By Chris Helgren
Wandering the busy Doncaster Road, more skin and bones than dog, Alice didn’t seem at first glance to be such a lucky greyhound. She was never any good in racing. She just wasn’t fast enough. Then someone had used her for hare coursing, and she’d failed at that too. She was discarded, and would have faced a horrible death— from starvation or being struck by a vehicle — except that a Samaritan brought her to Debra Rothery’s sanctuary.
“She weighed 14 kilograms,” says Rothery. A greyhound’s normal weight is about 28 kg. “Half her bodyweight, absolutely flea-ridden. It’s absolutely appalling, and that’s just this week. I had one the week before, one the week before.”
The kennels Rothery manages, Tia Greyhound and Lurcher Rescue, are sited on the edge of a south Yorkshire moor in an area close to several unregulated racetracks as well as tracks governed by the self-regulating Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB). She says that despite efforts at reform, with a new administrative body and welfare policy, more dogs than ever seem to be winding up on the streets. “It’s worse. I started 15 years ago and it’s worse.”
“I have just short of 100 dogs here at the minute and if I re-homed all these dogs here today, I could fill (the kennels) again tomorrow. It’s that bad. I have about 20 dogs waiting to come in, and I haven’t much chance of getting them in.” As does the Dogs Trust, Britain’s largest dog charity, Rothery blames in part a system of industry self-government where greyhounds cannot be traced through their microchips.
LIFE OF A GREYHOUND
A greyhound typically begin its racing career around the age of eighteen months and is finished by its fourth year — unless it suffers a career-ending injury earlier. According to the Society of Greyhound Veterinarians, musculo-skeletal injuries are the main reason a dog’s career may be cut short, and they are mainly caused by taking curves at high speed on oval tracks. But greyhounds naturally live to be about 13, meaning that even a dog who races to the age of four still has a good six or seven years’ life ahead of him or her.
What is supposed to happen is that retired dogs are sent to re-homing centres managed by the Retired Greyhound Trust (RGT), or independent ones like Wimbledon Greyhound Welfare. At Wimbledon Greyhound Welfare, the dogs are cared for by a small paid staff and dozens of dedicated volunteers, who come every day to the kennel in Hersham — in London’s “stockbroker belt”— to walk them through the surrounding undeveloped lands. At the centre, nicknamed “Hersham Hounds,” staff also vet potential owners before sending the dogs to new homes. The cost to owners and trainers of sending a dog to an RGT kennel is from £100 to £300.
But in reality, many dogs live their short lives entirely outside the protection of that system. They may have been placed at unlicenced tracks. Or they may have never been fast enough to race at all. These dogs may be abandoned — or worse— by owners and trainers. And as far as the GBGB is concerned, according to their code of conduct Rule 18, a dog which isn’t sent to a kennel may be euthanized as long as it is done by a veterinarian.
Tia rescue centre’s Rothery’s estimate is grim. “The dogs that actually race and get discarded or thrown out onto the streets — whatever you want to call it — are actually the lucky ones, because they stand a better chance of actually getting into a place like this and getting re-homed. Because they’ll just get put down at the track, or they’ll get put down before they race, or they’ll get put down because they’re deemed to be nasty. I’ll bet there’s only a tenth of dogs that are actually re-homed.”
Figures used by two British parliamentary reports, penned by the All Parliamentary Group on Animal Welfare (APGAW) and by Lord Donoughue, reveal that up to half the number of dogs that retire after racing in the UK disappear from record. Five years ago, Lord Donoughue was commissioned to look into the industry after revelations that greyhounds surplus to racing were being killed and dumped in a mass grave in Seaham, County Durham. His report also estimated that 35,000 dogs were bred annually in the United Kingdom and Ireland for the British racing industry. Of these, only a fraction make it to racing, let alone a healthy old age. There are no figures available for puppies who disappear after being deemed to be not fit for racing, but it is thought to be in the tens of thousands. The number of dogs who make the grade to become racing dogs enter and leave the tracks at a rate of between 8,000 and 10,000 per year, according to varying estimates. The industry-funded Retired Greyhound Trust claim that their 72 adoption branches find homes for roughly 4,000 animals per year, or about half the number that enter or leave racing annually. There are no records available regarding the fate of the other half after their retirement from the sport.
The recommendations of the Donoughue and APGAW reports spawned a new animal welfare law that came into effect in 2010. However, the Dogs Trust, the largest dog charity in the United Kingdom, is disappointed in the scope of the legislation. The charity, who are members of the Greyhound Forum which also includes the RSPCA and Blue Cross, want to see an industry commitment to developing a system that matches the number of dogs entering racing with the numbers that can be re-homed, and a central database to ensure that all Greyhounds can be traced from cradle to grave. “For all dogs, including greyhounds, I think it’s very important that we know from birth where these dogs are being bred, how they’re being bred, how they’re being dispersed around the UK and indeed Ireland,” says Dogs Trust CEO Clarissa Baldwin. “It would be a wonderful history of a dog, it would be possible to bring about prosecutions of owners who don’t look after their dogs properly, and [it would be] a welfare benefit to get dogs back to their owners.”
DECLINE OF THE INDUSTRY
Meanwhile, the industry itself is in decline. The crowds at the UK’s 26 remaining licensed tracks cannot compare with those post-war, when 60,000 spectators were recorded at a Derby in 1947 at White City, one of 21 greyhound tracks then operating in London. At the Derby in 2011, held in Wimbledon Stadium— now the only dog track left in London — total attendance was 2,423. Even off-course betting is losing popularity. Donoughue’s report in 2007 estimated a £2.5 billion turnover, a figure which is still quoted by the GBGB. But the Gambling Commission, an independent body sponsored by Britain’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport found an annual turnover of just over half that, at only £1.335 billion in the year to September 2011.
The past president of the Greyhound Trainers Association, Norah McEllistrim, says, “I think the greatest threat to greyhound racing is the value of the land.” Walthamstow stadium, with its iconic neon-lit facade, is the latest casualty in London, and property developers L&Q have just been given the approval of Mayor Boris Johnson to demolish it. Over the past five years, about 200 of the 600 professional trainers have left the business.
THE LUCKY ONES
For the lucky dogs that do make it through the system, or in spite of it, there’s the prospect of a life with a new owner with whom to spend the rest of their days. Alice, the failed racing dog that was abandoned on the Doncaster road, now lives with Wendy and Gary Jones in the former mining town of Barnsely, south Yorkshire. Wendy says Alice was in a bad state when they got her. “That’s what happens to a lot of greyhounds in this industry. When they’re no longer any use to them, they just let them go.” Over the past year she’s become healthy, and the pair go for daily walks on the rolling green hills near their home.
But the treatment of greyhounds is indicative of the way we treat all animals. Walking her three retired greyhounds at an annual beach trip to West Wittering, West Sussex with 100 other owners, Kate Carver reflects, “Nothing is of value unless it relates to a human. Either in some sort of consuming, whether it eats it or makes money out of it, or is even a companion. The animal doesn’t have any choice in life. It can get a good owner or a bad owner. They’re just treated like commodities. Animals don’t have our higher powers but we know they feel fear, they feel hope, they feel hunger, they feel pain. So that in itself to me is an argument not to abuse them.”