Floridians Have a Chance to Ban Cruel Greyhound Racing When They Go to the Polls
By Reynard Loki
Greyhounds are the oldest purebred dog, revered as gods by the ancient Egyptians. Sadly, that elevated status has been lost through the horrific practice of racing them for human entertainment. But Florida voters have an opportunity to end the cruel practice in the Sunshine State — the epicenter of dog racing in the US — when they go to the polls for the November elections.
If passed, Amendment 13 would “[phase] out commercial dog racing in connection with wagering by 2020.” The ban, which would amend the state’s constitution, needs at least 60 percent approval at the ballot box to become law.
Christine Dorchak, president and co-founder of GREY2K USA Worldwide, a greyhound advocacy group that has successfully ended dog racing in nine states, as well as the only legal dog track in China, is one of the drafters of Florida’s Amendment 13. She firmly believes that state voters will choose to help dogs.
“Our statewide polling indicates that 70 percent of Floridians of all political stripes will vote to phase out greyhound racing once they know just how poorly these gentle hounds are treated by the racing industry; I have seen with my own eyes what happens to losing dogs,” she said.
The campaign has earned the support of politicians on both sides of the aisle, including prominent Republicans like Rick Scott and Mike Huckabee, as well leading Democrats like Florida State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum.
While the first professional dog-racing track opened in Emeryville, California, in 1919, it was Florida that became dog racing’s standard-bearer in the US, when the state legalized wagering on the races in 1931. But now, it is poised to join 40 other states in banning the so-called sport, known for rampant animal abuse and cruelty. In addition to Florida, there are five states that still have active tracks: Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, West Virginia and Texas.
“While greyhounds may live 13 or more years, they are usually 18 months to 5 years old when they are retired from racing because they are either deemed unfit to race after an injury or no longer fast enough to be profitable,” according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). “While some of these dogs are sent to rescue groups, others are simply killed or returned to breeding facilities to serve as breeding stock.”
Jennifer Hobgood, director of state legislation for the ASPCA, Southeast region, said that racing greyhounds “suffer severe injuries, often dying on the tracks,” adding that “in Florida, on average, a racing dog dies every three days.”
In 2015, GREY2K released the first-ever national report on greyhound racing in the USAccording to their research, which was conducted over the course of more than 13 years, more than 80,000 young greyhounds had entered the racing industry since 2008.
Funded by the ASPCA, the report chronicled between 2008 and 2015 nearly 1,000 greyhound deaths, almost 12,000 greyhound injuries — including broken legs, crushed skulls, broken backs, paralysis and electrocutions — and dozens of cases of cruelty and neglect, including doping dogs with cocaine. However, the number of injuries is likely higher, as trainers are not legally bound to report dog injuries.
The dogs don’t just suffer from racing around a track — their entire lives are filled with constant misery. “Racing greyhounds are forced to endure lives of near-perpetual confinement,” said Hobgood.
“The minimum size for dog track cages is 32 inches high by 31 inches wide by 42 inches deep, with some slightly larger,” GREY2K’s Dorchak writes on AlterNet. “According to the American Greyhound Council, greyhounds stand between 23 inches and 30 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 50 and 85 pounds. Using these dimensions provided by the industry, this means large greyhounds cannot stand fully erect in their cages.” GREY2K reports that in Florida, there are an estimated 8,000 greyhounds living in tiny, stacked cages.
Dogs caught up in this cruel industry spend most of their lives stacked in warehouse-style kennels for 20 or more hours a day, or are kept outdoors in dirt pens with minimal shelter. Most enclosures are not heated or air-conditioned. Many dogs suffer from fleas, ticks and internal parasites and are not provided basic veterinary care, human affection, or adequate sustenance.
Last year, following an investigation conducted by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Pet Blood Bank in Cherokee, Texas, shut down and transferred 151 greyhounds into adoption programs. The exposé revealed that the dogs, who began their lives at racetracks, ended up imprisoned in a blood bank, where they were used as blood donors and kept in filthy, horrific conditions, where they were “deprived of everything that is natural and meaningful to them, including exercise, companionship, and the opportunity to bond with a human family.”
