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March 11, 2014

Long Odds for Survival for Greyhound Racing

Dog lovers everywhere should be pleased to learn that greyhound racing – once referred to as the “Sport of Queens” -- could be on its way out as a form of gambling and entertainment.

One of its last redoubts is in Florida, where commercial greyhound racing was first legalized 83 years ago, in the early 1930s. Nationally, in the middle decades of the twentieth century, it grew into a multi-billion dollar business, operating in about two dozen states, at about 50 tracks.

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Photo by iStock

Its popularity and high profits peaked in the late 1980’s, and since then, greyhound racing has experienced a dramatic decline. Today, only 7 states host dog racing – with 12 of the 21 surviving tracks in Florida, the hub of the industry. Wagering on dog racing has dropped for twenty years in a row.

There are several reasons for its decline, principally competition from casino gambling. Another driver of dog racing’s fall, however, has been increased concern for the treatment of the dogs.

Thanks to the leadership of the non-profit group GREY2K USA, and the longstanding efforts of many other parties, we now have more information about the problems associated with greyhound racing.  At two West Virginia dog tracks, 4,796 greyhound injuries were reported between January 2008 and June 2013.

 The state of Florida released reports last month that show that a racing greyhound dies every three days in the Sunshine state. In total, at least 95 greyhounds have died in Florida since May 31 of 2013, including dogs that died from catastrophic injuries, illnesses, and suspected heat stroke.

I’ve been to some of the farms where greyhounds are trained, and I didn’t find conditions there all that troublesome. I am more concerned about what happens on the track, especially the constant flow of greyhound dogs from the tracks that require adoption. This breeding and discarding of dogs taxes an already overloaded adoption system for shelters and rescue groups. And with perhaps 1.5 million dogs, of all breed types, still euthanized every year in the United States, it means that for every greyhound adopted, there’s usually one other dog who then won’t get a home.

It’s time for lawmakers, greyhound breeders, and everyone connected to the industry to realize that the era of greyhound racing has passed. The races are too short to keep your attention. There’s little skill for gamblers in picking winners. The industry discards dogs who don’t perform.  And the large number of on-track racing injuries and death simply can’t be overlooked.

In Florida, there’s an astonishing state requirement that track owners must run dogs in order to conduct other forms of gambling. Most of the track owners want to get out of the greyhound racing industry, because of the stigma associated with treating dogs this way and because it’s no longer lucrative. But the requirement that they must have live racing is a strange form of government coercion of private businesses.

Lawmakers in Iowa and Florida are considering proposals that would, as a practical matter, phase out greyhound racing, and the Colorado legislature has already approved a measure that will make Colorado the 39th state to outlaw dog racing. 

One of the books on my nightstand this year has been Gwyneth Anne Thayer’s history of organized greyhound racing, Going to the Dogs: Greyhound Racing, Animal Activism, and American Popular Culture. Thayer’s book shows the sport as a once common and popular entertainment in America, an outgrowth of rural culture, and a part of regional identity. But shifting moral sensitivities ensure that, now, it’s viewed mainly as a humdrum form of entertainment, tangled up with mistreatment of dogs. We’re just in a different place as a society, and we are hopeful that 2014 will be the year when lawmakers take action to benefit the dogs.  

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