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Stop Dog Racing

Activist fight dog racing: Britain

From INDEPENDENT NEWS (Britain) email newsletter:

A dog's life ain't what it used to be

Animal rights protesters want 'brutal' greyhound racing outlawed - and are targeting the punters to bring about its downfall

By Jonathan Brown
17 January 2005

Rusty the greyhound's toe injury proved to be fatal. After performing poorly during a race at Warwick in April, the once-prized sprinter could no longer earn its keep. The following week, Rusty was discovered by a walker in South Wales, lying whimpering on a rubbish tip, its tail still wagging. The dog had been shot through the head with a captive-bolt pistol, its ears cut off to remove identifying tattoos. A vet was called to finish the bungled job of killing the dog.

Last month at Caerphilly Magistrates Court in a case brought by the RSPCA, Andrew Gough, a greyhound track groundsman, was sentenced to six months in jail for his treatment of Rusty and banned from keeping animals for life - the maximum sentence for animal abuse.

Magistrates described his actions, for which he had allegedly been paid 10 by the dog's owner, as "totally unacceptable in a civilised society". Gough, 28, who plans to appeal against the conviction, is thought to be the first person to be jailed in Britain for such a crime. Campaigners say Rusty is merely the tip of the iceberg.

A recent study said that because of the shortage of suitable homes for retired dogs, a similar fate threatens thousands of greyhounds and lurchers discarded in Britain each year as they reach the end of their racing lives. Protest groups claim that as many as 6,000 dogs a year in Britain are "retired" by being put to death.

Rusty, who raced under the names Last Hope, Charlie and Mystique, has become a powerful symbol for the animal rights movement.

Protesters believe that, after the fox-hunting ban passes into law, it can only be a matter of time until they can bring about the end of greyhound racing - an industry worth more than 2.5bn a year.

Their campaign focuses on educating punters of the cost to animals of their flutter under the slogan,"You bet, they die". Vigils are already planned for next year to mark the first anniversary of Rusty's death. Greyhound stadiums are being picketed every week by opponents of the sport, seeking to dissuade punters from crossing the threshold. Betting shops are lobbied. Attempts to set up new tracks are greeted with co-ordinated objections. Local authorities are lobbied to stop public land or money being used to subsidise the sport. Protesters in the 17 local greyhound groups around Britain leap into action the moment they hear of plans to establish breeding kennels.

The exact number of former racing greyhounds that disappear each year is fiercely contested. The campaigning group Greyhound Action believes that up to 40,000 dogs enter the sport annually, but that many more are never registered and are killed by breeders at a very young age. Of those that do make it to the track, campaigners say one in 10 suffers an injury or develops arthritis but is forced to race on in pain. A dog's racing life is normally over by the age of three. Unwanted dogs are then abandoned, killed or sent abroad, it is claimed.

A recent report commissioned by the National Assembly for Wales backs up the campaigners' view that the abandonment and slaughter of former racing dogs is already "a major animal welfare problem". The report estimated that 2,800 dogs were rescued or impounded by local authorities last year - leaving the rest to an uncertain fate. The Assembly concluded that the cost to the taxpayer was approaching 600,000 annually in kennelling costs.

In its defence, the industry says that it is simply impossible to track what happens to greyhounds when they stop racing, but is adamant that the figures put about by the protest groups are hugely exaggerated.

One of the main problems in keeping track of the dogs is that the sport is split into two camps. The British Greyhound Racing Board (BGRB) represents 31 racecourses in Britain. Its owners are licensed; last year it donated 850,000 to a retirement fund for dogs; it operates a system that tracks the dogs' movements; and it holds regular meetings with animal rights groups. The remaining 20 independent tracks, which have grown up predominantly in the north of England in former pit communities, are more informal. It was at these tracks that Rusty was raced. But campaigners say that the split between licensed and unlicensed tracks is a false one.

Tony Peters of Greyhound Action believes that most of the dogs running on the independent tracks are those disposed of by licensed track trainers. Even so, according to independent sector spokesman Jeff McKenna, what happened to Rusty is far from the norm and totally unacceptable. "Most of the dogs are cared for by individuals and families keep them as pets. When they retire they return to that family," he says. Those that can't be kept on by their owners are re- housed with local welfare groups, he adds.

At the height of dog-racing's appeal in the 1950s, 100,000 people would attend meetings at White City. But in the intervening years many tracks have been forced to close. The sport enjoyed a renaissance during the Nineties when the young middle class began flirting with the sport as an alternative to a night in the pub.

Emma Johns of the BGRB insists that nowadays greyhound racing has shed its "cloth cap" image and is in fine health. "We attract a modern, young audience, and because the races finish at 10.30pm a lot of people like to go on clubbing afterwards," she says. She concedes there is a "small but vigorous" number of animal rights protesters targeting the sport, but says that too many people assume that every time they see an abandoned or ill-treated greyhound it is as a result of the sport. "Other breeds are abandoned by the public in huge numbers by people who find they can't cope with looking after demanding breeds. The problem with greyhounds being abandoned is exaggerated," she says.

Peters believes that dog-racing has had its day. Track attendances are dwindling, with much racing now staged at empty stadiums, and beamed to bookmakers' televisions for the benefit of afternoon punters. The only recent expansion in the number of venues has been at Coventry, which reopened in 2004 after 18 years; there is now a sustained protest against it. Greyhound Action is launching a further campaign this year that will seek to persuade the six major bookmakers, including Ladbrokes and William Hill, which own a total of six tracks in England, to switch entirely to computer- generated "virtual" dog-racing. Peters believes this will not just reduce the demand for new dogs, but will cut the supply of money going into the sport. It will also reduce the bookmakers' overheads. "The afternoon punters don't mind what they bet on. If it's not one thing it's another."

Greyhound racing's biggest challenge could come from the Government.

Peters says that the Gambling Bill will divert money and punters away from the sport, further speeding the industry's decline. So far, at least two tracks have expressed interest in becoming "super casinos".

But the animal rights protesters aren't just setting their sights on Britain. In Ireland, where 80 per cent of the puppies that enter the industry are bred, protesters are claiming that former racing animals are being sold to mainland Europe for use in vivisection or to take part in hunting or coursing. The industry has recently been targeted by the Animal Liberation Front. In November, activists vandalised part of Shelbourne Park racing track. A statement released afterwards said the action was "in protest at the slaughter of thousands of greyhounds at the hands of Bord na gCon (the Irish Greyhound Board)... Actions against greyhound tracks will continue until racing is ended." It signed off with the ALF slogan "Till all are free." The previous month, Kerry Foods' billboards at Limerick Greyhound Stadium were damaged. Claiming responsibility, ALF said: "Message to the greyhound industry in Ireland: we will be back until Kerry Foods stop sponsoring animal abuse."

In addition, animal rights supporters want to highlight the plight of greyhounds in Australia, from where, they claim, many former racing animals are being shipped to south-east Asia for experimentation. In Britain, they are calling for an end to the use of fallen dogs for dissection.

The equation is simple, Peters says. "We are engaged in a gradual process of forcing the industry into terminal decline. When there a fewer races, there will fewer greyhounds bred and then there will be fewer killed. It is as simple as that."

For details of Greyhound Action's campaigns, visit ; the website also has details of the Remembering Rusty event that will take place on 1 May

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