The Future Of Greyhound Advocacy & Adoption
Greyhound adoption has been part of the companion animals landscape in North America since the early 1990s but now has reached a turning point. The 12 dog tracks in Florida closed this past year after voters approved (69-31%) the 2018 Florida Constitutional Amendment 13, outlawing commercial greyhound racing and leaving only five American venues to hold live dog races. Two tracks in Arkansas and Iowa have announced “wind down” schedules whereby they will cease holding live dog races by the end of 2022.
Meanwhile, a bill banning commercial dog races nationwide has begun winding its way through the federal legislative system as HR 3335, also known as The Greyhound Protection Act. Whether that last bill is ever signed into law or not, the greyhound racing industry seems to be on its last legs. Just two other tracks in West Virginia are hanging on, while the network of dog breeders and trainers that has supported commercial racing nationwide have mostly ceased breeding new litters, sold off their stock, and closed up shop, since there is not a critical mass of tracks left to support their businesses any longer.
For those who breed, race, and manage the National Greyhound Association (NGA) registry of racing greyhounds, this is a terrible moment. Since commercial dog tracks were first legalized in 1934, greyhound breeders have produced hundreds of thousands of dogs to serve the track network. Greyhound farms were generally located in rural areas of states like Kansas, Oklahoma, or Florida. “Owners” included a number of multi-generational families who bred and sold or contracted dogs to kennel operators at the tracks as a kind of agricultural work. Others founded breeding farms as a mid-life career change, investing in some farmland, erecting dog runs and a few outbuildings, then competing for contracts at the highest paying track they could achieve. Either way, although they were independent business owners competing to produce winning dogs and land lucrative kennel contracts, collectively they operated within a close-knit community of people united by their labor in picking, breeding, and training dogs represented by the one hundred-year old NGA registry. The end of the commercial track network means the end of that community, in large part, as people retire from the business or turn to other kinds of work.
For the greyhound adoption community that coalesced in the 1990s, it is a time of mixed feelings and finding new goals. Greyhound adoption was essentially non-existent until some sporadic adoptions of greyhounds from dog tracks beginning in the 1970s and early 1980s. Before that, dogs found to be too slow or unwilling to chase a lure were euthanized by breeding farm operators on rural properties where the number of pups killed over the decades is impossible to know. If they made it to a “Greyhound Park,” as the tracks were called, most dogs raced one, two, perhaps three years before being graded out and euthanized by kennel operators. A minority were returned to farms to breed the next batch of racers.
Within the industry, many people were certain that greyhounds must be killed when no longer financially productive. The cost and effort of adoption or simply putting a greyhound “out to pasture” for five, seven, or nine years was something individual owners would not take on. Others in the industry suspected that since greyhounds lived only in institutional, group housing situations characterized by strict routines and no contact with the outside world, it would be unlikely to retrain them for life as a household companion. Still others were reflexively suspicious of outsiders having any input on the management or disposition of ex-racers, or worried that the proliferation of greyhounds as companion animals might destroy the breed’s mystique — people would come to realize that greyhounds were dogs like any other.
Indeed, for decades NGA greyhounds carried a dangerous reputation as a muzzle-wearing killer, driven by unchanging instinct and harsh training to seek out and kill any small animal. An early history of greyhound adoption written by adoption pioneer Joan Dillon in Celebrating Greyhounds magazine recounted how, between the 1930s and 1970s, some critics of dog racing believed that greyhounds were dangerous to children and a threat to public safety. Racers would never adapt to new settings or new expectations about how to interact with people or other animals, so should be subject to a breed ban. Adoption was slow to take root due these kinds of limited understandings of how dogs can be rehabilitated or retrained. Certainly, many kinds of dogs held in shelters in those years were burdened by such faulty ideas. Over the last fifty years, our knowledge about how dogs perceive the world, how they learn and change over time, and how they can be rehabilitated has grown immensely.
Thereafter, a community of adopters and a network of greyhound adoption groups in the United States and Canada developed due to two crucial trends. First, the culture of companion animal keeping on the continent continued shifting toward a conception of dogs as not simple property or working animal, but family members. That was a consumer trend that began in earnest around the turn of the twentieth century and today has produced what social scientists call “multi-species” families, as fewer people choose to have children or live in traditional, heteronormative nuclear family situations. Second, greyhounds began appearing in public as companion animals at adoption events, or just going for a walk in the neighborhood, gaining a new reputation as gentle, sensitive, funny, and visually striking.
Indeed, greyhounds themselves should be given ample credit for the fact that greyhound adoption quickly became a well-known aspect of the companion keeping landscape. Still, they needed help from people willing to challenge the status quo at greyhound tracks and farms. Early adopters like Joan Dillon had begun in the 1970s and 1980s by asking at the track kennel on an ad hoc basis if she could take away or buy “used-up” racers. Within a decade, early adopters and supporters began founding non-profit, volunteer-run organizations that developed systematic relationships with specific track kennel operators and farms to save healthy greyhounds from euthanasia. Groups sprouted up everywhere across the US and Canada.
