Monday, 21 December 2009

Misguided petition

Going ‘online’ reaches thousands of like minded individuals and there are many benefits to this including the increasing popularity of online petitions. One such petition, submitted recently by Ms Maureen Purvis, is calling for the “Prime Minister to withdraw the proposed regulations under the Animal Welfare Act which cheat racing greyhounds of protection.”

It is a petition that is likely meaningless to the majority of the public but refers to proposed regulations drafted by Defra to promote the welfare of racing greyhounds in England. Essentially, the new legislation is intended to provide minimum welfare standards across all tracks in England and largely bring the independent (flapping) tracks in line with those tracks licensed under the Greyhound Board of Great Britain.

Key detail of the proposals includes the requirement for a vet to be present at all race/trail meetings and the provision of suitable veterinary facilities, greyhounds to be examined by a vet prior to each race/trial (and withdrawn if judged not fit to run) and injuries sustained to be recorded.

Such measures are vital because of the frequency and nature of injuries greyhounds sustain in trails and races. Injuries sustained annually across all tracks in Britain total 5 figures, and about 1,000 greyhounds are put-to-sleep every year following injury. And whilst standards at licensed tracks exceed the minimum requirements under the proposed regulations, that is far from the case for the majority of flapping tracks.

Limb fractures and, in particular, hock fractures of varying severity are common. Indeed trainer Craig Hopkins has stated: “Day in, day out, racing dogs break their hocks, it’s as simple as that.” Needless to say, the pain can be excruciating but the petitioner wants the withdrawal of new measures that, if properly enforced, will ensure dogs at all tracks receive immediate treatment.

Regulations, however, cost money for both the financially strapped track operators and trainers. And whilst trainers and owners are undoubtedly passionate about the racing of greyhounds, the dogs are merely a commodity - essentially a betting medium - and have little value. As such their welfare is not a priority.

It might, therefore, be reasonable to think Ms Purvis is a promoter or perhaps a regular on the track terraces each week, a fag in one hand, a betting slip in the other and her face plastered in pound-shop make-up (solely based on observation you understand). Ms Purvis was certainly held in high regard by the late Armine Appleton - a trainer of 30 years - who enjoyed her support at a racing disciplinary hearing.

As many, however, will know Ms Purvis is of celebrity endorsed Greyhounds UK fame - a group that if nothing else has raised the profile of greyhound welfare - but is not, and I stand to be corrected, seeking the abolition of racing. With though an unquestionable passion for the welfare of greyhounds why then a petition calling for the proposals to be withdrawn?

To the right of signatories listed it states: “These regulations cheat greyhounds out of the protection they deserve for the 99% of their time spent in kennels while racing and, when they are no longer able to race, protection from abandonment or destruction. They allow greyhounds to continue to be kept away from any independent publicly accountable inspection, defeating the purpose of the Animal Welfare Act.”

Not strictly true as there will be a requirement for all dogs to be earmarked and micro-chipped before competing on the track and this will offer limited protection to ex-racing greyhounds but certainly the proposed regulations do not cover many areas of concern endemic in greyhound racing. Is that, however, reason to scrap the proposals? Better surely, to have limited protection specific to racing dogs than none at all.

Backing the petition is Greyt Exploitations (GE) that, according to the ‘group’ website is “campaigning for the abolition of betting on greyhounds.” An admirable aim indicating perhaps a desire to see an end to racing but GE has this year been very much regulation focused and is supporting the petition, not least, on the assumption the proposed regulations are “unenforceable and worthless.”

In defence, GE reference a press release by Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services (LACORS) in which it states: “The new legislation to be issued by Defra requires councils to issue licenses for greyhound tracks to operate. It does not, however, contain any offences, inviting track owners to break the law and leaving councils with no powers to prosecute them.”

The press release is, however, “not best worded” according to Defra. If flapping tracks do not comply with new regulations their licence can be revoked by the local authority and any track operating without a licence is committing an offence. The maximum penalties will be imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or a fine not exceeding £5,000 or both. Alternatively, the local authority has the power to suspend a licence until such time the track can demonstrate all licensing conditions will be met. The regulations are therefore, at least in theory, enforceable.

GE makes no mention of the above and believes a statement by Defra clarifying the powers of local authorities “serves no other purpose than to confuse readers.” On the contrary, Defra’s clarification enables the public to make an informed and qualified decision.

