Greyhound racing is under pressure in Ireland
Greyhound racing has just been banned in New South Wales, Australia, and is about to be banned in the Australian Capital Territory. I know that this fact will surprise many people. After all, what's wrong with greyhound racing? Many people have enjoyed a night at the greyhound races, watching healthy animals showing off their athletic prowess. Isn't it just a few dogs running around a track? How is it different from horse racing? Or agility training, where dogs race around an obstacle course? Why should it be banned anywhere?
The answer to this question is simple: it's what happened behind the scenes. A television documentary team in Australia took secret video footage of greyhound training techniques. They found compelling evidence of animal cruelty which was enough to convince parliamentarians to decide that greyhound racing did not have a place in today's civilised society.
The cruel training technique is known as "live baiting". This is based on the questionable premise that a greyhound will run faster in a race if it has been "blooded" i.e. chased and killed a live creature. At the race track, greyhounds chase a "lure", which is a toy-like object that trundles along a track in front of the racing animals. When greyhounds are trained using live baiting, one method is for a living creature (such as a rabbit, a piglet, a cat or an opossum) to be tied down to a piece of wood and used instead of the normal inanimate lure. The unfortunate animal squeals as it is chased and then attacked by the greyhounds. At first, the greyhounds wear muzzles so that they cannot kill the live bait, but then the muzzles are removed and the greyhounds are allowed to "catch" and kill their prey.
Live baiting is regarded as serious animal cruelty, and as such, it's illegal. A number of prominent greyhound trainers in Australia were interviewed about this technique on camera, and predictably, they condemned the practice. However an animal welfare group used hidden, secret video cameras to film the same trainers, showing them carrying out live baiting as part of their training regime. It was this graphic video footage, and the contrast between the public statements and the private actions which led to the ban on the sport. It emerged that at least 20% of greyhound trainers engaged in live baiting, and it was widely stated that while the remaining 80% did not use the technique, they must have known that it was happening, and as such, they were complicit by their continuing silence.
After the programme, a government enquiry investigated greyhound racing in New South Wales, coming up with two major negative conclusions. First, the live baiting issue, which was bad enough on its own. And second, the "wastage rate" within the greyhound industry was a major concern. Nearly 50000 healthy greyhounds had been killed over the previous 12 years because they were not winners. It was the findings of this enquiry that led to the vote to have the sport banned.
Even before the ban in Australia, greyhound racing was under pressure globally. It's only legal in eight countries (Ireland, UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, China, Vietnam and Mexico). And it's especially under pressure in Ireland, with greyhound track betting receipts down by 50% over the past five years. Young people are not interested in greyhound racing and have other pastimes these days, and online betting is taking over from being at the greyhound track in person, so attendance is poor.
While there has been no confirmed evidence of live baiting being used to train greyhounds in Ireland, animal welfare groups maintain that some of the other criticisms of the Australian industry apply equally to the situation here.
In particular, the so-called "wastage rate" is shocking. It's estimated that around 10000 greyhounds are surplus to requirements every year and there are only good homes for around 1200 animals. This means that around 88% of unwanted greyhounds disappear to an unknown fate, and it's strongly suspected that many of them are euthanised or illegally killed.
Animal welfare groups are asking that the precise outcome of unwanted greyhounds is followed through accurately, so that the full nature of the issue can be quantified. It wouldn't be difficult to do this, since greyhounds are already tracked individually throughout their racing career.
Critics suspect that details about what happens to unwanted greyhounds are kept quiet deliberately. Surely the best way to resolve this issue is to be transparent about what happens? If there's no problem, that's fine. If there is a problem, then we need to address it. But trying to make it go away by ignoring it is no longer an acceptable answer.
The Irish government supported the greyhound industry with a financial grant of €14.8 million in 2016, a figure that's over half of the €27 million given to human sports activities. When public money is used in this way by a semi-state body, there's a responsibility to be transparent and accountable to the tax payer. From my point of view as a vet, the issues should not continue to be swept under the rug. If greyhound racing is to continue to thrive in Ireland, then serious reform is needed.