The placing of retired racing greyhounds into adoptive homes is the single most successful animal adoption effort in history.
Greyhound racing is said to be a dying industry whose mainstay fans are aging rapidly, with inadequate numbers of younger fans taking their place. Only 16 states now have dog tracks, and many that do are having to supplement the attraction of dog racing with slot machines and simulcast horse races to entice customers. At least one track in Central Florida has offered discounts to college students to try and get more (and younger) customers. In the last seven years, six states have banned dog racing and, in a landmark accomplishment for anti-racing activists, a racing ban will appear on the November ballot in Massachusetts that could end that state's long-time involvement in the industry.
Things couldn't be looking better for the beleaguered racing dogs--or could they?
Sadly, says Susan Netboy, founder of the Greyhound Protection League, greyhounds are still suffering the effects of the industry, especially those that are not lucky enough to find their way into the adoption system. An estimated 20,000-25,000 dogs are killed nationally each year because they are not fast enough or competitive enough to turn a profit at the track. In addition, many greyhounds (including females with nursing puppies) have been sent to research facilities, such as Iowa, Kansas and Colorado State universities where they are subjected to experiments, used as teaching tools, or merely killed as "excess." Cases of unconscionable neglect and abuse are still being reported: dogs are being unsafely transported; and living conditions at the track still require dogs to be confined to crates as many as 20 hours a day, with only three to four short turnouts daily for fresh air, water, and exercise. Their diets consist of often contaminated "4-D meat" deemed unfit for human consumption by the USDA. And, according to the Greyhound Protection League, this just scratches the surface of what the dogs are subjected to at the hands of the racing industry.
Anyone who has had the honor of living with a greyhound can tell you that greyhounds are highly sensitive, emotional, intelligent dogs, trusting in nature and inordinately attuned to their human companions, presumably because of the thousands of years they have been domesticated. (Greyhounds are possibly the oldest breed of dog recorded, having been mentioned in the Old Testament and other ancient texts, and depicted in artwork dating back to ancient Egypt.) When greyhounds believe that they are about to be hurt, say their adoptors, they make a sound that can only be described as a scream. When they are happy, adoptors have said, greyhounds tremble with emotion.
The Greyhound Protection League, along with Greyhound Network News, has documented countless cases or atrocities committed against racing greyhounds in the past decade alone. Just this spring, several injured and emaciated greyhounds that were used for breeding purposes were found in a kennel owned by a former trainer in Taunton, Massachusetts; it was the worst case of neglect that the investigating humane officer had seen in his 12 years on the job. In 1999, thousands of greyhounds became sick, and many died from streptococcal toxic shock syndrome, after an outbreak of kennel cough that could have been prevented by an inexpensive vaccine. At Wonderland Racetrack in Lynn, Massachusetts, eight greyhounds died in a kennel fire--the track's fourth in 13 years. A total of 120 dogs have now died in fires at that track, which still has not installed a sprinkler system. Fatal fires have occurred at other tracks as well. The sheriff's department discovered a pile of dead greyhounds at a Texas greyhound farm. Besides four freshly dead bodies, there were decaying bodies and skeletons of greyhounds. Close by, deputies found a tree with a heavy chain attached, a pool of blood, and a large pipe covered in dried blood. In 1999, six dogs died after being transported in an aluminum trailer from Oregon to Florida (a 3,000-mile journey) in 95 degree heat. In 1998, 200 abandoned greyhounds were rescued from a track in Alabama, when management abruptly ended the racing season and left them stranded.
In spite of these and other reports, Gary Guccione of the Greyhound Racing Association, based in Abilene, Kansas, says that greyhound racing is the most regulated of animal sports in the country. "It is incumbent upon every owner to give their dog the best of care from birth on. If they are found to be negligent," he says, "they are banned from the industry." He says that 33,000 dogs are bred each year, with 18,000 going into adoptive homes and 6,000 to 7,800 that go back to the farm for breeding purposes. "So we're not dealing with that large a number," he said of the number of dogs that are killed each year.
Netboy and other greyhound advocates disagree. According to statistics compiled by the Greyhound Protection League and Greyhound Network News, more than 175,000 greyhounds born between 1990 and 1997 are unaccounted for and presumed dead. (Litters of greyhounds are registered with the National Greyhound Association.) They further estimate that the sport has claimed the lives of one million greyhounds in its 73 years of history in the U.S. Netboy also says that, even with regulation of the industry, most of the abuses have gone underground.
