It has been claimed that racing dogs spend 95% of their time in tiny kennels without social contact and suffer neglect. Will a new Government committee improve the welfare of these animals?
Being buried alive, disappearing off the radar entirely, and suffering agonising injuries are just some of the injustices suffering by racing greyhounds. That’s according to Caged North West, a non-profit group campaigning for an end to the racing industry. A staggering £2.5 billion is wagered on greyhound races every year, and now a Government inquiry will probe the self-regulated sport, aiming to ‘reflect on whether the right balance is being struck between maintaining a successful industry and protecting greyhound welfare, especially in their post-racing life’.
At the end of last year, MP for Islwyn Chris Evans told Parliament: “In 2010, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs adopted a system of self-regulation. When the system was instigated we were promised an end to the abuses of the past such as the one reported by The Sunday Times in 2006. The report found that, over 15 years, more than 10,000 healthy but unwanted greyhounds had been shot with a bolt gun and buried in a garden. That unofficial abattoir and graveyard was servicing licensed greyhound trainers. The practice was part and parcel of the greyhound racing industry. The chairman of the Greyhound Board of Great Britain admitted that it was “very plausible” for there to be similar operations that had not yet been uncovered.”
While he said progress has been made since 2010, there are still problems. “According to the Society of Greyhound Veterinarians, the dimensions of the track and the all-weather conditions in which greyhounds are forced to race lead to high injury rates. Greyhounds suffer bone fractures, skin trauma, lacerations and a host of other problems, many requiring euthanasia,” he said. “Most damning of all, each and every year, thousands of healthy greyhounds that could be re-homed and lead happy and long lives are needlessly and horribly put to sleep. We are now four years into self-regulation, and the racing industry’s problems are still prevalent.”
The League Against Cruel Sports adds: “The hidden side of greyhound racing includes lonely kennels, painful injuries and often neglect. Thousands of surplus dogs die or disappear every year, yet no laws require the industry to publish these figures. The dog racing industry by its nature is very secretive, with no current legal obligation to disclose any information on greyhound welfare. It was clear that cruelty, drug abuse, injury, neglect and killing were rife in greyhound racing. Government regulations were introduced in 2010 to address these problems, but they are woefully inadequate.”
The Dogs Trust charity compiled a report on these regulations, with CEO Adrian Burder writing: “Disappointingly this legislation only focused on welfare measures at the track (where greyhounds spend less than 10 per cent of their time). These regulations do not provide any legislative protection for greyhounds during breeding, kennelling, transportation and for retirement. The Government stated in its summary of the consultation that it was satisfied the Animal Welfare Act provided sufficient protection in these areas. Yet much of the industry’s activity is behind closed doors and without regular independent inspections it is very difficult for the enforcement agencies (RSPCA, police and local authorities) to apply the relevant legislation.”
He added: “As Britain’s fifth most popular sport, with an industry which has a £1.3 billion off-course betting turnover, with £237 million gross win for bookmakers and core industry income of £119 million, it seems inconceivable that racing greyhounds are often kept in such dire conditions.”
The Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB) is responsible for the governance, regulation and management of the sport of licensed greyhound racing in England, Scotland and Wales.
According to the organisation: “The GBGB is a centre for governance, regulation and welfare as well as a lead for commercial development and growth of the sport. It is committed to managing its functions to the highest standards achievable and being efficient, effective and accountable to those that it licenses, and the public.”
But one of the main issues Caged North West has with the industry is the lack of transparency. Group manager Rita James says: “Around 23,500 dogs are bred each year. Until the dogs are registered to race, there is no traceability. Only around 16,000 will be registered in any given year. That is thousands of puppies totally falling off the radar. Many of them are being destroyed – something that isn’t commented on by any welfare charities. After they stop racing and aren’t registered anymore there is no traceability. You have thousands of dogs falling through the gaps, and no information about what is happening to all of them.”
Simon Banks is the media and communications manager for GBGB. He says: “There are some people who just want to see racing banned, and people are welcome to that view. Then there are other organisations who want to see more legislation put in place. This 2015 review was always going to take place. Under the 2010 Animal Welfare Act there are provisions for greyhound racing – when that was passed it was agreed a review would be done in five years.
“As part of that review, people are preparing submissions for the committee. I believe a lot of the negative coverage of the sport recently has been part of an attempt to influence this review. While I know we have critics regarding transparency, our statuary obligations are fulfilled, and were any changes to be made, we would comply with them.
“In terms of the dogs, we have no account of the ones that aren’t registered. Before they are registered we can’t do anything about it. It’s very difficult to ascertain how many dogs are bred and then become registered. We would like to think all the dogs bred go on to race, but we have no way of knowing, especially when many of the dogs are born in Ireland which is out of our jurisdiction.”
As the 2006 Sunday Times investigation showed, many dogs have been killed using a captive bolt gun. For many, this is inexcusable. According to Caged: “Under existing UK legislation, any person can use a bolt gun to destroy a greyhound, if they are the legal owner. Attempted destruction of greyhounds by bolt has resulted in innocent dogs being left to suffer in agony for hours, before being found and taken to a veterinary surgery to be finally put to sleep by lethal injection. In April 2010 the RCVS announced that use of the captive bolt guns on dogs was inappropriate.”