Of course, whether local authorities wish to use their new powers or not is another matter entirely. The RSPCA have been widely and in my view, rightly, criticised for not enforcing the Animal Welfare Act. Indeed GE is very damning of the RSPCA in a submission made as part of the consultation process on the proposed regulations. Would GE like to see the scrapping of the above Act in its entirety?

A video being used by GE to further strengthen their support for the petition is equally perplexing. Proposed regulations are specific to England and yet the video covers only flapping tracks in Scotland. Furthermore, the video highlights precisely the welfare issues that new regulations are intended to eliminate. To use words from a classic Elton John song, ‘it’s getting more and more absurd’.

All welfare groups are highly critical of the proposed regulations, none more so than the Dogs Trust, who are “appalled that the Government has decided to restrict greyhound welfare provisions to just trackside activity, thereby condemning thousands of dogs to a life of misery and in some cases an early death.”

It’s important also to note that whilst new legislation is essentially track focused it will impact little on the abhorrent scale of injuries greyhounds sustain - a point all welfare groups fail to mention and a point significantly that will never be adequately addressed through regulation.

The Dogs Trust, whilst critical of the new measures, also state in their submission to Defra: “(We do) not wish to see an end to greyhound racing in the UK, but we do wish to see an end to cruelty, exploitation and ‘light touch’ regulation.”

I’m sorry to drop this bombshell on the Dogs Trust, on also Greyhounds UK and the RSPCA who have yet to call for the abolition of racing, but the humane treatment of greyhounds and commercial greyhound racing are simply incompatible. No likely welfare regulations will cover and remedy all welfare issues from cradle to grave endemic in racing. The naivety of welfare groups leading up to Defra’s public consultation I found staggering.

I do maintain, however, the measures proposed are a significant step forward in protecting dogs running on flapping tracks in England, or will be if properly enforced. And more importantly, are likely the best protection the dogs will get. The petitioner though, backed by GE wants this protection withdrawn. Whilst no doubt driven by the best intentions, the petition I conclude is both ill-conceived and misguided.

On a more positive note, the ease in which petitions can now be compiled via the internet serves also to devalue them. Anyone can start a petition addressing any concern. Recent petitions include a call for the Prime Minister to make teachers correct errors when pupils make mistakes (5 signatures). And Jack Andrews is seeking a space flight launch pad and landing runway in England (1 signature (Jack’s)).

By 21 December 2009, 1,290 had signed the petition submitted by Ms Purvis so not a poor response but isn’t that, at least in part, due to ‘group mentality’? You know what I mean; someone says “jump” and the rest say “how high?” It is trait of human kind found amongst the majority of like minded persons but one, interestingly, few recognise within themselves.

Its worth also considering, signatories likely include members of the racing fraternity and advertising the petition on popular racing websites may double, treble, even quadruple the figure as it is the people who exploit these beautiful animals that are, in the main, apposed to any further regulation - regulation that will in fact see independent tracks closing.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Greyhounds afforded little protection in Scotland

Earlier this year a 12 week public consultation was held on proposals drafted by Defra for new regulations under section 13 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to promote the welfare of racing greyhounds in England. Amendments are to follow but essentially the proposals as they currently stand will come into force in 2010 (intended date: 6 April).

Whilst all welfare groups including the Dogs Trust have been highly critical of the proposals for not covering many areas of concern, the new regulations will provide minimum welfare standards across all tracks in England and largely bring the independent (flapping) tracks in line with those tracks licensed under the Greyhound Board of Great Britain.

New legislation will include the requirement for a vet to be present at all race/trail meetings and the provision of suitable veterinary facilities, greyhounds to be examined by a vet prior to each race/trial (and withdrawn if judged not fit to run) and injuries sustained to be recorded.

Incredibly, the majority of flapping tracks fall short of the above basic welfare measures. Following the recent and very welcome closure of Swansea’s flapping tack there remains only one independent track in Wales. In Scotland, however, there are five (Armadale, Ayr, Corbiewood, Halcrow and Thornton) and to put this into context, seven such tracks still hold races in England.

The new regulations are therefore very relevant to Scotland and yet the Scottish Government have no interest in adopting the regulations, stating that racing dogs are fully protected under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 (similar legislation in England does not protect such dogs).

Perhaps it is simply convenient to cite the above Act, either that or the Animal Health and Welfare Division are very naive.

Scottish policy is important not least because of the frequency and nature of injuries greyhounds sustain in trails and races. Injuries sustained annually across all tracks in Britain total 5 figures, and about 1,000 greyhounds are put-to-sleep every year following injury. Greyhound racing in this respect cannot be compared with any other activity, whether a sport, working or otherwise.

