Tuesday, 18 November 2008

A ‘sport’ in conflict with the Animal Welfare Act?

Under section (9) of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 it states: “A person commits an offence if he does not take such steps as are reasonable in all the circumstances to ensure that the needs of an animal for which he is responsible are met to the extent required by good practice.” And subsection (2, e) covers specifically the need for an animal “to be protected from pain, suffering (and) injury.”

Similar legislation applies in Scotland under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, section (24), subsection (3, e).

The above begs the following question: Are trainers of racing greyhounds in breach of the relevant Act when running dogs on Britain’s tracks?

Safety at Yarmouth stadium has been a contentious issue for many years with trainers describing the track as both “diabolical” and an “absolute tip.” An inconsistent surface - said to be due to grading and drainage - and the inside rail are given as reasons for a very high number of injuries and fatalities.

Recent victims include Bluestone Lane and Daves Dasher. The former - a blue male - suffered a severe hind leg fracture on Wednesday 22nd October and was put-to-sleep by the track vet. He was just 30 months old and the third greyhound joint owner Ms Cossey has lost through injury. The following Monday, 27th October, Daves Dasher - a dark brindle male aged only 26 months - sustained a serious fracture of the right foreleg and was PTS also.

Commenting on the most recent fatality, Assistant Racing Manager Marcus Westgate was typically pragmatic: “It was just one of those really unfortunate things that happen in this game.” When pushed to give a figure for greyhound’s put-down due to injury each month he replied: “Maybe a couple, something like that.” Feedback from trainers, however, would indicate the true figure is higher.

On Saturday 18th October, spectators at Peterborough stadium were horrified to witness two greyhounds fatally injured. Glandore Queen - a fawn and white female - was recorded ‘brokedown’ after sustaining a hind leg fracture in the first race of the evening meeting, and Hanoi Son - a black male - sustained a broken hock when brought down in the fifth race.

The term ‘brokedown’ is occasionally used by race stewards to identify when a greyhound has suffered a potentially serious injury and, as a result, was unable to finish the race. Both Glandore Queen and Hanoi Son were PTS by the track vet out of view of customers watching from the restaurant and bars.

Sadly, fatalities such as the examples given are common across all tracks. It is thought as many as 1,500 greyhounds are PTS annually following injury. This, however, represents only the tip of the iceberg when looking at the scale of injuries sustained.

Last year stewards at Owlerton stadium (Sheffield) recorded greyhounds either lame or ‘brokedown’ 309 times; a figure covering a total of 272 dogs. For 141 of the greyhounds it was to be their last race.

Racing at the above track is regulated by the National Greyhound Racing Club (NGRC) and the figure of 309 translates to about 6,900 injuries sustained nationally when looking at the ratio between the total figures for races contended at Owlerton and all NGRC tracks combined.

Not all injuries, however, were identified in the stewards comments and above figures do not take into account the many trials that are held. In addition Owlerton has, according to Dave Houfton (husband of trainer Jane Houfton (a major player at the stadium who can supply you a racing dog for as little as £200)), a good record on safety: “Out of all the tracks in the country it’s probably… one of the safest and one that statistically would have a lot fewer injuries.”

Take the above factors into account and it’s likely to be a five figure total for injuries sustained nationally not including stats for the flapping (independent and unregulated) tracks.

Unfortunately, we cannot be any more precise than that. The Racecourse Promoters Association (RCPA) are compiling a database on injuries for NGRC tracks but have turned down all requests for information.

Editor of Greyhound Star, Floyd Amphlett was recently to imply that greyhound racing is little different to “agility training, fly-ball or other assorted fun activities with dogs.” Mr Amphlett has written much about greyhound racing but nothing quite so farfetched. No other activity, whether a sport, working or otherwise results in thousands of dogs getting ‘smashed-up’ every year.

Richard Newell - a breeder, trainer and owner of racing dogs - is a little more candid in his observation of BAGS (Bookmakers Afternoon Greyhound Service): “Don't tell me that the majority of BAGS trainers see their inmates as anything other than livestock? I doubt the majority of BAGS dogs get a daily gallop out in a field…, more like 10 minutes emptying out twice a day and a trip to the local track once a week running lame for £15 to line the pocket of a caring Bookmaker.”

Owlerton hold two BAGS meetings per week and the injury rate last year, as a percentage of total races held, was 10.3. In contrast, the figure is 7.8 when making the same calculation (based on the steward’s race comments) for meetings held on Saturday evening.

Risk of injury, however, whether a BAGS meeting or otherwise is evidently very high, as all who are involved in racing are only too aware. Mr Houfton speaks favourably about Owlerton but was also to add: “I’m afraid with greyhound racing a dog’s next race can be its last one.”

In considering a breach of the Animal Welfare Act a court of law may look at the issue of “good practice” but this would be missing the point. A track should be properly maintained and in good order, dogs have to be muzzled and passed fit to race (though it is widely acknowledged many do run when injured) but “good practice” at best only makes racing safer, it does not make racing safe.

The camber (or lack of it), drainage (where applicable) and rail have an impact on safety but it is the character of greyhound tracks - with fast straights leading into tight bends - that creates so many incidents and results in so many injuries and fatalities. And six greyhounds competing together multiply the risk with many incidents occurring as the dogs hurtle into turn one.

A trainer of 30 years, who, by the way, was fined £600 by the NGRC for refusing to run his greyhounds when he judged a track to be unsafe, believes the injury rate could only ever be significantly reduced if dogs competed on a straight course.

The RSPCA Senior Enquiries Administrator is adamant though, that greyhound racing as it currently stands is not in breach of the Animal Welfare Act, but was unable to provide any credible explanation to support her and, presumably, the charities view. Needless to say the RSPCA/SSPCA do not have the resources to take action against all 1240+ trainers running dogs on NGRC tracks alone.

Defra, who drew up the legislation, would not dispute a breach of the sections detailed but an independent legal expert thought no Judge would side against a trainer because of the political ramifications.