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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Heroes for Greyhounds

I recently visited with my friends Christine Dorchak and Carey Theil, the leaders of the greyhound protection organization GREY2K USA, and we took stock of the state of dog racing in the country. Although greyhound racing emerged in the 1920s in America and peaked in popularity in the 1980s, it historically had not been a top priority for the animal protection movement, with the exception of a number of rescue groups working to adopt greyhounds discarded from the tracks. Carey and Christine put the issue on the public policy agenda, and have all but singlehandedly shaped the debate on dog racing over the past decade.

Greyhound
Denise McFadden/GREY2K USA
Greyhound racing is on the decline, and more than half the
tracks have closed over the past decade.

When they formed GREY2K USA in 2001, there were 47 active dog tracks in 15 states. Today, more than half of the operations have folded, and the number has shrunk to 22 tracks in seven states (with a 23rd track in an eighth state still in limbo). It’s a dying industry due to economic market forces and increased competition from other forms of gambling, but also because Americans have become more aware about the cruel and inhumane treatment of man’s best friend in commercial racing

While at the racetrack, dogs are confined in small cages barely large enough for them to stand up or turn around for long hours each day. On average, more than one thousand dogs live in warehouse style kennels at each racetrack. And during the races themselves, thousands of dogs are seriously injured each year, suffering broken legs, cardiac arrest, spinal cord paralysis, and broken necks. Some states require reports to be produced on dog racing injuries so the extent of the problem can be monitored, but other states don’t keep any records at all and the dogs suffer in anonymity. In Massachusetts, which began keeping injury records in 2002, more than 800 dogs were seriously injured during races in just six years at two tracks, and more than 80% of the injuries were broken legs.

Add to that the extreme weather conditions, the dangerous methods of transportation, training dogs with live “bait” animals such as rabbits, the use of performance enhancing drugs, and the killing of dogs when they are no longer profitable, it’s an industry that has neglected animal welfare at every step from cradle to grave.

Award-winning racing writer Bill Finley recently wrote on ESPN.com that the greyhound racing industry doomed itself by not doing “nearly enough to protect its competitors while racing and guarantee them safe, dignified retirements after their careers are over.” He casts the demise of the greyhound tracks as a cautionary tale for the horse racing industry, which needs to do more to address the welfare of horses if it wants to maintain public acceptance. The high-profile deaths of Barbaro and Eight Belles sparked intense debate in the horse racing industry—about breeding horses for speed rather than durability, racing horses when they’re too young before their bones have fully matured, using steroids and injurious track surfaces, and the absence of any national regulatory authority—and reasonable voices in the industry are pushing for real reform.

But greyhound tracks have demonstrated that they simply can’t do it humanely, and the public no longer accepts this cruel and inhumane treatment of dogs. Massachusetts voters approved Question 3 in 2008 by a vote of 56% to 44% which phased out dog racing, and Raynham Park held the state’s final race last month. New Hampshire lawmakers passed a bill last June allowing the state’s two remaining tracks to offer simulcast betting and other gambling without dog racing, and track owners quickly phased out the dogs in favor of more lucrative and humane opportunities. In Rhode Island where the Twin River dog track voluntarily closed up shop last August, lawmakers passed a bill forcing the gambling hall to start offering greyhound racing again. Gov. Donald Carcieri rightly vetoed the bill, but lawmakers are attempting to override that veto.

Dog tracks in other states are lobbying for public subsidies, tax breaks, and legalized slot machines and casino games to keep them afloat, but the handwriting is on the wall. Americans know that dogs deserve better. If you live in New Hampshire or Rhode Island which are considering dog racing bills, or one of the seven states with active dog racing tracks—Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Texas, and West Virginia—tell your state legislators that this is no way to treat man’s best friend.

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