A vet with links to a Scottish flapping track (he will on occasion attend the track in a professional capacity but is not in attendance during trials and races) states many greyhounds competing on the circuit suffer serious injury - commonly fractures - and are transported to a veterinary practice to obtain treatment urgently needed.

The Scottish Governments (now former) Animal Welfare Policy Analyst, Scott McDowell, would not be drawn on whether he thought a vet should be present at trial and race meetings but is apparently not aware of any welfare problems at the tracks. He further ads in a letter dated 9 September 2009 that no welfare complaints in relation to any tracks have been received by the Scottish SPCA in several years.

I am not clear what precisely McDowell thinks should be a matter for the SSPCA but rest assured, if anyone sees an animal being ill treated at a flapping track it will not be brought to the attention of any welfare organisation for fear of reprisal.

Whilst new legislation is essentially track focused it will impact little on the scale of injuries greyhounds sustain. That said it is a significant step forward in protecting dogs running on flapping tracks, a significant step forward that is for dogs running on flapping tracks in England. The Scottish Government should hang their heads in shame.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Ruby for sale due to new stock arriving

In a one page fanciful article (courtesy of Our Dogs, 15 August 2008), Greyhound Star editor Floyd Amphlett, conjured up a romantic image of greyhound racing that had little in common with reality. “You build a kennel” writes Amphlett, “buy a greyhound, pay for its registrations, inoculations and the rest, apply for a licence and then race at your closest track. It is a hobby not so different to those of you readers of Our Dogs who enjoy agility training, fly-ball, or other assorted fun activities with dogs.”

Amphlett’s very evident fertile imagination is surely wasted as editor of a minority ‘news’ paper. The survival of racing is increasingly dependent on professional trainers such as Michael Peterson and indeed survival for the trainer is dependent on running a large number of dogs. Peterson’s kennel strength stood recently at 96 and he was to remark: “You need that many to pay the bills.”

Peterson - attached to Oxford - freely admits the ‘sport’ of greyhound racing is in turmoil, and in a series of forthright conversations gives an insight into the hard economics of being a trainer and the dog’s welfare.

It was dialogue instigated through yet another report of a greyhound found abandoned; a greyhound on this occasion that was raced and retired under Peterson. The white and black male called Chapelane Tom was picked up in the Croydon area mid July and taken to a dog pound. Luckily he was found a foster home and now has a secure future but who last owned Chapelane Tom had yet to be established.

The industries regulatory body should receive a completed form detailing the fate of all greyhounds retired but no such form for Chapelane Tom was ever received. Not to worry, Peterson keeps a record of his dogs. Unfortunately the book in question (for greyhounds retired in 2006) could not be found. The trainer, however, believed Chapelane Tom was adopted through the Watford branch of the National Animal Welfare Trust and had no doubt the dog was not homed independently.

Just four greyhounds have been adopted through the above branch in recent years and Chapelane Tom was not one of them. The search, however, for the 2006 book would continue or so the person making the inquiry was told.

Peterson has been training greyhounds for the last 7 years and took over from his father who has 45 years experience as a trainer. He is a major player at Oxford and a serious contender in this year’s Trainers Championship that is based on the number of winners.

It might seem a glamorous life but Peterson is running a business and the retirement of greyhounds is an additional drain on resources: “It’s hard to home racing greyhounds. The finances in this sport are piss poor. A lot of trainers are basically just covering their cost which to be honest with you I am. I am not making bundles of money, I’ve got a young family and I have eight to nine dogs here that need homing.”

Practical and ultimately financial considerations have seen an ever increasing number of trainers off-loading greyhounds independently. Peterson works with a number of rescues but keeps his options open: “I’m not being funny, anywhere possible to home a racing greyhound, ye know, anywhere.”

The trainer speaks favourably about Greyhounds 4 U (G4U) - a rescue that interestingly does not agree with yearly vaccinations, conventional wormer or flea treatment. Peterson’s dogs available for adoption through G4U are on occasion still running. Tragically that was the case for Aintsheapeach. The beautiful blue brindle female had been seeking a home through the rescue since May 2009 but was never to enjoy retirement. On 4 September 2009 Aintsheapeach was put-to-sleep after breaking her right hock in a BAGS meeting at Oxford.

Asked how many dogs he has lost at the track this year Peterson replied: “This year, probably four.” It was a question put to him in September and so whatever the actually figure might be, expect it to be higher come the end of December.