“Out of boredom and despair, they just dig and chew on the old filthy chemical tanks that serve as their shelter, leaving sharp and jagged edges that sometimes injure them,” reported PETA. “Some dogs pace, spin endlessly in circles, jump up and down, and cry out when approached. Others are so terrified that they cower and lose control of their bladder or bowels.”
By ending dog racing in Florida, which runs 11 of the 17 racetracks still in operation in the US, Amendment 13 would help put an end to the constant misery of thousands of greyhounds suffering at tracks and blood banks.
But the proposal is facing stiff opposition, not just from pro-racing groups, but also from hunters, ranchers and farmers, some of whom have formed a coalition to stop the amendment’s passage. The coalition, which includes the Florida Farm Bureau, Florida Cattlemen’s Association, the National Rifle Association, Unified Sportsmen of Florida, Future of Hunting in Florida and Florida Sportsmen United Political Committee, has asked Floridians to “consider the impacts on our businesses, our food providers and our rights to hunt and fish, and vote no on Amendment 13.”
The anti-ban coalition has zeroed in on particular language in the amendment: “The humane treatment of animals is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida.”
“Adding this language to the Constitution could destroy our culture,” said Bill Marvin, chairman of the Future of Hunting in Florida, according to Florida Politics, which noted that the coalition stated in a release: “This type of vague, undefined declaration in Florida’s Constitution is likely to be exploited by activist groups to bring lawsuits against family farms and sportsmen.”
GREY2K Executive Director Carey Theil, a senior adviser to the Protect Dogs-Yes on 13 campaign, counters that argument, saying in a statement that greyhound breeders “have lost the debate over whether dog racing is cruel and inhumane. … As a result, the industry is now trying to fool voters by hiding behind this phony ‘coalition’ which is, in reality, a stalking horse for the greyhound industry.”
The Florida Constitution, Theil points out, “already states that the inhumane treatment of animals is a concern of Florida citizens.” Further, he argues the false argument being promoted by these front groups was rejected by the Florida Supreme Court on September 7, when the state’s justices rejected several arguments made by the Florida Greyhound Association, which had contested the amendment; specifically, that the “fundamental value” statement would not be shown to voters in the language on the ballot.
In their 6-1 decision, the Court ruled that the purpose language “bestows no rights, imposes no duties, and does not empower the Legislature to take any action.”
One of the arguments used by the pro-racing community to keep the industry alive is to stoke fear that after track closures, the retired dogs will be sent to shelters, where they may be put down. Dorchak counters this argument, saying that dogs are largely rehomed following track closures:
Historically speaking, when a dog track closes, countless volunteers are mobilized to find homes for any and all displaced dogs. Drivers from hundreds of miles away converge on the track and pick up dogs to be taken to adoption groups and foster homes. For example, when Plainfield Greyhound Park in Connecticut closed in 2005 volunteers from as far away as the Midwest and Canada sent rescuers. The closure of Multnomah Greyhound Park in Oregon in 2004 and Geneva Lakes Greyhound Park in Wisconsin in 2006 sparked a similar response. While some dogs were sent on to race elsewhere, many others were made available for adoption.
Whether or not the measure passes, animal rights advocates can take heart in the fact that dog racing is on the wane in Florida. A 2013 report commissioned by the Florida legislature found that the state’s greyhound racing industry had a combined loss of $35 million in 2012. It’s a similar story across the country. According to GREY2K, the total amount gambled on greyhound racing nationwide declined 70 percent between 2001 and 2014. “Dog racing has declined sharply in recent years as people have become more aware of the horrors associated with this so-called sport,” Hobgood said.
After the general election polls close on November 6, it will be clear just how much that public awareness translates into civic action to finally put an end to the greyhound racing in Florida.
Reynard Loki is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy’s “Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow” in 2016. His work has been published by Truthout, Salon, BillMoyers.com, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.