Dogs. Whether they’re trained to herd, protect, guide or simply be a companion, domesticated dogs have been an integral part of human civilization for more than 5,000 years. In fact, some historians trace the lineage of the greyhound breed back to ancient Egypt. Mummified remains of greyhound-like dogs have been found in tombs next to their owners who apparently wished to keep them as companions even in the afterlife. Well, all that changed about 100 years ago. In 1919, the first greyhounds were raced for sport on oval tracks in California. And in 1931, gambling on racing greyhounds was legalized in Florida. Today, dog races are held at 12 operational tracks across the state. Thanks to a report prepared for the Legislature by the Spectrum Gaming Group, we now know that these facilities lost a combined $35 million in 2012. More, the state lost as much as $3.3 million on this cruel and unpopular activity that year, because regulatory costs exceeded revenues. And now, reports of mistreatment and multiple deaths of greyhounds have caused many to question why dog racing is sanctioned by the state at all. According to official state records, a dog dies every three days at one of Florida’s racetracks. From May 31, 2013, through mid-February 2014, at least 95 greyhounds died. Some died from heat stroke; others were electrocuted when they were pushed into the wires that run around the track.
On June 20, 2013, a greyhound named Royal Runner died in one of his first trials. The 18-month-old dog was entered that day into a training event and had never officially raced. In the final moments of his life, the white and brindle greyhound collided with other dogs, fell into the racetrack rail and died after making contact with the live wire. The revenues from dog racing have been on a steady decline for many years and it’s now indisputable that racing dogs is harmful and cruel to the animals. So why do we allow this “sport” to persist? Simple: Florida’s law requires dog racing tracks to conduct races in order to be allowed to offer other forms of gaming such as card rooms or slot machines. We can and should change that law now. “Decoupling” will allow dog track owners to cease racing dogs but still be allowed to conduct other activities at their establishment. Animal protection groups and shelters across the state, including the Florida Association of Animal Welfare Organizations, the Jacksonville Humane Society and SPCA Tampa Bay, joined by the Florida Animal Control Association, support decoupling. And so do the many citizens who have made their voices heard. When the Senate Gaming Committee asked for public opinion last fall, nearly 80 percent of comments received came from Floridians calling for greyhound decoupling. In an attempt to perpetuate their state subsidy program, greyhound breeders have claimed that the passage of decoupling would somehow harm dogs. This is a scare tactic the industry has used in other states, and it has repeatedly proven to be false. When greyhound decoupling is approved, dog racing will not immediately end. Instead, it will wind down over several years. Nonprofit adoption programs have already committed to help find loving homes for Florida greyhounds during this process. While the state Legislature might not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, it can certainly change an old law that’s doing more harm than good — and we should. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, is the vice chairwoman of the Florida Senate Gaming Committee. Christine A. Dorchak is the president and general counsel of GREY2K USA, the nation’s largest greyhound advocacy and protection organization.