Aintsheapeach is one of a staggering 129 dogs to run on licensed tracks under Peterson during 2008. 69 greyhounds ceased running under Peterson during the same year of which 31 are not subsequently recorded racing (under a different trainer). Only 6 greyhounds from the latter figure are listed on either available for adoption or adopted.

Above figures highlight a movement of greyhounds that may surprise many outside the business of racing. Murtz Keano ran in Ireland before running on licensed British tracks under trainers S A Cahill, E Hall and M Daniels. The greyhound subsequently ran just 4 races under Peterson at Oxford and is now running in Denmark.

A new race owner is now sought for black female Reisk Ruby. The Peterson dog, born July 2007, is offered for sale “due to new stock arriving.” The terminology he uses is of course highly appropriate for a ‘sport’ in which the greyhound is just a commodity - essentially a betting medium - that official’s record in ‘units’. Ruby commands the relatively modest sum of £800 o.n.o.

The financial difficulties facing trainers are further compounded by the ‘elusive’ owner, as Peterson explains: “Say an owner gets himself into debt for some reason or can’t afford his kennel bill no more, suddenly you can’t get hold of the owner and then you’ve got 3 or 4 dogs lumbered with you. And to be honest with you 90 per cent of the time that’s what happens.”

It is a problem that has left Peterson significantly out of pocket: “I’ve got one owner that has moved up to near Newcastle and I can’t get hold of him. He basically owes me nearly 3½ thousand pounds which in this sport is a hell of a lot of money… He’s got one dog here, she’s four years old, OK, so… she’s probably got about 3 - 6 months left in her racing career tops and then basically I am lumbered with the bitch. I am lumbered with the bitch now because I can’t get hold of him.”

Peterson’s finances are further stretched this year after he was found in breach of rules 174 (i)(b) and 217 at a Disciplinary Committee Hearing on 14 April 2009 and fined £600. The judgement was made in relation to a urine sample that was taken from greyhound Arco Grace and found to contain procaine - a drug that can affect a dog’s performance and/or well being.

Arco Grace was available for adoption through G4U but is now with Oxford Retired Greyhound Trust who collected the dog from Petersons kennels on 6 October. A person speaking on behalf of the branch said of the greyhound: “It’s the worst bitch (health wise) we’ve ever picked up from any stadium and in actual fact he (Peterson) should be reported to the RSPCA.”

It’s all a far cry from the romantic image conjured up by Amphlett. Peterson describes the business of racing as a “very tough place, especially at the moment with the current financial climate.” And ads: “The sport itself is in turmoil, absolute turmoil.”

Since 1926 a total of 111 tracks were licensed under the now obsolete National Greyhound Racing Club. Under the newly formed Greyhound Board of Great Britain there remain only 27. The industry is crumbling and Peterson earmarks four tracks whose future would seem precarious: “Tracks like Coventry; how they survive I just do not know. There’s been a question mark over Hove for the last couple of years. Portsmouth, I think they’ve got probably a year maximum left on their lease… Wimbledon’s another one. (There has been) a question mark over Wimbledon for the last few years.”

From a welfare point of view and looking essentially long term, the closure of any track is of course good news. It is true the industry is responding to the outrage felt by an ever increasing number of people regarding the treatment of greyhounds but it would be naïve to think that any welfare initiatives are driven primarily for any reason other than wanting to protect the business of racing.

Many readers might have issue with Peterson. Many might have concern for the number of greyhounds the trainer has lost through injury or the 25 dogs not listed on Greyhound Data either available for adoption or adopted. Of greater concern, however, should be the fact that in the world of greyhound racing Peterson is one the good guys.

Put very simply the humane treatment of greyhounds and commercial greyhound racing are incompatible and that will never change. And in case you are wondering, Peterson never did find his 2006 book.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Thousands of greyhound pups unaccounted for

The breeding of greyhounds for the purpose of racing is a hit and miss affair at the best of times. Illness aside, both injury and temperament frequently dictate the fate of such dogs. Factor in the understandable desire for only the highest performing animal, and the ‘wastage’ figure rises enormously.

Even the Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB) who govern racing on Britain’s 28 major tracks concede that a greyhound may never contend a race because the dog “is too slow …, because he or she is disinterested in chasing the artificial hare or because he or she simply interferes or plays with other greyhounds whilst running on the track.” Interfering with another dog commonly refers to fighting.

The GBGB admission is backed up in a Greyhound Watch survey that is the largest of its kind ever undertaken. And the disparity between figures for greyhounds bred and pups to subsequently contend a race is alarming to say the least.

