Dogs are family friends, not racing machines, says anti-race activist Dorchak

Sandy PawpawJuly 7, 202424 min
Christine A. Dorchak with Gina, rescued from a closed Florida track

Christine Ann Dorchak, Esq, is a woman on a mission to end the so-called sport of greyhound racing worldwide. Ms Dorchak is president and general counsel of GREY2K USA, an organization that was set up to campaign against dog racing and rescue the animals trapped in the cruel enterprise.

Greyhound racing originated in the USA over a century ago and spread to different parts of the world, mostly white Anglophone countries. While supporters claim it is a legitimate sport and the dogs are “incredible athletes”, the reality is grimmer and grimier, as Ms Dorchak revealed in the course of an email interview.

Ironically, on the very day that was interviewing Ms Dorchak came a report that figures from the Greyhound Board of Great Britain revealed that about 5% of the total number of these “athletes” in that country dies every year on or off the racetrack. Now, if even a tenth of that percentage of athletes taking part in a human sport were to die in the arena or outside it, all hell would break loose, despite the fact that humans participating in any sport today do so of their own will, though economic factors may play a part.

When reported in May the decision of the Connecticut legislature and governor to outlaw greyhound racing, one reader responded that the report appeared to have been written by someone who “exclusively read GREY2K’s ignorant propaganda and did zero additional investigation”, and asked why we did not speak to the families that breed these “incredible athletes”, or the trainers who work with them, or the adoption groups that find the dogs homes when they retire. The answer is that we are willing to speak to any or all of them, provided they are willing to take some tough questions. So far none has stepped up.

Excerpts from the interview with Christine A. Dorchak:

Tell us a little about your book Brooklyn Goes Home and how you came to be associated with the movement to end greyhound racing.

Brooklyn Goes Home: The Rise and Fall of American Greyhound Racing and the Dog that Inspired a Movement tells the story of our 25-year campaign to end dog racing, which has helped to save 50,000 greyhounds to date and culminated in the recent filing of the Greyhound Protection Act in Congress as well as parliamentary petitions to ban greyhound racing in three countries. Carey Theil and I describe the twists and turns of our efforts and introduce readers to the diverse group of people who came together to help greyhounds along the way. These folks, conservative and liberal, old and young, were united in the singular belief that dogs are family friends, not racing machines.

My personal calling to take on greyhound gambling was prompted by a near-fatal accident in 1992. I was struck by a speeding Boston trolley while walking with my dog, Kelsey. She was a year-old black Russian terrier whom I had adopted on her last day at a kill shelter. Just as I had saved her life, one year later she saved mine by pulling us away from the direct path of the oncoming train. We suffered terrible injuries and spent years in recovery. I made a promise then that if I should ever be able to walk and talk and care for myself again, I would spend my life helping dogs.

When I learned that 2,000 greyhounds were suffering just a few miles away from my house at the local racetrack, I realized my calling. I went to law school and co-founded GREY2K USA Worldwide, with the goal of ending dog racing in the United States and across the globe.

This vision came home when we were able to close the only legal dog track in China, the Canidrome, and airlift over 532 surviving greyhounds to safety with waiting adopters in multiple countries. The namesake of the campaign, a spotted greyhound named Brooklyn, came home to my family.

How would you respond to those who might say greyhound racing has been around for decades and is a part of American culture? Also, tell us something about greyhounds. Were these dogs bred solely for racing or did they serve other purposes, such as hunting? If racing is now their sole purpose, wouldn’t a ban mean that over time the breed may vanish?

The objective of greyhound advocates is to restore greyhounds to their former position as dogs, and allow them to cast off their muzzles as racing machines.

The greyhounds we know today are descended from noble lines—but it is not nobility that these dogs need now, just common sense and compassion. We need not abuse these dogs to preserve them. In fact, dog racing was only invented in 1919, and beautiful greyhounds and other sighthounds have lived and thrived for centuries. Greyhounds who are now born free of the confinement, physical risk, and lack of socialization associated with racing should be better and stronger, just like their majestic predecessors, with far fewer disease vulnerabilities and psychological issues.

Historically, greyhounds were the cherished companions of ancient Egyptians. Greyhounds were pictured on coins and other forms of currency in Greece. In mythology, Greek gods were often portrayed associating with greyhounds. For example, Hecate, the Greek goddess of wealth, and Pollux, the Greek god protector of the hunt, are both pictured in the company of greyhound-like dogs. Furthermore, in 800 BCE, a greyhound featured prominently in Homer’s epic, the Odyssey. Greyhounds are also the only dogs specifically named in the Bible.

These majestic hounds were heralded as dogs of the aristocracy in 1014, when King Canute, who briefly maintained Danish rule in England, enacted the Forest Laws. The laws stated that only noblemen could own and hunt with greyhounds, making it a crime for any commoner to keep them. William the Conqueror upheld and strengthened King Canute’s Forest Laws and Welsh king Hywel Dda raised the greyhound to the level of humans when he ordered death as punishment for the malicious killing of a greyhound.

In modern times, greyhounds have been treated quite differently. Their speed and grace, once cause for admiration, has been commercialized. Gambling on greyhounds in the USA was first made legal in Florida in 1931.

