Where have all the racing dogs gone? – First they went to Florida; now many are back in Bay State

October 6, 2010
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There may not be greyhound racing in Massachusetts anymore, but there are still a lot of greyhounds.

In Massachusetts, a statewide ballot question in 2008 passed by a large margin and ended dog racing here forever. Locally, tracks like Wonderland were pretty much put out of business. Others, like the Taunton track, were also put out of business.

And, for the most part, it was the welfare and well-being of the racing dogs that drove the passage of that question.

So why is it that the dogs are now being ignored by so many?

While that ballot question ended the long-standing dog racing industry in the state a few years ago, racing dogs are still coming back to Massachusetts from out-of-state in huge quantities and adoption agencies here are trying to figure out what to do with them.

It’s an example of just how a ballot question – so emotionally driven – can have such unforeseen consequences. It brings up the larger question as to whether or not such sweeping changes to government should be determined by a simple vote of the people. It’s especially timely now as voters face three important ballot questions in this November’s election.

The consequences of the 2008 Question 3 involving greyhounds are no more obvious than at the Greyhound Friends, Inc. facility in Holliston – a greyhound adoption group that worked closely with Wonderland for years until the referendum shut down the track’s racing operations.

The popular sentiment in 2008 was that by voting out greyhound racing, it would end the so-called cruel racing industry and set racing dogs free, as if it were a kind of emancipation proclamation. Television political advertisements said as much.

However, the reality is much different, and Louise Coleman – director of Greyhound Friends – said they are getting greyhound racers by the droves, and people aren’t coming to adopt them like they used to.

“One of the challenges we have to get out to the public is that just because there’s no more dog racing in Massachusetts doesn’t mean there are no more dogs,” she said during a recent interview at her facility. “If anything, there are more dogs. People are counterintuitive. They don’t understand the dogs always went to Florida…People have this image that Massachusetts racing dogs were Massachusetts dogs. There’s always been a circuit. Sometimes they went to the Midwest or Florida.”

That disconnect has been hard on Greyhound Friends, as their benefactors and funders have lost interest or gone to other causes.

“People think there are no more dogs, which does mean we have to work harder for fund-raising,” said Coleman.

Basically, after racing ended here, many trainers and kennel owners took their dogs to Florida. There are 13 tracks in Florida still in existence and dogs from Wonderland simply made the trip south.

They weren’t set free to frolic in the fields and play all day long.

They just went somewhere else to race.

Now, however, those dogs are retiring and they’re coming back to Massachusetts in droves.

“We used to get four or five dogs and now often they want to bring a lot of dogs all at once,” said Coleman. “They don’t want to bring a few of these dogs all the way up here from Florida.”

The reality of that situation is that there is rarely an open cage at the facility for incoming dogs. In the past, dogs were brought from local kennels and there was a good relationship forged between racers and adopters. Now, however, trucks bring in dogs from out of state, as the greyhound adoption movement isn’t as big in other parts of the country as it is here in Massachusetts.

Cage after cage contains dogs that are listed as coming from ‘Florida’ or ‘West Virginia,’ instead of ‘Massachusetts.’

Now, with the question two years in the background, Coleman said that the measure might not have had a lot of foresight – especially when it came to providing for the consequences of removing a long-time industry from the state.

“The whole question seemed to me to be, when the referendum was passed, it wasn’t brought to peoples’ attention that just because you stop racing doesn’t mean you don’t have more dogs,” she said. “There was no provision for the care of the dogs that are left afterward…In the abstract, people think there’s no more racing, but in reality there’s all these dogs and whose going to take care of them? It’s especially hard for us.”

Another worry is if greyhound racing disintegrates in other places. Just who will take care of all of those dogs? It’s a worry in the adoption industry that they call the potential “Greyhound Tsunami.”

“The big worry right now is that if a number of tracks down there in Florida closed all at once, there would be so many dogs coming here,” she said. “We’re worried about that right now. They call that possibility a ‘Greyhound Tsunami.’ It would be a little overwhelming. It’s kind of daunting to think about.”

Finally, there’s also the worry about the overall survival of the greyhound breed. Without greyhound racing, greyhound trainers, and upstanding kennels, adoption agency directors wonder who would actually breed greyhounds.

It’s another consequence that wasn’t explored before the vote.

“If greyhound racing goes all over the country, who is going to breed greyhounds?” asked Coleman. “The adoption movement has created a real demand for these dogs and people want them. The worst-case scenario is that the puppy mills would take them over. Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of planning in this process.”

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