The sights of the greyhound track can be horrifying: cages too tight for dogs to stand, abuse at the hands of trainers, gruesome injury and prompt euthanasia. A new report [PDF], released on September 4th by GREY2K USA and the ASPCA, looks at greyhound racing in West Virginia and finds a dying industry that’s propping itself up by cutting corners on animal care. Across the country, it seems like public opinion has turned against greyhound racing–the number of tracks in the United States has fallen by half over the past ten years.
The emotional case to ban greyhound racing is easy to make. People love dogs, and racing dogs face short and painful lives so casinos can maximize their profit. West Virginia has only two active tracks, but from 2008 to the present, 4,796 greyhound injuries were reported, resulting in 289 deaths. If the numbers don’t make the case, then the stories do. One dog spent over two months in the kennel with a broken leg without receiving veterinary treatment. Another was grabbed by the neck and thrown screaming into a truck by a trainer with a record of mistreatment. A director at the Wheeling Island Racetrack described one kennel: “I began choking so badly that even my eyes were watering… a strong odor of urine affected me.”
Emotions alone don’t change public policy, however, especially not when significant sums of money are involved. Without much fanfare, the legislative shift against greyhound racing has become one of the most decisive progressive victories of our time. In the past twenty years, eleven states have passed laws prohibiting dog racing.
How did the anti-racing movement become so successful so quickly? Like any successful campaign, they had a strong but nimble leadership who understood how to activate passive supporters and create strategic alliances.
The 2008 campaign to ban greyhound racing in Massachusetts operated in the shadow of a failed referendum eight years earlier. The 2000 campaign lacked the infrastructure to compete on a statewide level; the measure only appeared on the ballot because unconnected volunteers across the state collected signatures. By the next campaign, activists had enlisted almost one hundred local coordinators and won the endorsement of many more community leaders. The movement gained a voice, and a thorough research effort provided a meaningful, compelling message. Massachusetts voters responded by giving the greyhounds a victory by almost 12%.
Advocates of greyhound racing use mostly economic arguments, threatening job losses if the industry is forced to close. Rhode Island kept dog racing in 2009 because of the need to maintain tax revenue, and advertisements from Massachusetts tracks told the stories of their workers. To combat this, anti-racing activists have focused on the subsidies that state governments spend on greyhounds. They’ve formed alliances with casino owners forced to keep failing tracks open. When I spoke to Ann Church, the ASPCA’s vice president for state affairs, she was just as prepared to make the economic case as the animals rights case for ending the sport. These arguments resonate across the political spectrum, and Republicans have led the fight to ban racing in Arizona and West Virginia.
Through all this, greyhound advocacy has been on the fringes of the progressive movement. I doubt that many progressives actively support greyhound racing, but the campaigners’ success rarely gets the attention it deserves. Church admits that they face entrenched opposition in West Virginia, admitting to me that “once the stream of money starts flowing, it’s very hard to turn off.” The dogs have canny organizers and battle-tested strategies on their side, however, and I doubt it will be long before we finally see an end to America’s cruelest sport.