Is the Era of Greyhound Racing Finally Over?

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Greyhounds wait to race at a track in Miami. Trabalza Jin/Shutterstock

Florida residents have voted to ban greyhound racing. The 11 racetracks in the state have two years to phase out operations, meaning they must be shut down by Dec. 31, 2020.

"The historical consequences of this are incredibly significant," Carey Theil, executive director of GREY2K USA, one of the lead backers of the ban, told the Orlando Sentinel. "We're seeing one of the highest approvals of any animal welfare measure in the nation."

Once the Florida ban takes effect, only five states will still allow greyhounds to race: Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Texas and West Virginia. Four other states don't have tracks, but dog racing is still legal in Connecticut, Kansas, Oregon and Wisconsin. Fifteen states allow simulcast betting for greyhound racing in other states.

Acceptance of the practice has changed in modern times, but dog racing has been around a long time. Here's how it got started in the U.S. — and how it slowly began to disappear.

A brief history of greyhound racing

dog coursing in a field
It all started with coursing, which is when dogs are trained to chase game in a field. krushelss/Shutterstock

Greyhound racing has its roots in coursing, when people hunted game in a field using dogs. It was a popular royal sport in the United Kingdom, and fast dogs with keen eyesight were key to the hunt. Greyhounds were the perfect dog for the job. Eventually these events became more organized races with greyhounds chasing an artificial lure instead of a live animal, according to the Greyhound Racing Association of America.

Greyhound racing came to the U.S. in the early 1900s when the first commercial greyhound racetrack and grandstand were built in Emeryville, California. The popularity of the sport began to grow as tracks started popping up in various parts of the country. By 1930, nearly 70 dog tracks had opened across the U.S. At the time, none were legal — and many were associated with mobsters.

Eventually the sport won the favor of some lawmakers. At its peak, greyhound racing was legal in 18 states. It was also popular in many other parts of the world including Australia, Ireland, Macau, Mexico, Spain and the U.K.

Uncovering abuse

Greyhounds race in Miami
Animal welfare activists alleged that greyhounds often didn't leave their crates except to practice or to race. Mikalesg/Shutterstock

Greyhound racing became a source of controversy starting in the 1970s. The industry came under scrutiny as animal welfare organizations alleged inhumane treatment of the dogs.

Investigations uncovered that dogs were being housed in cramped, stacked cages for more than 20 hours a day. Then came the discovery that many greyhounds were euthanized if they weren't fast enough to race or weren't good enough to breed. There were reports of serious injuries that went untreated and the use of "4-D" meat (derived from dying, diseased, disabled and dead livestock) that wasn't fit for consumption.

Animal welfare groups successfully lobbied some states to either improve conditions at racetracks or ban the sport altogether. According to the GREY2K website, since the group began its campaign in 2001, "more than two dozen American dog tracks have closed or ceased live racing operations. In the country which invented modern commercial greyhound racing, there are now only 17 dog tracks remaining in six states."

What's next for the dogs?

playful greyhound on couch
Greyhound lovers say they are couch potatoes. pinchi panchu/Shutterstock

Some critics of the Florida amendment worry that the ban will result in the euthanization of many dogs that are no longer needed, but proponents say the two-year phase out will give owners time to rehome these greyhounds.

Because a greyhound's racing days typically end when they are just a few years old, the dogs are sometimes kept for breeding. Rescue groups typically lobby hard to make these dogs available for adoption.

Greyhound fans say the dogs make excellent pets. They say they are sociable and gentle and are often described as "45 mph couch potatoes."