By: Gary Guccione  Date: 01/9/2012 Category: | Canine Issues |

Greyhound racing is an exciting, highly regulated sport conducted in just less than a third of the United States, as well as in England, Australia, Ireland and a dozen or so other countries. Greyhound racing developed as a sport because Greyhounds truly love to run, and humans love to watch them do it. Greyhounds run faster than all but a small handful of land animals; they can reach speeds of nearly 50 miles per hour.

While horse racing has long been known as the Sport of Kings, Greyhound racing's nickname is the "Sport of Queens," largely because famous royal ladies in history, including Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth I, were fanciers of the breed. With thousands of years of tradition behind it and more than 80 years of performances on racetracks in this country, the sport has been the catalyst in improving - some would say, perfecting - an already noble and incredible canine breed. To ensure the welfare of these very special animals, strong emphasis has been placed on their health, welfare and safety by owners, breeders and track operators.

But, despite all the watchdogging (pardon the pun) - not just by fans, but by state regulators, racing commissions and stewards, track officials and farm authorities who carefully scrutinize the sport - Greyhound racing seems well on its way to becoming the animal rights movement's latest target. This is especially apparent in Massachusetts, where this year animal rights extremists are trying to ban the sport through a referendum initiative. Given the relatively small percentage of the population that regularly attends the races, and given the substantial number of people who oppose dog and horse racing on principle as another form of gambling, the industry is more than a little concerned about the final outcome of this effort. Whatever the result may be, there's no doubt that the effort to ban Greyhound racing will continue in other racing jurisdictions throughout the country.


A Little History

To get an accurate picture of the current situation, a little history is essential. Greyhounds are not only among the fastest animals in the world, they are also among the oldest of canine breeds, with origins deeply rooted in the lands that cradled the earliest civilization of humankind. A member of the gazehound or sighthound family, the Greyhound is easily recognized for its distinct sleekness and deceiving fragility, but is most famous for its speed, grace and ability. Its sense of smell has never been well developed; it relies instead on exceptionally keen eyesight and an acute sense of hearing.

For centuries, going back to the ancient Egyptians and extending through Greek, Roman and early English civilizations, Greyhounds served primarily as hunters. They have almost always doubled as a great source of entertainment, with their artistic grace and speed, competing in the ageless sport of coursing - contests where two Greyhounds pursued live game, usually a hare, in open fields and score points for speed and for their ability to turn the prey.

Greyhounds first came to America in the mid-1800s for a more practical purpose: to help midwestern farmers rid their fields of crop-destroying wild jackrabbits. Predictably, they became a source of great weekend sport, as coursing clubs sprang up throughout the western and midwestern sections of the country. Good old-fashioned American ingenuity led to the development of the artificial lure. In 1919 the first Greyhound track opened in California, conducting races with a mechanical rabbit on an oval racetrack. Soon, the new sport sprang up in various states throughout the country, usually featuring 10 or 12-race programs, with eight entries per race, running anywhere from 3/16 of a mile to 7/16 of a mile in pursuit of the mechanical lure. Staging the programs in the evening under the lights - when more people could attend and races were not in direct competition with horse racing -proved to be a stroke of genius. Fans were immediately attracted to the quick-paced format (a 31- or 39-second race every 10 or 15 minutes), and found the sport, with its limited human involvement, to be honest and forthright-a fair game on which a wager could be made. In the early 1970s, Sports Illustrated magazine paid the sport a tribute, saying it was "as clean as a hound's tooth."

By 1990, Greyhound racing had become the sixth largest spectator sport in the country, conducted in 18 states, attracting 29 million fans a year. More than $3.4 billion was wagered annually at the racetracks, producing $227 million in tax revenues to state and local governments.

The sport has run into tough competition over the past decade, thanks largely to the expansion of other gaming ventures, especially casino-style games on riverboats and Indian reservations. Attendance and wagering figures have dropped about 40 percent in the last decade. Several tracks have closed, leaving the sport active on 49 tracks in 15 states.

To revitalize the sport and regain their competitive edge, some track operators have adopted innovations such as simulcast programs and have introduced slot machines into their tracks.


