Greyhound Racing Comes Under Fire

The narrator of a short commercial film, produced by the Wonderland Park greyhound racing track in Massachusetts, paints a warm picture of how well the track cares for its canine competitors.

“You don't have to win a special race to receive the special treatment all of our greyhounds are given,'' says the narrator as the film shows a dog, Heidi, getting “a relaxing massage by a master masseuse,'' complete with lotions. “The care of these magnificent animals lasts long after their racing careers are over,'' the narrator advises.

That image of a caring greyhound racing industry conflicts sharply with wrenching charges by animal protection groups that tracks cram greyhounds into tiny cages in crowded kennels, feed them cheap, tainted meat and discard them when their racing value has dropped by euthanizing them, selling them to research labs or by simply abandoning them.

“They're not racing them; they're killing them,'' charged Melani Nardone, founder of the Greyhound Protection League, who appeared at a recent forum on the issue. The forum was sponsored by the Committee on Legal Issues Pertaining to Animals of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Nardone called for shutting down the industry because, she contended, “it cannot be cleaned up.''

Greyhound Racing Industry Pushes for Adoptions

Facing a barrage of that type of criticism, the industry has pushed for adoptions for more of its retired dogs, but animal rights activists argue that greyhounds are often subjected to terrible conditions during their racing careers.

They cite incidents reported in local newspapers including the deaths of 53 greyhounds at a West Virginia kennel after the owner turned off a malfunctioning air conditioning system; the sale by a Wisconsin kennel owner of 850 racing dogs to a cardiac research laboratory for use as experimental subjects; and the rescue of 14 underweight and flea-infested dogs from a small track in Florida.

Gary Guccione, executive director of the National Greyhound Association, an industry group, strongly denied that the industry sanctions any maltreatment of greyhounds. He said that instances of abuse are being weeded out by the association's own inspectors, and that dogs are treated well because it's in the tracks' interest to keep racers in top condition.

“It behooves every kennel owner and trainer to give them the maximum of care so they can maximize performance,'' said Guccione. “In most of those cases where there's neglect, we're the ones who went in and discovered it.''

He said that his group's inspectors blew the whistle on a greyhound breeder in Texas who pleaded guilty in August to animal cruelty for letting a racing dog's broken leg go untreated for seven weeks. The breeder's license has been pulled, said Guccione.

Greyhound racing is legal in Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Florida has the most tracks, 17. States that have banned dog racing are Maine, Virginia, Vermont, Idaho, Washington, Nevada and North Carolina.

Attacks on the industry have become strong enough that Massachusetts included an initiative to ban the sport on Nov. 7. The measure failed narrowly.

Animal rights activist Carey Thiel cited conditions at Wonderland Park, located outside Boston in the town of Revere, in explaining why he pushed for passage of the initiative.

He charged that the track squeezes dogs into 3-foot-by-2-foot cages, 50 to 60 dogs to a kennel, and quickly disposes of animals that no longer make the grade.

Officials at Wonderland did not return phone calls requesting an interview, but industry spokesman Guccione said the dogs' care, including their diet, is optimal because it's to the owner's benefit to keep the animal in top form. While he admitted that that not every dog gets a massage after a race, Guccione said that cages are actually 3 1/2-by-4-feet.

“They have ample room to move around,'' he said, adding that the dogs are let out for exercise and “socialization'' up to five times a day.

Racing greyhounds typically measure 26 to 30 inches high and weigh 50 to 80 pounds.

Guccione said that the greyhound racing industry is contracting as more people choose to watch race simulcasts on TV or go to casinos to gamble. He also said that the industry is breeding fewer dogs and making more of an effort to place retired dogs in adoptive homes. He said that about 18 percent of the dogs are euthanized, but he described that as a major improvement over past figures.

"They do make great pets,'' Guccione said.