Doggone days for Australian greyhound racing


Sydney (AFP)

When greyhound owner Zac Kessanis comes to Sydney's Wentworth Park to watch his much-loved dog race, he's not so much interested in the prizemoney as in simply seeing her run.

"For 30 seconds we're on top of the world, we're so proud, no matter what," he says of watching the black greyhound named Ella Has Class sprint the distance in front of hundreds of punters.

But from next July, there will be no more greyhound racing at Wentworth Park: The once-vibrant industry in Australia's New South Wales is being shut down, accused of widespread and rampant animal cruelty.

The end comes after a government inquiry found that tens of thousands of dogs have been killed for being too slow over the past 12 years while others have been allowed to rip apart live animals -- including rabbits, piglets and possums -- as part of their training.

But even as investigators look into several possible mass graves, the New South Wales government's decision has prompted outrage from owners and trainers who say they love their dogs and argue the shutdown reeks of class warfare.

Low admission charges, the possibility to place small bets, and the lure of dog ownership with the potential of fame and fortune, made greyhound racing hugely popular with the nation's working class.

In the 1920s and 1930s it was hailed as the 'Sport of the Masses' with the track at Sydney's Harold Park drawing crowds of up to 30,000. But in recent decades attendances have drastically declined -- in part because you no longer have to attend the track to place bets, and can watch a race from the pub and at home.

Now greyhound racing has become a battleground between those who enjoy a bet, or are part of the industry, and those who say the sport is cruel.

"The reality is that the industry has a dark side," the NSW government inquiry found.

"The slaughter of many thousands of purpose-bred greyhounds long before they reach their normal life expectancy may be 'just business' for many breeders, owners and trainers. But it is a cruel business."

The inquiry found that between 48,891 and 68,448 greyhounds were killed in the past 12 years for being uncompetitive, and that scores of dogs suffered catastrophic injuries when racing.

"As a humane and responsible government, we are left with no acceptable course of action except to close this industry down," New South Wales Premier Mike Baird said.

According to the inquiry's final report, commercial greyhound racing is only legal in seven other countries, including the UK and Mexico. It has been banned in 40 US states.

The sport employs at least 1,500 people in NSW, and the move to ban it has stunned owners and trainers who say they adore their dogs, adding that they welcomed reforms to improve animal welfare. A legal challenge is a possibility.

"Greyhounds are treated better than any dog I know. I deal with people all the time, trainers, owners, they love their animals more than anything," trainer Dean Swain told AFP ahead of a recent Wentworth Park meet.

Swain, who has 24 racing greyhounds, attributes his success to his treatment of his dogs, which extends to playing them music.

"I wouldn't have success if I didn't love 'em," he says.

Swain believes the upcoming ban will not only cause financial devastation for some, but will take away a vital social lifeline for others.

"It's the reason they get out of bed in the morning. It's not about money, they are going to the track to talk to their mates and race," he says.

- Ban is 'un-Australian' -

Australia is one of only a small number of countries where commercial greyhound racing exists, and Swain sees the ban as "un-Australian".

"We're talking 100 years of history," he explains.

"Obviously times have changed, but the history of greyhound racing in the fabric of our society as the way we are, as a battling working-class type of people, I feel the history is huge."

Animal rights' advocates argue the problems with the industry could not be ignored and, while some owners clearly loved their dogs, many of the problems relate to those dogs who never made it to the track.

"You've got live-baiting, wastage (killing of uncompetitive dogs), doping, injuries on track, lack of socialisation of dogs and (poor) conditions," says Animals Australia communications director Lisa Chalk.

"The industry had a long time to reform and chose not to."

As loud-speakers announce the names of the dogs to race and trackside punters drink frothy beer from plastic cups, greyhound owner Kessanis says the ban is "absolutely devastating".

"It hurts," he says.