No one who cares about livestock production, or medical research, or the use of rescue dogs wants activists to score a PR victory. But that’s exactly what’s happening with greyhound racing.

Ever been to a greyhound racetrack?

Last time I went, at an aging track in St. Petersburg, Florida, it was a pretty exciting spectacle, watching the incredible speed and aggression with which the dogs chased the mechanical rabbit. I even won $50 betting on a longshot in one race, which made up for the fact that I didn’t see anyone in the fairly sparse afternoon crowd who looked younger than sixty or seventy.

And that was back in 1975!

Since then, greyhound racing in Florida — and elsewhere — has entered a slow death spiral from which there is no recovery. I use the “d-word” deliberately, because the activists whose mission is to leverage public apathy and ignorance about whatever animal-related activity they oppose have a gift-wrapped present when it comes to their efforts to kill greyhound racing.

The activist group GREY2K USA, along with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, are engaged in a high-profile effort to convince policymakers that greyhound racing is cruel and abusive should be outlawed yesterday.

Their primary weapon is a new 80-page report that claims documentation of more than 11,000 injuries to racing greyhounds and 909 deaths from 2008 to 2014, according to reporting by Aljazeera America, not to mention accusations that racing dogs are caged nearly 22 hours a day, isolated in their kennels, fed inferior food and — I’m quoting here — forced “to run in circles when racing.”

Um, that’s kind of the idea of a racetrack. It wouldn’t be much of a spectator sport if the dogs (or horses) ran in a straight line from start to finish.

That bizarre criticism aside, the groups are busy distributing copies of their report to policymakers in the seven states with greyhound tracks and recruiting legislators to introduce bills that would ban the sport.

Although they’re hardly the same thing, their efforts are modeled on the successful campaign to outlaw cockfighting.

“It was time to go for broke, because the industry is nearly dead and what’s left to save is thousands of dogs,” Carey Theil, executive director of GREY2K USA, told Aljazeera America.

An industry spokesperson disputed the worst of the claims.

“The industry is not inhumane,” said Gary Guccione, executive director of the National Greyhound Association that represents dog owners and breeders. “It is very much responsible and very much looks out for the welfare of the racing greyhound from birth through its entire life.”

 

A sad attempt at explaining

Guccione argued that the dogs are docile, that they enjoy being caged for many hours each day. There are all kinds of people in the kennel areas each day, he explained, so the dogs get “well socialized.” The meat they eat may not be fit for humans, but it’s fine for dogs, he said. Finally, he said the dogs love to race, and they get very excited every fourth day, when they get a chance to race.

Somebody please muzzle this guy, because he’s making the case for the ASPCA. Who needs activists when the industry is busy condemning itself?

Rotten meat that you wouldn’t eat? Hey, dogs will eat anything. An animal with the energy of a greyhound who “enjoys” being caged three out of every four days? Sure. No problem there. Greyhounds are really docile animals who love lying around in a cage all day, because there are “all kinds of people” hanging around.

Right.

None of that baloney is accurate. Greyhounds are a high-energy, high-strung breed that need lots of activity to properly thrive. They make lousy pets, precisely because they need way more exercise than even the most dedicated owners can typically provide. And although serving dogs meat and by-products that might not pass USDA inspection isn’t necessarily a criminal act, the industry really needs a more artful way of explaining the greyhound diet.

Now, I can’t dispute the 11,000 injuries to racing greyhounds and 909 deaths that the activists are claiming — especially if the rebuttal is coming from Mr. Guccione. But the truth is that greyhound racing was dying the vine 40 years ago. If you’re inclined toward gambling, there is practically a casino on every corner these days, and they all have air conditioning and a lot more options than what’s available to someone sitting in the half-empty stands under the blazing Florida sun waiting for hours to watch a couple minutes of frantic racing action.

The only reason it continues, at least in Florida, is the result of intense lobbying by powerful Indian gaming interests. Most greyhound tracks now offer casino gambling, without which they’d be bankrupt yesterday. A Florida law that has survived numerous attempts at repeal requires dog tracks to maintain a racing schedule at 90% of 1996 levels in order to maintain the far more lucrative casino rooms they operate.

 Why? The Seminole tribe, which operates a number of highly profitable casinos, doesn’t want racetracks to go all in on casino rooms, and they have the clout to squelch any attempts to free up track owners like Havenick to ditch greyhound racing in favor of sots and poker.

Meanwhile, activists can operate on a horribly tilted playing field, leveraging the ill treatment of the dogs, the waning popularity of the sport and the feckless efforts of the industry to justify itself into a golden opportunity to hang another scalp on their office walls.

One can only hope that the industry pulls its own plug first. 

 

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator