Going to the Dogs:
Greyhound Racing, Animal Activism and American Popular Culture
by Gwyneth Anne Thayer
University Press of Kansas (Lawrence, KS 66045), 2013.296 pages, hardcover. $34.95.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
George Armstrong Custer was a greyhound buff, who may have devoted more time and attention to the dogs than he did to fulfilling his military assignments.
Graduating last in the West Point class of 1861, Custer rose rapidly in rank during the ensuing U.S. Civil War, perhaps chiefly due to the high rate of attrition among front line officers.
Sent west after the war, Custer displayed military and diplomatic ineptitude for years, but was known for his success as a “dog man,” before June 25, 1876, when he led the Seventh Cavalry into the massacre known to history as the Battle of the Little Big Horn, but more accurately remembered in popular culture as Custer’s Last Stand.
About 250 of Custer’s troops died with him.
Bluffs Run folds
Greyhound racing and related pastimes themselves may be making their last stand now. Just one track remains in Iowa, at Dubuque, after the December 18, 2015 closure of the 30-year-old Bluffs Run track at Council Bluffs.
Betting on greyhound racing in Iowa had fallen 97%, from $186 million in 1986, when Bluffs Run opened, to just $5.9 million in 2012, and was still in decline, reported William Petroski of the Des Moines Register.
Surviving on subsidies
“Nationally,” Petroski wrote, “Iowa is one of only seven states that still have legal and operational greyhound tracks. Commercial dog racing is illegal in 38 states. Keeping greyhound racing going [in Iowa] are about $14 million in annual subsidies from Iowa casino profits, as required by the legislature.”
Similar number emerge from almost everywhere that greyhound racing persists.
In Florida, the longtime economic hub of the U.S. greyhound racing industry, state tax revenue from greyhound racing fell 99% from 1985 to 2012––from $77.2 million to $3.7 million.
Greyhound racing continues in Florida, Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle explained in his blog of February 17, 2016, because state law “requires racetracks to conduct a certain number of greyhound races if they want to continue to conduct casino-style gambling.” Then, Pacelle added, while the races are run, “gamblers cluster inside buildings, playing card games and slot machines, while the grandstands that overlook a racing oval are almost empty.”
Predicted Pacelle, “When the free market operates in place of state-mandated racing, most of the dog racing industry will dissipate, largely because so few people are interested in it.”
Florida Governor Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe, a major player in the Florida gambling industry, agreed in December 2015 to seek legislation, now pending before the Florida legislature, that would allow “decoupling.” This would end the requirement that casinos must subsidize the continued existence of the 12 greyhound tracks and three thoroughbred horse racing tracks left in the state.
Only seven greyhound tracks remain in the U.S. outside of Florida, scattered among six states.
Efforts to keep greyhound racing alive by promoting it abroad have mostly failed. Entrepreneurs continue to push it in parts of China, India, other Asian venues, Spain, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the Caribbean, but nowhere is greyhound racing thriving and untainted by scandal.
The 15-year-old Massachusetts-based organization Grey 2K has meanwhile grown from promoting the closure of local tracks into an international information exchange helping anti-greyhound racing campaigns worldwide.
Even if the remainder of the greyhound racing industry implodes and disappears as rapidly as about half of it has since Grey 2K formed, it is likely that Grey 2K will retain a viable mission in opposing coursing, the blood sport from which greyhound racing emerged.
Though coursing has never been nearly as big as greyhound racing became at peak, it is broadly distributed, with much deeper cultural roots in the U.K. and Ireland, and may take a generation longer to fully eradicate.
Gwyneth Anne Thayer thoroughly traces the documented history of both coursing and greyhound racing in Going to the Dogs: Greyhound Racing, Animal Activism, and American Popular Culture.
Along the way, Thayer refutes much of the mythology promoted by breeders about the alleged European aristocratic origin of greyhound breeding and use in the U.S., especially on the western frontier. But hunting with sighthounds, including greyhounds, did attract many people with aristocratic pretensions, including Custer, who appears to have been as sadistic as he was incompetent.
Formally organized coursing developed when prey for the hunters’ dog packs ran scarce. The common claim that hunting with hounds was necessitated by rabbit plagues in the 19th and early 20th centuries is belied by the growth of a considerable interstate commerce in rabbits to be released for hunting. This traffic was promoted by the National Coursing Association from formation in 1888.
Humane opposition to hounding wildlife emerged even before the rise of an organized humane movement. Coursing, the pursuit of a live rabbit within an enclosed area, was widely decried as inhumane from inception, and never gained more than a limited following in either the U.S. or Britain.
Promoter Owen Patrick Smith experimented with mechanical lures to induce greyhounds to run around a track as early as 1907. He opened the first modern greyhound track, the Blue Star Amusement Park, in Emeryville, California, in 1919. It closed in 1921, but Smith and others tried again and again in other locations, eventually finding fortune in parts of the Midwest, where coursing had been most popular, and in Florida, then just developing a reputation as a tourism and retirement destination.
Humane objections to coursing, centered on the fate of rabbits and other live prey, were quelled by the use of mechanical lures. Organized concern about the treatment and post-racing disposition of racing greyhounds, though addressed by the San Francisco SPCA in particular, did not emerge into widespread public view for more than 50 years. But greyhound racing was energetically opposed by anti-gambling organizations, mostly associated with churches, and by the horse racing industry, which from the first viewed dog tracks as unwelcome competition.
During the growth years of greyhound racing the most outspoken and successful opponent of it may have been then-California attorney general Earl Warren. Later noted for his pro-civil rights votes as 14th Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Warren in 1939 closed the seven-year-old El Cerrito Kennel Club.
Two other greyhound tracks on the San Francisco peninsula and another at Culver City, near Los Angeles, did not even attempt to open for the 1939 season. The El Cerrito Kennel Club stood, shuttered, for 20 years before it was redeveloped into a shopping center, but despite some efforts to reopen it, there was never another legal greyhound race in California.
Even when economically rising, the greyhound industry never appears to have been very stable. The original Multnomah Greyhound Park in Portland, Oregon, with reputedly the largest seating capacity of any track in the world, was converted into a minor league baseball stadium in 1956; greyhound racing continued until 2004 at a much downsized location.
As early as 1992, Kansas Racing Commission executive director Dana Nelson testified that “Not a single greyhound track in this country has shown a five-year trend of increasing handles…Many tracks have showed a continued downward spiral.”
Killing the dogs
Among many greyhound industry miscalculations, perhaps the most damaging may have been an attempt to stifle humane opposition during the 1980s by outsourcing the work of killing “surplus” and injured racing dogs to local animal shelters, instead of just shooting and burying them at the tracks where they were kenneled. Even at a time when U.S. shelters were killing seven times more dogs and cats than today, this additional burden was not welcomed. Belatedly, after dedicated nonprofit greyhound rescue societies emerged, the racing industry began to fund some efforts to rehome “retired” greyhounds, but far too late to repair a public image which has been deteriorating ever since.
Other tone-deaf responses to the public mood have contributed to the collapse of greyhound racing.
Thayer examines a variety of contributory cultural factors, including competition from Native American casinos and, to a lesser extent, the rise of online gaming.
Inescapable, however, is that while a declining industry can often reorganize and keep on going, with reduced investment and expectations, an industry that depends on widespread public participation cannot survive if perceived to be morally unacceptable.