about a year and a half old,” said Gunn, whose products are available at retail stores across the country, including four in Sonoma County. They can be found online at EssentialOdessa.com, and also on the Floyd’s of Leadville website.
“The only thing I want to do with whatever time I have left on the planet,” said Gunn, “is to reduce suffering, specifically animal suffering.”
The serendipity of her venture with Landis, she said, is that she can pursue that mission “and be able to pay my bills.”
Does CBD work in animals? While there’s a paucity of research on that subject - cannabis, after all, was under prohibition in this country for 70 years - early indications are positive.
“I use it on my own pets,” said Jeffrey Powers, a veterinarian in northern Michigan who is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Council on Biologic and Therapeutic Agents. “We’re definitely seeing increased use. A lot of people are trying it with or without veterinary supervision.”
His Saint Bernard, Ella, suffers from “sound anxiety” during storms and fireworks. He’s given her anxiety medications, but those tend to leave the dog heavily sedated.
“I tried CBD products,” Powers said, “and found them very helpful.”
Dr. Stephanie McGrath, a Colorado State University neurologist, recently led a small study with 16 pet dogs who suffered from epilepsy. She found that 89% of the dogs who received CBD in a clinical trial had fewer seizures. (McGrath owns 5% of the company that paid for the study).
Gunn has used CBD to successfully treat the seizures of Tater Tot, her rescue dog from Fresno.
While out on a ride in Spain one day in 2007, she saw a black garbage bag in a ditch. Inside the bag were puppies, one of which already had suffocated. Gunn struggled to find homes for them, until someone put her in touch with Bridget Bardot, a kindred spirit, who found homes for the dogs.
One major focus of her advocacy now is calling attention to the dog and cat meat trades in Asia, where some 50 million dogs, and 4 million cats, are killed every year, she said.
Many are tortured - skinned alive, paws amputated - before being killed, added Gunn, who has made four trips to China. While the 30 or so dogs she’s rescued from that country are a pittance, her goal is to raise awareness of the issue.
“I don’t know why the rest of the world isn’t up in arms over this,” she said.
Gunn and Leipheimer divorced in 2016. The following year, the Santa Rosa home they’d put up for sale was destroyed in the Tubbs fire.
She now lives on 7 acres off Pressley Road, southeast of Santa Rosa. “It’s basically heaven,” said Gunn, who shares the premises with a dozen dogs, two cats, five goats, six chickens and a pig.
While Gunn was not required to leave during the Kincade fire, she did evacuate the goats, just to be on the safe side. Meanwhile, she opened her house to friends who did have to evacuate.
They arrived with an elderly cat and four dogs - for a total of 16 dogs, if you’re scoring at home - most of which were highly interested in the wild turkeys ranging the grounds.
“It was like a circus,” Gunn said. “It was super fun” - in part, she is certain, because so many of the home’s occupants, animal and human, were using CBD.