The survey covered all Greyhound Stud Book litter entries received between 1 June 2005 and 31 May 2006 (Vol. 125), and showed that only 2,267 of 4,332 pups born are recorded racing. In other words, just 52% made the grade.

And with the figure of 2,267 accounting for just 23% of greyhounds to be registered for racing in Britain over a twelve month period (comparison made against the registration total for 2007 (9,751)), above statistics only hint at the scale of unwanted pups.

Looking solely at the number of greyhounds bred as a result of racing in Britain, the findings indicate that over a one year period about 8,882 pups are judged not fit for purpose.

We have in Britain, however, still meetings held on flapping (independent) tracks for which no figures exist. Such tracks are though minor players and attract both dogs that have previously been recorded racing as well as pups new to the track. Flapping tracks will, therefore, not impact greatly on numbers.

Members of the racing fraternity would also be right to point out that the best bitch in a litter will, on occasion, be retired directly for mating. In other words, used as a breeding machine and spending the rest of her life in a kennel.

Most bitches used for mating have though competed on the track, if only in a few races. Any Chewing Gum is recorded contending 6 ‘opens’ and one feature race and subsequently had a litter in October 2000, August 2001, June 2002, March 2003, December 2003, August 2004, April 2005, February 2006 and March 2007.

The survey also collated data relating to specific breeders and the findings make for interesting reading.

Litter entries received for Charles Pickering over the same period (June 2005 – May 2006) total 39 (38 identified in the index), and out of 198 pups born, just 90 reached the naming stage and only 46 (23%) are recorded racing (figures in the survey relating to ‘naming stage’ are based on information in Vol. 125 and all subsequent volumes of the Greyhound Stud Book that have been published).

All pups from 9 litter entries for Pickering that include a mating between Goahead Atlantic and El Premier - El Premier being the sire of the brood bitch, appear to have vanished. Pickering was the subject of an article in The Sunday Times (11 May, 2008) in which he was reported offering slow dogs to be killed for research.

Litter entries for breeder and trainer Ann McCarroll (attached to Newcastle) total 11, and out of 62 pups born, just 35 were named and 23 (37%) are recorded racing. One of the brood bitches - Agile Milly - was, along with other greyhounds, later rescued after the animals were booked-in at Marske Vets Ltd to be euthanased.

And just 9 (16%) of 55 pups from 11 litter entries for Ian Taylor are recorded racing. Pups named total 34 of which 18, curiously, are recorded under Pickering.

So what happens to the thousands of pups bred every year that never contend a race?

Interestingly, the GBGB ask the same question under ‘FAQ’s’ on the governing bodies website (without, not surprisingly, giving even a suggestion of numbers). Read further down and you will see the GBGB fail to provide an answer and use clever wording to imply such dogs are homed.

Homing figures for 2007 given within the Greyhound Forum, June 2008 report for all greyhounds are as follows: 4,479 homed through the Retired Greyhound Trust (RGT) and an “estimated” 3,500 homed by owners, trainers and other welfare charities.

How credible the above figures are, is, however, in question. RGT Director, Ivor Stocker, was recently to say: “There was certainly instances in the last two or three years were dogs have been counted on more than one occasion because the trainer put in a form and we (RGT) put in a form.”

And through the media, the governing body invariably compare similar figures solely against the number of greyhounds that retire from racing annually (about 10,000) and so, at the very least, imply all greyhounds homed are ex-racers (it looks good and negates the subject of non-graders).

The public are being misled. Most, but not all greyhounds homed, are ex-racers. The RGT have estimated that about 30% of greyhounds homed through their branches were not registered for racing.

If that percentage is applied across all greyhounds homed and if we assume no greyhounds were counted on more than one occasion (for sake of argument) that is 2,394 non-graders accounted for in 2007.

Homing figures for 2007 are up slightly on 2006, but have risen little subsequently. No matter how you look at it, it isn’t possible to account for the vast majority of greyhounds that are not recorded racing.

Eight breeders with litters recorded in the survey showing high ‘wastage’ were asked about the fate of the pups. Only one breeder responded, and the response did not address the specific issue of the animal’s fortune.

In a one page fanciful article (courtesy of Our Dogs, 15 August 2008), Greyhound Star Editor, Floyd Amphlett, was to state: “Greyhound breeders do not dispose of young pups through colouring or genetic issues.” Amphlett, on that point, was correct. What, however, he conveniently forgot to mention is pups are killed and killed in their thousands because they are simply judged not suitable for racing.


This subject is now covered in Behind the Lights, the Tote and the Non-starters, where additional information is provided.