The greyhound industry typically overbreeds greyhounds, keeping the fastest pups and discarding the rest. This is the underbelly of cruelty upon which the industry of dog racing rests.

There is no public record of what happens to the dogs who don’t make it off the farms. Since 2008, more than 100,000 greyhounds have been registered to race, but the industry admits it cannot account for the majority of them. This is because the gamblers’ record-keeping system only tracks the dogs who survive breeding and training farms, and then only while they are racing.

How effective have bans in several states been in curbing greyhound racing? Doesn’t a ban usually just drive the practice underground?

The good news is that as racing ends around the United States, greyhounds are now bred as companions, just as poodles and Dobermans are. They are so popular that there were reportedly more willing homes than dogs available when dog racing ended in Florida, closing 12 historic tracks.

Greyhounds are now members of the American Kennel Club, and compete in the annual Westminster dog show and, happily, Americans are now accepting dogs from other racing countries. These are dogs who by definition would otherwise be killed, particularly in Ireland and Australia, where greyhounds are disposed of in such great numbers that they are referred to by the industry as “wastage”. There are 64 tracks in Australia alone. We are proud to sponsor such dogs to groups in several states. It is very expensive, but since dog racing is an American invention, we feel a responsibility to help as much as we can. There is no justification, much less need, to tolerate cruelty in order to promote this magnificent breed of dog.

Are you also opposed to horse racing, which is also a ‘sport’ meant primarily for the gambling industry? If not, can you explain why?

While I am not an expert on horses, racing greyhounds spend 23 hours a day confined in small cages which are barely large enough for them to stand up or turn around in. When allowed out of these cages to race, they face the risk of serious injury and death. In West Virginia [the only state in the USA where dog racing is still legal], state records document over 11,000 dog racing injuries since 2008.

Allowing the cruelty of greyhound racing to continue is also not in the best interests of taxpayers. The state of New Hampshire was losing half-a-million dollars a year subsidizing dog racing. The state of Rhode Island lost $10 million a year and in Massachusetts, the two tracks were subsidized with not one but three statutory trust funds. Florida, the heart of American dog racing for nearly a century, itself lost $3.3 million annually because the cost of regulation far exceeded any gambling taxes collected each year. In West Virginia, one of the poorest states of our nation, statute dedicates $17 million a year in annual subsidies to the two dog tracks and for racing dog owners and breeders. Taxpayer subsidies are in fact the norm all over the world. This industry would have ended long ago if normal market pressures had taken effect.

Why are these dogs treated so badly? I mean, why confine them in small cages? Is that supposed to make them run faster? Don’t they need to practise running, build up strength and stamina?

The dog racing industry uses the same standards now as it did at its inauguration during the Great Depression 100 years ago. And what you and I see as terrible treatment is just fine in the eyes of kennel operators and track owners. In fact, when we point out that this is no way to treat a dog, they claim that they treat racing greyhounds “like kings and queens”.

Specifically, when we share photos of racing kennels, showing muzzled dogs in stacked metal cages, they say “greyhounds love their cages”! When we share their own records showing the number of broken bones, they say that a broken leg “is no big deal”.

That said, a deadly cost-benefit analysis is always in place, one that harms greyhounds every day wherever racing continues. Even if the industry would admit that the way dogs are kept is outdated and inhuman, and that healthy but injured dogs are killed instead of being given basic medical care, public interest in this old-fashioned form of gambling is in catastrophic decline. For this reason, kennel operators could simply argue that they can’t afford to do better. At its height in the USA in 1992, over $3.5 billion was bet and dog racing was the sixth most popular “sport”. Today it is disgraced and disparaged in the mainstream and after the closure of nearly 50 tracks, only two remain. They would have closed long ago if not for the $17 million in government subsidies they receive each year. This is something evidenced in other countries as well, as the industry uses the same playbook worldwide.

Finally, because greyhounds are so aerodynamic by nature, and the second fastest mammals on earth at short distances, they don’t need “training” to race and their natural ability is immutable,  simply inherent. So this is the terrible trap in which elegant and beautiful hounds find themselves. They are being exploited for their natural speed and agility, and their gentle nature, coupled with the fact that they rarely ever bark, makes them easy to mistreat.

What would you say to those who say GREY2K is only about fear-mongering and does nothing to actually help greyhounds, that these dogs are incredible athletes, and there are adoption groups nationwide that find them homes when they retire? 

Confronting a powerful and entrenched industry is not a popularity contest! When we first began working to close down the tracks in our home state, then expanding to all of the American states, some said we were tilting at windmills. That we would never win. They doubted our strategy, or thought we would just give up. Some, who were accustomed to working with the industry to save some of the dogs, worried that our efforts would backfire.

Instead, what we have seen is the USA setting a gleaming example, thus opening up our ability to help save greyhounds in the six other countries that have imitated our American invention. Recent trips to Australia and New Zealand, for instance, identified viable paths to protect greyhounds. Joining hands with allied organizations and individuals first in the United Kingdom and now worldwide, we are proud that an organization that still works out of a one-room office has been able to help save greyhounds from the cruelty of racing. We will continue to campaign for the end of racing and sponsor greyhounds from closing dog tracks, until all greyhounds get the second chance they deserve.

Sandy Pawpaw

Sandy Pawpaw is a fierce advocate of unleashing the animal in, and with, you.

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