Growth of Greyhound

Adoption efforts Animal rights attacks on the sport seemed to grow with the sport's expansion in the 1970s. Critics of racing have generally hit on two key issues: the disposition of non-competitive or retiring Greyhounds, and, to a lesser degree, the use of live lures in the early training of Greyhounds for racing. In more recent years, they have expanded their criticisms, occasionally alleging poor care of the animals either on the farms or at the racetracks, attacking the use of 4-D meat in Greyhound feed, and opposing the use of Greyhounds for biomedical research.

For decades, only about 10,000 to 15,000 Greyhounds a year were bred, and the sport had a relatively small presence on the sporting scene. Roughly 18 percent of would go back to farms for retirement or breeding purposes, while the remainder were humanely euthanized. By the end of the sport's greatest growth period, from 1970 to 1990, as many as 50,000 Greyhounds a year were being bred. By the mid-1980s, breeding had leveled off, and the racing community began promoting the adoption of retired Greyhounds as pets. In 1990, this effort resulted in the placement of about 3500 Greyhounds. By 1997, that number had expanded to about 18,000 annually, thanks to the efforts of more than 200 Greyhound adoption groups in the country - some of them very friendly to racing, some of them not.

To promote Greyhound adoption, racetracks developed their own in-house adoption programs or supported volunteer groups in their local areas. Today, US Greyhound tracks spend more than $1.7 million annually (more than $7 million in the last five years) to support their own or local adoption programs. The good efforts of all have succeeded beyond imagination; there are now about 75,000 Greyhound pet owners in the country.

In 1987, the two major bodies in racing - the American Greyhound Track Operators Association and the National Greyhound Association - jointly formed the American Greyhound Council, Inc. Its purpose was to address the wide range of animal care issues associated with the welfare of the racing Greyhound. Programs supported by the AGC include direct grants to qualifying adoption agencies, funding for the 800-number of the country's largest national adoption group, promotional brochures, videos - even placement of floats in major parades to get the message out that Greyhounds make great pets. These financial contributions are in addition to the monies spent by the tracks for adoption programs.

Meanwhile, in the early 1990s, the breed's regulatory body and registry, the NGA, began urging its members, the owners and breeders in the sport, to voluntarily reduce the number of Greyhounds being bred by 20 percent to accommodate reduced track business. Breeders responded to this plea, resulting in a one-third decline in Greyhound breeding in a short eight-year period. Today, approximately 35,000 Greyhounds are bred annually. About 18000 of them are placed in homes as pets, and another 7000 retired back to farms primarily for breeding purposes. This means that more than 75 percent of all Greyhounds whelped live out their natural lives. Factoring in a natural premature attrition rate of about five percent (usually occurring in the first month of life), fewer than 7500 Greyhounds are now euthanized each year. That figure includes a very small number of Greyhounds given to veterinary schools for research and educational purposes. It will continue to shrink as the industry expands its adoption effort and realizes continued declines in breeding. Another new program supported by AGC has been the placement of Greyhounds into canine working programs, where they are taught to be companions to and even assist the elderly and physically handicapped in their day-to-day activities. Some great success stories have come from that, especially with an organization called Canine Working Companions in New York.

To counter the argument against the use of live lures for training, the industry in the 1970s began development of a number of artificial training methods. New inventions, such as the Jack-A-Lure, soon became standard tools on Greyhound farms. All states now have laws that prohibit the practice of training with live lures, and racing jurisdictions have passed rules requiring that Greyhounds be trained exclusively on artificial lures. The issue of live-lure training is mentioned less and less, but occasionally some of the old charges and statistics resurface in the more incendiary attacks.

To ensure optimum conditions for Greyhounds on the farm and in the racing kennel, the AGC launched and continues to fund a nationwide on-going inspections program under the direction of the NGA. One full-time and as many as 75 part-time inspectors continually travel the country, conducting more than 700 inspections on an annual basis. At least one of the inspectors can be at the scene of a problem anywhere in the country on very short notice. The inspection program has confirmed what most of us already knew - that the vast majority of owners and breeders do a great job in caring for their Greyhounds. One need look no further than the nature of the sport itself for an explanation. Racing Greyhounds are performance animals - athletes, if you will - that demand the best of care, nutrition, attention and training if they are to ever realize their potential. Persons who do less than an exemplary job with their Greyhounds tend not to last too long in this business.