The use of these guns can have many terrible impacts, leaving the dogs to die a painful death or worse: as the dogs are sometimes rendered unconscious by the guns, it is believed they are at risk of being buried alive. Caged North West is currently petitioning to have the captive bolt gun banned, with around 130,000 names on the petition so far.
The kennelling of the dogs is also a worry. While there are guidelines in place – both the Animal Boarding Establishments Act 1963 and the GBGB’s own minimum standards Rule 212- critics claim these are not being enforced. According to Rita, some of the kennels she has visited have been filthy and caked in faeces. The Dogs Trust’s investigation found the same, adding there were: “Kennels showing signs of neglect with dangerous sharp pieces of metal and wood that could cause injuries to dogs. Significant rot and water damage to roofs – some had collapsed posing a real danger to dogs. Kennels were dark and dank with inadequate light, and food preparation areas that were extremely dirty and chemicals directly above food containers.”
According to Simon from the GBGB: “We think the Dog’s Trust investigation was unprofessional. Because they were undercover, there were parts of the kennels they did not see. One of their conclusions said there was no fire extinguisher available, when in fact there was one, they just didn’t see it in the areas they visited. They also visited nine kennels, reviewing three as inadequate.”
But surely three inadequate kennels out of nine is a cause for concern? Simon says: “One of those three kennels was already under a notice for improvement, and again, we feel without seeing the entire grounds, the investigators did not get a full picture of those kennels.”
Doping is another concern, with a Panorama investigation in 2014 exposing one trainer race fixing by slowing a dog through drugging so the animal is re-graded, running against slower dogs. When the greyhound runs again – drug free – there is a greater chance of victory. According to the documentary, other drugs greyhounds have tested positive for include cocaine, steroids and beta blockers.
Simon confirms the GBGB has removed this trainer’s license, imposing a lifetime ban.
Now Rita James says she and the group’s members would like to see racing phased out over five years. “If it stopped immediately,” she explains, “We would worry about what would happen to the dogs. I feel like many would be sent over to countries where there are very few welfare laws, including China, Spain and Pakistan. This is already happening to some extent, but not to that scale.”
The one thing on the side of the anti-racing campaigners is public interest in the sport is waning – with many of the tracks now reliant on stage and hen dos and charity events hosted at the grounds to keep afloat. “I think more people are realising there is a dark side to this industry,” says Rita.
Simon disagrees, claiming track closures are down to the value of land for development. “The industry has stayed fairly steady,” he believes. “We’d like to see it grow, but we are unlikely to return to the heydays of the 1950s as there’s more for people to do now. But we see it as stable.”
But Rita argues: “The public are seeing so many of the dogs being rehomed – many of whom are absolutely traumatised by their experience – it’s just not got the same pull it used to. How confident are we that it will die out? Honestly, we are very confident. Not in terms of being reliant on the government to do anything, more because less and less people are interested in it. What we really need now is people from inside the industry to speak out – especially the kennel hands who know what’s going on in terms of welfare.
“We have rescues struggling to cope with the constant overspill.
“Hopefully the inquiry will be a positive step – any opportunity to review information should be a good thing, but there has to be a transparency of information, and it has to be used properly. I hope it is.”
What is the Government committee trying to find out?
- Whether current regulations are appropriate to ensure the welfare of racing greyhounds
- Whether the current regulatory framework, including a system of both licensed and independent local authority-regulated racing tracks, is consistently enforced across the country
- What the current situation is regarding the welfare of animals with specific reference to; breeding, kennelling, transporting, racing and euthanasia
- The collection and transparency of data referring to numbers of; active racing dogs, injuries sustained racing, use of drugs to influence performance, rehomed dogs, destroyed dogs and breeding and import figures
- Successful examples of self-regulation and the safeguarding of animal welfare from within the industry
- Whether industry and betting organisations contributions to animal welfare are a fair reflection of amount of income generated by the industry
- Whether any lessons can be drawn from horse racing or other industries regarding best practice and industry contributions to animal welfare.
Greyhounds: The accusations
- Racing dogs spend 95% of their time in small, barren kennels without social contact. Those that are housed in pairs are kept constantly muzzled which is highly distressing for them.
- Many are neglected and suffer fleas, worms, untreated injuries, malnutrition and dental problems. Industry sanctions against those who treat dogs in this manner are feeble and ineffectual.
- Poorly maintained tracks and racing frequency cause painful, and often lethal, injuries such as broken backs and shattered limbs. Shockingly, the industry is allowed to keep injury records secret.
- At least 10,000 dogs are deemed surplus to requirements every year. 8,000 are retired racers, the rest are young dogs that didn’t make the grade.
- British charities rehome many surplus dogs, but thousands are unaccounted for each year. Some are abandoned, some killed crudely, others sold for dissection.
Information from the League Against Cruel Sports