By 1998 there were an estimated 200 adoption groups that had found homes for many thousands of dogs. They set up networks of foster homes for ex-racers just off the track, where greyhounds could begin learning about life outside the industry and become more likely to be successfully adopted later. Volunteers, including the venerable “adoption coordinator” in each group, devised criteria for vetting potential adopters, evaluating “home check” visits and adoption applications, as well as other protocols for providing after-adoption advice and support to new greyhound guardians. A rich culture developed in the community dedicated to discussing greyhound habits, needs, breed-specific health issues, and retraining best practices. All these grass-roots, volunteer-run ventures, and the few dog tracks that had their own adoption programs, were united by dedication to the breed. What’s more, people could be quite fanatical about it, adopting many dogs over the decades. Greyhounds are like potato chips, as the saying goes. You can’t have just one!
Still, there were arguments about how and why this was all taking place. “Are you PR (pro-racing) or AR (anti-racing)?” is a question that has preceded many interactions among greyhound advocates and adopters. Indeed, the adoption community is a politically diverse one, characterized by many open arguments and uneasy alliances. From the perspective of pro-racing adoption groups—some members of which are also current or aspiring “owners” of one or two racing greyhounds themselves, which makes them investors of a sort—the end of the industry means the end of NGA registry. This is unacceptable because PR adopters seek to continue adopting ex-racers, whom they believe to be far superior to greyhounds registered by the American Kennel Club, the unregistered greyhounds bred by farmers as rural coyote hunters, and certainly other breeds of sighthound. They find it exasperating that other greyhound lovers—anti-racing adopters—would profess such love for the breed, yet seek to destroy the breeders who supply greyhounds who become companion animals.
Anti-racing adopters counter that they are “rescuing” greyhounds from an inherently exploitative industry that cuts corners at the expense of animal welfare at every turn. They see themselves as “cleaning up the mess” people in the industry create by breeding too many dogs and having no practical plan or funding for their lives after age five, or if seriously injured on the track. They understand that the NGA registry will become very small or possibly go extinct. Still, greyhounds will exist in some form, so it is okay to make this sacrifice to save suffering in future.
Meanwhile, on the few discussion boards and social media pages where PR and AR greyhound people do talk to one another, whether one uses the term “retire” or “rescue” to refer to adoption is symbolic of one’s position in this debate. Caught in the middle are crucial neutral adoption groups who decline to make statements for or against dog racing as a way to preserve their access to kennel operators and greyhound farm owners who control the supply of dogs. With some regularity, industry insiders and pro-racing adoption groups have withheld greyhounds coming off the tracks from any adoption group or individual adopter they believe opposes dog racing or is formally neutral but suspected of working with anti-racing groups.
With the industry in the United States almost gone now, resentments remain, but the argument about whether greyhound racing in the United States should continue is largely moot. How will greyhound adoption groups and the vast number of greyhound lovers in North America respond?
Some groups have chosen to disband. For example, non-profit Detroit group Michigan Retired Greyhounds as Pets (MI ReGAP) was one of a number of state-based “ReGAP” groups in the U.S., and was known as one of the most staunchly anti-racing groups on the continent. Founded in 1994, they were active in adoption for twenty years, and claim that 1,800 dogs passed through their hands. When the dog tracks that had been supplying ex-racers to them closed, the group briefly transitioned to finding homes for other kinds of dogs, then ceased handling adoptions at all around 2017 and appear to be dormant now.
Others groups have pivoted to become sighthound rescues with a more global outlook, although not without raising some dilemmas. The non-profit Greyhound Pets, Inc. (GPI) in Woodinville, Washington, for instance, houses their greyhounds at a recently-constructed kennel and in foster homes, traditionally bringing in dogs from the many tracks in Florida. Seeing the eventual fate of the industry and fulfilling a broader mandate to help sighthounds of different backgrounds, about six years ago they began bringing in lurchers (greyhounds crossed with various hunting dog breeds) from Ohio-based American Lurcher Project and non-NGA sighthounds from rescue groups in South Korea and Dubai.
In one especially notable “haul,” GPI volunteers participated in the rescue of dogs retrieved from the dreaded Canidrome dog track in Macau, a former Portuguese colony and gambling city in China. The track was ordered closed with 500 dogs living in barren, concrete cells on site—dogs of every age, many in terrible physical and psychological condition; the formally neutral GPI collaborated with a global consortium including anti-racing, neutral, and pro-racing greyhound adoption groups led by local advocacy group Anima Macau. Teams of volunteers raised many thousands of dollars and descended upon the old Canidrome kennels to oversee each dog’s (often extensive) necessary veterinary treatment, while beginning their resocialization. Although Anima Macau found a few adoptive homes right in Macau, for the rest it was necessary to ferry dogs to Hong Kong, ten or fifteen dogs at a time, then fly them to waiting volunteers in Australia, the United States, and around Europe.
Is this the future of greyhound adoption? A large community of greyhound adopters resides in North America. The largest remaining dog racing industries are in Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. There, adoption programs cannot find enough homes for all the dogs discarded by the trade, and much of the public believe greyhounds are vicious or otherwise unsuitable as household companions (as was the greyhound’s reputation in the U.S. some decades ago). If an adopter in, say, Los Angeles, takes in an ex-racer imported from Australia, is that a tacit endorsement of Australian racing and its many well-documented animal welfare problems? What are the ethics of global “rescue” efforts that circulate dogs from the regions of the globe where they are born to places where there are people willing to take them in and bear the financial burden of their care? What are the welfare implications for dogs asked to travel long distances in this global traffic? As greyhound adoption has become globalized, these are questions that greyhound people, whether PR or AR, will need to contend with.
Check out the Faunalytics Factsheet, Greyhound Racing: A Winnable Issue, to find out more about the current state of greyhound racing globally.