The governing authorities of the sport have adopted standard guidelines for the care of Greyhounds and the maintenance of facilities. All owners and breeders must abide by these guidelines. Those who are negligent or do a poor job are subject to warnings, probation and disciplinary action from the NGA. The penalties include expulsion from the association and banishment from the sport - for life.

Greyhound racing has enforced these rules rigorously. In the last decade, an average of seven individuals a year have been found unworthy of caring for Greyhounds and have been barred from the sport. Usually it's the industry itself that uncovers these situations. It then works in harmony with local officials to see to it that the Greyhounds at risk are properly cared for and that those responsible are prosecuted by law. Sometimes these situations receive considerable media attention, but it's important to remember that with 4000 Greyhound owners in the country, the villains who make such headlines represent less than one percent of the Greyhound owner population.

These rare bad apples, however, tend to give other, more responsible owners a bad name - thanks to the efforts of often over-zealous media and, especially, the methods used by extremist groups as they continually try to discredit Greyhound racing. As usual, the animal rights claims bear no relationship to fact.

Critics claim the so-called 4-D meat fed to Greyhounds is full of bacteria and constitutes a threat to their health. While it's true that 4-D meat is not fit for human consumption, it is a common ingredient in most commercial dog food. If Greyhounds didn't respond well to this diet, they wouldn't be able to perform properly, and performance is an obvious incentive for owners to provide the best possible diet and nutrition for the animals in their care. Animal rights opponents also claim that Greyhounds suffer from being in kennels for as much as 20 hours a day. The truth is that Greyhounds are very docile by temperament. When they're not outside on their two or three-times daily exercise runs, they enjoy long stretches of rest in their kennels. (Their affinity for such rest has caused retired Greyhounds to be known as "couch potatoes" by their amused owners.) Healthy, well-exercised Greyhounds perform better and more consistently. It's the job of trainers and kennels to track and maximize that performance.

While most adoption groups do a great job, those groups aligned with the animal rights movement sometimes do more harm than good for the adoption cause by making outrageous claims about the treatment of racing Greyhounds. Prospective adopters are often discouraged by these claims; everyone knows that mistreated animals make poor pets. The fact is that Greyhounds make wonderful, gentle and loving pets precisely because of the friendly environment and excellent care they've been accustomed to since birth! The proof is in the families - more than 75,000 Greyhounds now living in adoptive homes wouldn't have become such great pets if they had been mistreated or deprived of human and peer contact. The AGC has been involved with numerous other projects to further improve the care of racing Greyhounds, including the publication of the sport's ultimate textbook, called Care of the Racing Greyhounds, by three of the world's leading Greyhound veterinary experts. It has also funded a number of research projects, as well as sponsored numerous veterinary symposia specifically dealing with Greyhound care. The AGC continues to explore new ways to further improve the lives of racing Greyhounds - better training methods, better racing surfaces, and better medical treatment.

The Animal Rights Line

So why - with all these developments and a conscientious industry still working diligently to make a responsible animal enterprise even better - why have the animal rights extremists targeted Greyhound racing?

First, the sport is a relatively small activity, at least in comparison to horse racing and other animal sporting endeavors. As a sport, it receives very little national media coverage, doesn't have a national fan base, and therefore lacks significance with the American public.

Second, Greyhound racing - like horse racing - carries some stigma because of the wagering element. The fact that a sizeable percentage of the population is already against Greyhound racing because it's a form of gambling is particularly worrisome in Massachusetts, should the question go to a ballot vote.

Third, some Greyhounds are still being euthanized, albeit humanely, even though the industry's goal is to reduce the number to zero as soon as possible. This is troublesome to all animal lovers, and especially to those who still consider dogs to be "man's best friend," and ensures that animal rights attacks will find a good many receptive ears.

Fourth, the media are quick to pick up on bad news in any animal enterprise, because these cases often make for compelling video or dramatic print stories. More than two-thirds of all "exposes" of animal industries occur during ratings periods, when media are looking for ways to attract larger audiences with sensational and emotionally powerful stories.

Racing leaders are more and more convinced that the effort to destroy racing is just one relatively small part of the animal rights movement's much broader agenda - the elimination of all animal use, regardless of the purpose or benefit to humans. They're out to end the use of animals for food, clothing, entertainment, research - even as pets. That makes the battle in Massachusetts and elsewhere, not just Greyhound racing's fight, but a fight that affects all animal industries - and ultimately, almost all human activities - everywhere.

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