As Florida prepares for Hurricane Irma’s approach, the fate of hundreds of greyhound dogs kenneled at racetracks across the state remains uncertain.
Florida is one of only five states in the United States that still have greyhound racing, with about a dozen currently-active tracks, far more than any other state. The practice is completely banned in 40 states. The industry has experienced a sharp decline over the years, with a 72% decrease in the amount gambled at dog tracks in Florida from 1990 to 2013, according to a report by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.
Animal rights activists have advocated against abuse and mistreatment of racing greyhounds since at least the 1980s. (The Greyhound Protection League collects greyhound abuse stories reported by the media; their website is currently under construction but archive site is viewable at the Wayback Machine site). New laws passed by legislatures in states that still allow racing have improved welfare standards for the animals and awareness has led to a growing number of advocacy groups placing retired racing dogs for adoption.
Still, concerns remain, especially regarding how the dogs are housed and the perception that the dogs are viewed as expendable by the tracks, useless once they are no longer competitive racers.
Dog track operations involve hundreds of dogs being kept available on site to be ready for races throughout the week, and the tracks keep the greyhounds on site in warehouse-style kennels in stacked cages that are too small allow the dogs much freedom of movement. The dogs are “turned out” several times a day for exercise and to relieve themselves.
This method of housing the dogs is a significant cause for concern among greyhound advocates during the upcoming Hurricane Irma, which will make landfall in Florida in the coming hours and is expected to cause substantial damage across large swaths of the state.
Susan Netboy, an activist who has volunteered with the Greyhound Protection League for over thirty years, told the Orlando Political Observer that she reviewed the websites of dog tracks in Florida, to see what their plans were during the hurricane to protect the dogs at their facilities.
No track seemed to have any organized plans to evacuate the dogs, and the reality is that a quick, large-scale evacuation of hundreds of dogs is not logistically possible. Neither the tracks nor the owners of the dogs have vehicles that can move more than six to eight dogs at a time. There is also very little information available about any measures being taken to secure and protect the dogs during what will most likely be a terrifying storm for them.
“I found very little that was comforting,” said Netboy, noting that the tracks were continuing to hold races Friday and Saturday, and therefore keeping their dogs on site. According to Netboy, the track management at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg was offering $5,000 to each kennel to help the dogs during the storm, but that was the only mention at all she could find about how the dogs were being protected during the hurricane.
A review by this writer supported Netboy’s report. Comments on a post on the Derby Lane Facebook page suggested that 2 of their kennel operators were evacuating their dogs, but the rest were remaining at the track facility. Attempts to call the Sanford Orlando Kennel Club led only to voice mails in the general manager’s office, racing department, and security and operations office. Overall, the dog track websites announce changes to their schedules because of the storm, but no information about the welfare of the dogs at their facilities.
The majority of Florida dog tracks do not appear to be in mandatory evacuation zones, but those in coastal areas are at the same risk from flooding and storm surges as the rest of the buildings in the area. For those tracks not in flood or storm surge danger, assuming the buildings are up to code, leaving the dogs sheltered in the dog kennels is likely a safe option, Netboy acknowledged.
However, she was still concerned about whether the dogs would have adequate food and water, how long it might be before someone checked on them, and how stressful it would be for the dogs to be left alone during the storm.
“Who’s caring for the dogs when it [the storm]hits?” asked Netboy, “Kudos to those who are having employees stay with the dogs, but it doesn’t look like most of them are.” And even if people are staying with the dogs, it will likely be impossible to turn them out during the storm.
The effect of storm-induced stress on the dogs is another reason for her concern: would they be too traumatized to be effective racers after weathering the hurricane? One of the main objections greyhound advocates have raised for years is how the dogs are sometimes treated as disposable, euthanized after even minor, treatable injuries or when they are no longer competitive racers.
“The dogs will be traumatized afterwards, there’s no doubt,” said Netboy, who described dogs she had observed who had been rescued after being abandoned during Hurricane Katrina and suffered from severe anxiety problems thereafter. One dog she recalled would shake in terror whenever the new owner would turn on the shower, even years later.
“Preparations for disasters like hurricanes in Florida are commonplace, but in the dog racing industry, there is nothing really happening,” said Netboy. “I want to see that change.”
Photo: Vintage postcard in Boston Public Library collection, via Flickr.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.