Racing in a grey zone

HANNAH CARRODUS explores the ethics of the greyhound racing industry.

Animals Australia worker Kimberly Oxley loves her greyhound, Blue.

Ms Oxley adopted Blue just a few months ago, but she says he barely leaves her side.

"He is such a sensitive and gentle boy and I swear he has a sense of humour!" Ms Oxley says.

"He is constantly making people laugh and I swear he thrives on it. He has come so far in the few months I have had him. 

"To think of him being simply disposed of because he couldn't make a profit for his owners breaks my heart."

Like most greyhounds in the state, Blue was born and raised as a race dog – trained to chase a mechanical hare around a stadium for the viewing pleasure of spectators. 

Ms Oxley, from Geelong, says that when Blue was no longer able to run laps, his owner didn’t want him and was going to put him down.

It is thanks to Ms Oxley’s sister, who offered to take him, that Blue is alive today.

Blue’s plight is a common one; all too often greyhounds are simply discarded when no longer able to race, earning the industry a brutal reputation.

But the industry says it is changing, especially in Victoria.

Last year, Greyhound Racing Victoria successfully adopted out 536 greyhounds to loving families – a record number – which the organisation is proud of.

We're trying to build a culture where the greyhound is valued. - Linda Beer

Animal welfare manager Dr Linda Beer, a veterinarian, says more greyhounds were adopted in Victoria than all other Australian states combined.

"Greyhound Racing Victoria determined a number of years ago that they wanted to address animal welfare," she says.

"We've been working on welfare for a long time and we're leading the nation in that respect."

Indeed, the organisation recently announced $2.8 million in funding for animal welfare initiatives and has hired three new staff members in the area of animal welfare in the past 18 months.

"In Victoria there's a requirement for all participants to fill out a retirement form," Dr Beer says.

"We're trying to build a culture where the greyhound is valued."

While animal rights groups paint a dismal picture of breeders out to make a quick buck at the expense of the dogs' welfare, Bendigo Greyhound Racing Association general manager Troy Harley talks of the dogs with evident affection.

Mr Harley says greyhound racing has been an important social activity in Bendigo since 1936, with many spectators drawn to the sport due to a fascination with the breed.

"The animal is a big part of the selling point," Mr Harley says.

"Most people get into it for a love of the dog.

"They're a beautiful dog and make a beautiful pet as well.

"They like to compete and do that naturally."

Punters also enjoy the social aspect of the sport, Mr Harley says, with mates often chipping in to buy a dog and cheer for it on a Friday night.

"They're in it for a bit of fun, to have a bet and see their dog go round on the ground," he says.

But while an admiration of breed may hook punters into the sport, lucrative rewards are undoubtedly part of the honey that lures people back.

Mr Harley says racing in Bendigo is a "bigger business than people think".

Prize money on offer exceeds $2.5 million per year and every week there's a minimum of $1375 up for grabs in each lower grade race alone.

It costs nothing to enter a dog – in fact, trainers get paid a $70 travel fee and $10 per racing greyhound.

Across the state, the prize money is even more tempting.

Greyhound Racing Victoria's annual report reveals 2013 involved a 24.3 per cent increase in prize money and bonuses to the tune of $37.8 million, a record.

Victorian Premier Denis Napthine – a strong supporter of greyhound racing – said in October last year that the industry thriving, with the sport enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

In Mr Harley's words, greyhound racing offers a "significant earning capacity".

And it’s this earning capacity, says Animals Australia, which is driving breeders' motivations.

Animals Australia communications director Lisa Chalk welcomes Greyhound Racing Victoria's re-homing program, but says the majority of greyhounds continue to be treated as commodities.

"The reality is that it is the greyhound industry that is responsible for the unnecessary killing of thousands of young and healthy dogs each year, simply because they are no longer turning a profit for their owners,” she says.

"Greyhound Racing Victoria has made a start with their adoption program but even their 'record' re-homing statistics represent a tiny fraction of the dogs discarded by this industry each year."

She says many greyhound puppies are killed before they even step on the track and countless others suffer severe injuries, including broken legs and head trauma, due to harsh training regimes.

She says former whistle-blowers have revealed that many dogs are confined in small cages and given limited opportunities to socialize by their owners.

The RSPCA echoes her concerns.

"Urgent action is needed to significantly reduce the number of greyhounds born each year," its website states.

"Based on the available data, about 35 to 40 per cent of the greyhounds born each year nationally will not receive a registered racing name. 

"While greyhound adoption programs are a good step forward, they only re-home a small number of dogs."

Ms Chalk says Animals Australia wants all dogs to be microchipped and tracked – there are no known statistics about how many greyhounds are bred and destroyed each year– and greater numbers of dogs to be re-homed.

But Dr Beer says the industry is already addressing these concerns.

She says the organisation has introduced a code of practice, which stipulates minimum pen sizes and standards of care, and is working towards implementing a large data program, so dogs can be adequately tracked.

She says breeders are tightly monitored and provided with feedback about their success, including whether they are meeting the requirements of the code.

Mr Harley says if the industry finds owners aren't treating dogs with care, it revokes their racing licence.

Dr Beer admits that historically, greyhounds have been viewed in a similar manner to cattle, but she warns people about making moral judgments against breeders.

"Nobody thinks twice about when a cow finishes its milking that she goes to slaughter and a long time ago it was the same (with greyhounds)," she says.

"The issues are similar across all of the working dog sectors.

"We can change that culture and get people to think of them as a pet."

Indeed, within this divisive and emotive issue, there's one aspect the racing industry and animal rights groups completely agree on: that greyhounds are beautiful creatures.

Dr Beer says many people perceive greyhounds to be overly energetic, but in reality they're docile and affectionate.

"They're very loving and very lazy," she says.

"They're the laziest dogs on earth - they sit on the couch all day. They are fantastic in a family situation."

Troy Harley also holds greyhounds in high esteem.

"There's a myth about how much greyhounds have to be exercised but you give them a couch and a couple of kids and they're pretty happy.

"The more people learn about how good greyhounds are the more that will be adopted."

To find out more about the adoption program and how to adopt a greyhound, go to:  http://gap.grv.org.au/Adoption.aspx

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