On average, 1,000 to 1,200 dogs are needed to sustain a racetrack operation. As dogs are eliminated because of injury, age, or by losing enough races (this is called "grading off" in the industry) they must be replaced by new dogs. Experts say that dogs begin racing at the age of 18 months and that most racing careers are over by the age of two. A few highly competitive dogs remain in the industry until the age of three or four years. It is at these young ages that their fates are decided -- whether they can find their way into a rescue or adoption program, are brought back to the farm for breeding or are killed.
As bad as the greyhound industry has been for dogs in the U.S., Netboy and her organization point out that it is the same, if not far worse, for the dogs in other countries where racing is popular. In England, a country usually at the vanguard of animal protection issues, greyhounds have been abandoned when found to be substandard racers, dogs have been seriously or fatally injured while racing on unsafe tracks, and cases of extreme cruelty have been uncovered in Northeast England, including starvation and one dog found dying with a meat cleaver through his head. In Ireland, racing greyhounds are not considered adoptable and are even regarded as dangerous by the general public. Ireland now exports dogs to Vietnam, a "black hole for all animals, but especially dogs," according to Jonathan Owen of the World Society for Protection of Animals. Breeders in Australia plan to export dogs for a proposed new racing industry in the Philippines while U.S. breeders are reported to be sending dogs to tracks in Guam.
Last January, outside of Arevalo, Spain, a grisly killing field was discovered in the form of a mass hanging of greyhounds. It is reported that these hangings, in order to save the cost of a bullet, frequently occur in rural areas of Spain after hunters have used them during the hunting season. Fermin Martin Perez, who runs a sanctuary for greyhounds, says that some of the dogs are retired greyhounds imported from England and Ireland.
While the answer to the racing greyhound's plight in the U.S. may seem to be increasing the number of adoptions until all retired racers end their days in loving homes, Netboy and Carey Theil, deputy director of the Massachusetts Grey2K coalition to end greyhound racing in that state in the year 2000, disagree. They both emphasize that a concerted effort to end greyhound racing altogether is the only way to stop the suffering.
Because most adoption groups take a neutral stance toward the racing industry, they rarely even acknowledge to potential adoptors the abuses the dogs may have suffered at the track, abuses which may include untreated racing injuries, the insertion of wires into the penises of male dogs, or the failure to treat parasites and illnesses. The reason for this neutrality, say greyhound advocates, is that many adoption groups were started by the breeders themselves who did not want their dogs killed, but who also did not want to see an end to their sport. Some even have track officials on their board of directors, according to an article in The Winners Circle, the newsletter of the greyhound advocacy group REGAP.
Greyhound Pets of America (GPA), one of the largest adoption groups in the country, states in their Policy and Procedure manual that volunteers should remain "upbeat" to attract adoptors, emphasizing only the dogs attractive qualities as potential pets. It expressly warns volunteers not to criticize the racing industry. Many remain neutral out of fear that the tracks will not allow them to have the dogs if they badmouth the sport. Others have no real moral objection to racing the dogs. As one volunteer for Greyhound Rescue in Virginia (who declined to be named) said, "If it weren't for racing, how would we get these lovely dogs?"
Other volunteers express frustration that their feelings and observations about the greyhound racing industry are muzzled when trying to place dogs. Some even feel that the racing industry is being enabled in its exploitation of the dogs by some adoption groups. Here is what Jivleen Sandhu, formerly of GPA in Richmond, Virginia, had to say:
"I began volunteering after adopting my first greyhound, simply happy to have a role in placing dogs off the tracks. However, the more I learned about the ugliness behind greyhound racing, it became more difficult to sustain a neutral stance. The groups which stay neutral, and thereby do not expose the dirty underbelly of racing, are enabling the industry. What of the majority of dogs who are not adopted? The puppies that are culled because they don't make the cut? Dogs given or sold to research labs? Dogs shot and dumped in shallow graves? The neutrality stance is lethal to these dogs. There is complicity in remaining silent."
Netboy recalls her own odyssey, a two-and-a-half year period where she tried to get 600 greyhounds out of research labs. GPA did not support her efforts, saying that it was "too political."
The National Greyhound Association's Guccione says that business has started to look up again after the decline of the last decade and that the number of tracks going out of business has leveled off. If true, this could be further bad news for the dogs. Netboy encourages those who are concerned about the plight of greyhounds to pass the word around about racing, stop going to the track, and, if possible, adopt a greyhound themselves, or assist with the adoption effort. Supporting legislation, especially the racing ban introduced by Grey2K in Massachusetts, is also key, she said.
"The time is right to end our state's involvement in this national disgrace," says the Grey2K position statement. "No amount of rules can change the endless cycle of overbreeding and killing that the dog racing industry requires."
* Greyhound Protection League; 800-GHOUNDS * Grey2kUSA; 1.617.666.3526